NIMBYs and Urbanists – Oh My!

Battles over growth and development are neither new to Seattle, nor unique to us as a city.   The term NIMBY (not in my back yard) has been used for nearly four decades to describe activists who opposed some type of local development, originally things like waste incinerators. But now NIMBY is a pejorative applied to any criticism that is lodged against any type of change in a neighborhood. Regardless of the validity of such criticism, anyone speaking out about City planning, a development project or changes to transportation infrastructure is open to that label to in order to discredit. The lines between neighborhood activist, concerned citizen, and local curmudgeon have been effectively blurred.

Helping to create this blurring and vociferously confronting the alleged “NIMBYs” are the Urbanists – aficionados or practitioners of urban planning and/or urban design (another distinction that is sometimes lost). To grossly stereotype: the Urbanist is usually younger, newer to Seattle, and interested in seeing any change that will further Seattle to becoming a “great city” or more “vibrant”; the NIMBY is an older home owner who does not want any change. In reality however, these stereotypes are the outliers. Yet many would acknowledge there is a battle going on between “NIMBYs” and “Urbanists”, focused largely on the fate of neighborhoods zoned Single Family, though other land use and transportation investment decisions are flash points. Others would say the war is over as indicated by the November’s election results.

It may be fair to say the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, formed in 1983 by self-identified community activists, were themselves an amalgamation of ur-NIMBY and ur-Urbanist. These were engaged citizens who were intensely focused on how the city was evolving and interested in both urban design and urban planning and how these affected their neighborhoods. Their input and ideas were valued by the City. And Seattle today is shaped by the fruits of their labors: the Growth Management Act and Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, and the Urban Village growth strategy (before it was labeled that way by City planners), Design Review, the neighborhood plans of the 1990s (which called for walkable neighborhoods, less automobile dependence, improved public transit connections, and population and job growth targets) and the 33% increase in population since then.

Are today’s neighborhood activists and concerned residents simply opposed to growth and change as the Urbanist stereotype would have it (though not all Urbanists are interested in blurring the lines between community activism and anti-development sentiment) or are they wonky code readers, meeting junkies and a distant cousin to the new transportation policy wonks and affordable housing advocates? Is there simply a generational gap? Is home ownership versus rental a factor? Or is it degree of expertise or manner of engagement? And does class and racism play a role as some have suggested?

A recent Seattle Weekly story attempted to unpack some of the Seattle history around the use of ‘NIMBY’ and ‘Urbanist’, and explored some of the underlying issues that bring citizens to publicly engage with proposed changes to their community. It was a sympathetic portrayal of both sides, opening space for further dialogue.

Many neighborhood activists are focused on Urban Design issues: community usability (parks and open space; transit; affordability), design (building form) and context (streetscape and character). They are accused of using these to try to prevent growth. But in reality theirs is more of a response to the chaotic impacts of our Land Use code’s “design freedom” (over a contextual land use code where buildings don’t compete, but instead work together), allowing developers to externalize project costs (not providing parking allegedly in the name of affordability; lack of development impact fees to make growth pay for growth) and the failure of basic urban planning (over-development in some neighborhoods, under-development in others; failure to deliver adequate transportation options concurrently; over-crowded schools).

On the flip side, some Urbanists could care less about Urban Design and are focused largely on growth and density. For them, dense areas like Capitol Hill are not dense enough; historic or affordable buildings are less important than a larger, newer building; that neighborhood character and tree canopy is not something to be valued. And single family zones throughout the city should be open to redevelopment at much higher densities. Density is the objective, good urban design not so much. Arguably this “free market urbanism” – which focuses on urban development as a means towards real estate capital gains and asset inflation – is not the focus of all “Urbanists”.   However it is what separates those that are interested in the quality of life in a place (“use value”) and those interested in monetary returns (“exchange value”).

So, for example, the debate around HALA and the Single Family zones now pivots on whether infill will be a density increase that preserves existing neighborhood context and affordability (with ADU and DADUs conforming to zone standards of lot coverage, height and setbacks) favored by Community Activists or on redevelopment favoring the increasing property value and new development opportunities favored by some Urbanists. It’s arguable that both approaches could yield equal densities for the community.

Has the battle reached such a fevered pitch that the sides will continue to talk past each other? Or will common values such as housing affordability, functioning transportation systems, great urban amenities like schools and parks, and broader environmentalism (tree canopy; Low Impact Development) help chart a course to a common ground, and bring these distant cousins back together.

[by Bill Bradburd, 12/15]