Of late we’ve seen a number of rather animated discussions on the topic of “NIMBYs” (not-in-my-back-yard), such as:
- Milford - where people objected to a proposed plan change for higher density apartments and townhouses on the grounds that it was “out of character”.
- Ponsonby - where locals objected to a new building because of its height (two-storeys), under-provision of car-parking, high floor/area ratio, and modern architectural style.
- Te Atatu - where some locals have opposed the development of a bus station because of “the types of people bus shelters might attract” (like me!).
- Onehunga - where locals have objected to a three-storey development on the grounds of parking provision and appearance.
- Northcote Point – where locals are opposing the development of a walkway/cycleway over the harbour bridge.
Lest we forget Orakei Point: Where the following development got caught in a maelstrom of NIMBY outrage (source):
As you can see from these images, the proposed development at Orakei Point would have been something of a focal point for conspicuous consumption, and therefore quite out of character with the rest of Orakei. Not. Anyway, partly as a result of NIMBY grandstanding, the Orakei Point development has not yet got off the ground – approximately 6 years after it was first proposed. And that means Orakei – and perhaps more importantly Auckland – now has ~400 fewer homes than we might have had otherwise. That in turn means that house prices will be that much higher.
But experiences such as those listed above finally seem to be prompting a public backlash, with the “Eye on Auckland” blog launching what I thought was a humorous – if indiscriminate – assault on Auckland’s NIMBYs. You can read the two blog posts here and here. The author’s disdain for NIMBYs is evident in almost every sentence; here’s just a taste:
Let me start by telling you about a conversation I had with a woman a few days ago. Immediately upon meeting me she presumed that I am a follower of her cult and starts off with a rhetorical question “who wants to live in a high-rise” I replied with a resounding I do. She looked at me as if I had three heads.
Fumbling around for words she ignorantly and arrogantly stated that much of Auckland will turn into a slum. I calmly told her that I live in a high density development which has won awards both locally and internationally – it couldn’t be further from a slum. Again she just stared at me, aghast and surprised, trying to fire up both of her brain cells. I also reminded her that many single dwelling suburbs are bigger slums than any apartment building that I have seen.
I asked her where she lives and she told me that she lives on an amazing lifestyle block. I should have guessed. I responded by telling her that best she starts worrying because the likes of Dick Quax, Cameron Brewer, Jan O’Connor, Grant Killon, Amy Adams and Nick Smith will soon be arriving on her land with huge bulldozers to make way for endless rows of affordable housing while singing hi-ho, hi-ho it’s off to work we go.
The look on her face was classic. Not once had she thought of that possibility. This is something that the crusty and rusty brigade will not be telling their blind mice. Instead they feed them morsels of lies, chunks of exaggeration and pellets filled with poisonous nightmares. The nimby’s happily consume it – ignorant and totally detached from reality.
The strange thing is that the [Unitary] plan actually puts in massive protections for single dwelling sites. No longer will you be able to build an apartment building down a small cul de sac. Rather they will be confined to town centres. The plan will formalise and control a situation that is already happening.
Personally, I also struggle with NIMBYs blatantly self-centered objections to developments in their community.
I’m astounded that NIMBYs are so happy to flip the “veil of ignorance” concept on its head, and instead assume that everyone else is as selfish as them. When you challenge their views on a particular development they often retort by saying “I’m sure you would not want to live next to THAT kind of development now would you?” To which my answer quite often is “yes I would actually”. It’s also ironic when NIMBYs’ self-centered positions lead them to take hypocritical stances. In Orakei, for example, you had a group of NIMBYs living in large detached dwellings miles from anything, who subsequently drove their cars everywhere, who then had the gall to turn around and oppose a medium-density, mixed-use development adjacent to a train station – on the grounds it will generate “too much traffic”. Oh dear, hypocritical much?
