Green nimbyism

NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes are typically associated with suburban sprawl and McMansions. So what happens when NIMBY is associated with more eco-friendly projects?

Nimbyism is nothing new. It’s even logical sometimes, perhaps not always deserving of opprobrium. After all, it is one thing to be a passionate proponent of recycling, and another to welcome a particular recycling plant — with the attendant garbage-truck traffic — on your street. General environmental principles may be at odds with convenience or even local environmental consequences.

But policymakers in the United States have been repeatedly frustrated by constituents who profess to worry about the climate and count themselves as environmentalists, but prove unwilling to adjust their lifestyles or change their behavior in any significant way…

Robert B. Cialdini, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University who studies environmental behaviors, points to two phenomena:

Humans hew to the “normative” behaviors of their community. In places where bike lanes or wind turbines or B.R.T. systems are seen as an integral part of society, people tend not protest a new one; if they are not the norm, they will. Second, whatever feelings people have about abstract issues like the environment, in practice they react more passionately to immediate rewards and punishments (like a ready parking space) than distant consequences (like the threat of warming).

Based on Cialdini’s ideas, perhaps it will just take one or two of these neighborhoods or locations adopting these projects so that it becomes normative. But who will be willing to go first? And what is the critical mass when such developments become normal?

While some might take this as evidence that certain people aren’t willing to sacrifice for green projects, I think we can take a broader view: in general, Americans don’t like two things that could possibly occur with the construction of something nearby.

1. The state in which they purchased their home or housing unit is altered. The idyllic scene they once bought into may not last forever. Whether this is due to a nearby condo building blocking the view or a new subdivision taking away a once-open field, Americans do not these sorts of changes. They paid money for a particular setting and want to maintain that setting as long as possible.

2. Their property values might be reduced. Because of the amount of money invested in homes plus hopes that many have about making at least some money when selling their homes somewhere down the line plus the amenities that come in living in places with higher property values, property values drive a lot of development decisions.

Developments like these green projects can be difficult to push through, particularly when those in opposition have money or status. Research has shown that typical dirty types of development, like power plants or landfills or public housing projects, tend to get placed in poorer areas where the people are less-equipped to fight back. Could these green projects be headed for similar places?

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