Wednesday, January 31, 2007

From NIMBY to … “Drawbridge Protectionism”?

   Say that residents of a town outside a big city don’t want new housing developments built near them; development would bring unwanted traffic and change the quiet character of the town, they say.  If one is skeptical of such an argument, what does one call it?

   “NIMBY” is perhaps the most overused term in land use policy debates, even though the term itself is only a few decades old.  It makes sense to complain of a “not in my backyard” syndrome to snicker at objections over LULUs (“locally unwanted land uses”) such as a factory, a bus station, or a halfway house.  One might say that it’s human nature not to want such distinct land uses near one’s back yard.

   But the broader phenomenon of objections to development in general raises more serious policy issues.  The desire to preserve the quiet “character” of a town deserves a term that is distinct from NIMBY.  Alternative acronyms (here’s a list) might include BANANA (“build absolutely nothing near anyone”) and CAVE people (“citizens against virtually everything”), but these imply nutty extremism.   

Drawbridge    The more nuanced nature of the topic justifies a divergence from the practice of cute acronyms.  One term that comes close is the “raise the drawbridge” phenomenon, used to refer to citizens who are already inside a preferred area (those who have already, say, built their A-frame on the Oregon coast) and who now want to raise a legal drawbridge to keep others out.  But, to me, even this term focuses on an implication of individual selfishness that fails to capture the larger social effects of the anti-development phenomenon.  For example, one town’s rejection of new housing development is likely to push the pressure for development elsewhere (just as localities jostle with their neighbors to discourage the homeless). 

   Here’s a proposed new term: “Drawbridge Protectionism.”   This term refers to the desire of citizens to keep new development away from the community, in order to  preserve “character,” avoid traffic, simplify planning and taxation, increase home values in the community by legally limiting the supply, and push other complications of a changing world to other, less-well-organized jurisdictions.  Some of these goals may be more laudable than others.                  

   Doesn’t “drawbridge protectionism” mix concepts?  Yes it does, and this is part of my point.  After all, drawbridge protectionism addresses one of the most important domestic issues facing the United States in the 21st century.  It deserves a little complexity.

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