Last year about this time I wrote on the subject of NIMBYs and laid out a challenge to the NIMBY nation. It’s time to stop talking about what you don’t want, I said, and start talking about what you do want.
In short, it’s time to develop the criteria under which a Not-In-My-Back-Yarder will say yes. And to that end, I want to consider a shift in perspective that might help the process along. I call it the Sphere of Emotional Ownership.
Consider the idea of one’s yard (even if you don’t actually have one). While we certainly have financial ownership over our yard, we also maintain emotional ownership. We constantly assess its condition and consider ideas for improvement. We note it needs mowing, envision new shrubs and flowerbeds, and place trees for maximum shade and comfort.
Because we own it, we invest in its improvement. We consider ideas and check with city hall to see if they’re allowable under local ordinances, or with special permissions. We get additional thoughts along the way from neighbors and, maybe, a professional or two, then investigate whether or not they make financial sense.
Finally, we admit to ourselves that we don’t always have total control over what happens. So we lobby our spouse and try to get traction. And we accept it when we get shut down.
Win some, lose some. It’s all part of getting things done.
But what if, beyond the fence line, we extended our sphere of emotional ownership a little further? What if it was, say, a quarter mile out, in all directions, from our dinner table?
It’s already common in all kinds of ways. It’s the spark that gets a community garden going, or a neighborhood tool bank set up. It’s why we have volunteer clean-up days and speed-bump petitions and community fundraisers.
And yet, all this community, all this willingness to work together, to consult city hall and engage decision-makers, disappears at the prospect of development. Suddenly, when we’re talking physical change, we no longer have a vision for improvement. We don’t care what’s allowable. We deny the economics of what is and isn’t realistic. And we refuse to work with others towards mutual gains.
In short, we become NIMBYs. And that needs to change if we’re serious about community improvement.
Instead, let’s apply the yard metaphor. Within an extended sphere of emotional ownership, you might, say, notice an aging strip mall nearby and, like with that sad little corner of your yard, you might envision something you’d like better.
Maybe it’s a traditional village center. One with walkable shops and services that would provide for some new experiences and allow you to cut back on your driving. So, you check with city hall and discover that the existing zoning mandates that, if the strip mall were ever redeveloped, it would be replaced with pretty much the same thing. Or worse.
If you really cared about your sphere of emotional ownership the same way you do about your own yard, this is the point where you’d talk with your neighbors and maybe some professionals and see what they think. What might be a nice solution? And is it pie-in-the-sky or could it actually become a reality?
If you came up with something, you could then begin the advocacy to make it happen. You’d need to reach out to the owner of the property — the ultimate decision maker — and let them know that you’re interested in working together towards maximum collective benefit: Easier implementation and higher profit potential for them, a more useful and endearing community asset for you. If they’re amenable, you could then work together with local government to further develop the vision and implement a zoning change.
All of this is proactive. Steps towards progress, even in cases where you’re not the ultimate decision maker. We do it all the time in all aspects of our lives and yet, when it comes to the places we’ve chosen to call home, we dig in and delude ourselves with the fantasy that nothing will ever change and, when that change inevitably shows up anyway, we cling to the notion that our lives will somehow be improved by the reflexive act of just saying no.
It doesn’t work that way. Take that tact with your yard and it goes to seed. Say no to the chipmunks taking up residence and they still end up doing what nature tells them to do. Fail to draw up some plans and nothing ever really gets better.
Instead, think of your neighborhood as an extension of your own yard. And approach its improvement the same way. Be a YIMSEO!
(And yes, YIMSEO is the worst acronym ever.)
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