My second issue with NIMBY sentiment is related to – but nonetheless distinct from – the first issue. That is, NIMBYs rarely – if ever – seem to consider what would happen if the constraints on development that they seek were to be extended universally over the rest of Auckland. Consider the example of St Heliers, which is discussed in the “Eye on Auckland” post. Here, people seem to be objecting to a proposed multi-storey development on the grounds St Heliers is “special”. But hang on a flame-grilled marzipan minute: Is not every community in Auckland special? At least for the people that live there? And does that mean we should we constrain development in every community that considers itself special? Exactly how does one define “special”? Unfortunately NIMBYs aren’t very keen to look into the “special” wormhole they have created.
Every community that quarantines itself from further development is effectively causing more intensive development to happen somewhere else (NB: As an aside the same applies to the metropolitan urban limit, but that’s a discussion for another day). Put another way, constraints on development proposed by NIMBYs would, if generalised across the rest of Auckland, mean that the demand for new development was inevitably funneled into ever fewer locations. These places would, in turn, need to be developed to much higher density than they would have to in a situation where development was shared more evenly across Auckland’s communities. As an aside, that’s one of the benefits of Auckland Council’s online “Shape Auckland Housing Simulator“. Go on NIMBYs have a play.
Now having said all this, I’ve started to think that perhaps I need to modify my NIMBY engagement strategy to be less belligerent. After all, some NIMBYs do have a genuine attachment to their community – even if I consider their definition of community to be too narrow to encompass a functional socio-economic unit. To highlight the difference: Whereas NIMBYs usually define their community in terms of their suburb, I will define my community as the city. Right now, I define my community not as Grafton, but Auckland – the latter is the city where I work, live, and play.
I then sat back and considered what factors might explain the differences between how we define community? I’m sure some of it is personal, rather than logical – as much as our own egos tries to convince us that all our positions are premised on the latter. For example, in my life (thus far) I have lived in Waiuku, Northcote, Newmarket, City Centre, Parnell, and Grafton. This diversity of abodes would probably lead me to appreciate more of the city than most. Perhaps some of my attitude is also attributable to my age and preferences: In that I’d much prefer to be out and about scouring the Waitakere Ranges than sitting at home in my undies sipping cups of tea .
Either way, I think it’s important critics of NIMBYs, such as myself, are first honest with ourselves about why we define our community more broadly than those they are criticising. I think there’s good reasons to define a community as being more broadly than a suburb, especially in a world where communications are making it increasingly easy to develop and maintain connections across distance . Nonetheless we owe it to ourselves and the targets of our criticism to be able to articulate the reasons why we prefer a broader definition of community.
For me personally, my definition of community starts with an appreciation of the following points:
- Suburbs do not exist in socio-economic isolation. They are part of a much larger economic unit called “Auckland”, which means they are, for example, part of a larger housing/job market.
- Auckland is growing and changing. Inexorable population growth and demographic trends mean Auckland needs to accommodate a larger and older population with smaller average household size.
- These trends will gradually transform/re-shape Auckland’s urban form. In particular, we will likely need to greatly expand the number of compact houses located in proximity to town centres/facilities/amenities.
- It’s better for everyone if more communities help to accommodate this transformation. The more we spread the growth/load across existing town centres, the less any individual centre will need to develop.
So rather than simply hating on NIMBYs, I think a better approach is to try to redefine their concept of “community”.
This could be by explaining the points I have outlined above, or alternatively you could ask them where their friends and family live, where they work and shop, or which regional parks they like to visit. As they talk, you could then draw dots and lines on a map in front of them. In doing so, you may help them to develop at least a visual appreciation that their community goes a wee bit further than the suburb in which they live. Make sure you emphasise that less development in St Heliers, for example, will mean more development in Orakei, and that their Dentist in Orakei would probably prefer if St Heliers picked up it’s fair share of the growth, and vice versa.
Easier said than done perhaps, but nevertheless worth a shot. If you asked me what we have got to lose then I would respond “the city’s future”; yes I think the battle with NIMBYs is – in the long run – that important. That’s why I’d like to finish this post by praising (Deputy Mayor) Penny Hulse for taking on the NIMBYs in St Heliers when she said ““You can’t put a bell jar over the top of St Heliers and have no change.” Thank goodness for Ms Hulse’s strong political leadership on this issue; let’s have some more of that.
Ding ding let the battles begin.