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What is NIMBY?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 23, 2024
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NIMBY is an acronym for “Not In My Backyard,” and is often used to negatively describe the attitude of a person or group who oppose the development of anything they deem inappropriate in their town or neighborhood. They usually take this stance because they simply don’t want it in their “backyard,” and not because they think it is inherently bad or unnecessary. The term was first used in print in the Christian Science Monitor in 1980, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

While most anyone is concerned about what kinds of developments are built in their neighborhoods, the disdain typically associated with NIMBY is that the development is usually a public necessity. It usually means that the person opposed to the project would be perfectly happy to benefit from the service provided by the development, if only it was located in someone else’s backyard. Developments such as a waste or water treatment plant, a landfill, a highway, electrical lines, cell phone transmission towers or other infrastructure are typically needed to upgrade, replace or supplement current services. Since they have to go in someone’s backyard, it is of particular concern when neighborhood or citizen’s groups put up roadblocks to these projects.

Other seemingly innocuous developments that may not be deemed public necessities but provide services nevertheless also face the NIMBY opposition. “Big-Box” stores such as Barnes and Noble, Best Buy and Home Depot have all been the subject of NIMBY wrath. New shopping centers, churches or apartment developments often face resistance as well. Wal-Mart has faced countless protests when attempting to build in new neighborhoods and is often in the news for the NIMBY controversy.

Certain developments such as chemical plants, halfway houses for the homeless, criminals or sex offenders, prisons or detention facilities most often spark the ire of the NIMBY contingency. For understandable reasons, many residents don’t want the possibility of a chemical disaster or a prison outbreak. While these are all necessary evils of society, the average person would prefer that they were out of sight and comfortably out of mind. Many developers would argue that their particular project would serve the community either because it is a public necessity as in a new highway, or would provide needed services, jobs and tax revenues, as with a new shopping center. Developers of apartment complexes might argue that more affordable housing is needed in a particular area.

For the NIMBY proponents, a development may corrupt the peaceful ambience or architectural style of a neighborhood, change the natural landscape or increase traffic to an unbearable level. For those opposed to the big-box establishments, they argue that older “mom and pop” businesses would suffer while the neighborhood is overtaken by much maligned “corporatization.” NIMBYists argue that property values could decrease, the infrastructure could be overwhelmed, crime rates could skyrocket and the local environment negatively impacted.

For those critical of the NIMBY philosophy, they believe that the roadblocks citizens put up cost the taxpayers and private developers more money. Often citizens will make expensive or impossible demands such as new highway off-ramps, wider roads or additional cosmetic features on a new building. Also, many residents of lower income areas don’t have the economic or political resources to fight developments they may be opposed to. Since many NIMBYists reside in affluent or more powerful neighborhoods, they may be more successful in thwarting the plans of a developer, and the project ends up in the backyard with the least resistance.

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Discussion Comments
By anon985307 — On Jan 14, 2015

A few years ago, a nonprofit mental health organization wanted to buy a large house in my neighborhood and turn it into a halfway house for mentally challenged clients. These weren't dangerous people, and they were mostly capable of holding down jobs and taking care of themselves. They just needed some supervision because they were not completely independent. Their families needed to know they were taking their medications and getting fed properly.

Part of the process involved having a public hearing about the proposed use of that house. Several of my neighbors went to that hearing and strongly complained about all sorts of hypothetical problems if the halfway house were allowed to open. One neighbor said he feared for his young daughters' safety if a "sex pervert" ever left that property unsupervised. Another said the property values would drop dramatically if a halfway house for any population (ex-prisoners, recovering addicts, mentally disabled, etc) opened. Someone else feared that the house was located too close to a school.

I didn't attend that hearing myself, but I probably should have. I have a feeling the real problem was NIMBY. These neighbors weren't against the idea of a halfway house for mentally challenged people, but they didn't want to live across the street from one.

By Jewellian — On Jan 13, 2014

Funny isn't it, that it is okay to take full advantage of opportunities that have been placed in someone else's backyard. Nimby issues are understandable, but if everyone took it to heart, there would be no such thing as "progress".

By Ahmerus — On Jan 12, 2014

I have often heard the phrase, "not in my back yard". But, never knew that the word nimby stands for the phrase. I learned something. Thanks for defining nimby.

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