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Far from a scourge, so-called Nimbys are footsoldiers in the fight for liberty and good urban design

14 July 2012

6:00 AM

14 July 2012

6:00 AM

Forget the Murray River carp, the feral cat or the Queensland cane toad. These days, the most despised species in Australia — if the newspapers are to be believed — is the Nimby. Found largely but not exclusively in the inner suburbs of Australia’s major cities, the Nimby is blamed for halting economic growth, driving up the price of housing and even causing global warming as it issues its much-maligned call, Not In My Back Yard! at every turn. 

Nimbys, it seems, are equal opportunity offenders. Leftish types are offended by Nimbys because they are seen as selfish petit bourgeois landholders who stand in the way of Utopian dreams of ecologically sustainable skyhomes with shared facilities and bans on tumble driers.

Those on the right believe that Nimbys prevent the free market from doing its thing, namely providing the greatest number of housing units at the most optimal price. And since Nimbys tend to live in green-tinged electorates, well, who cares what they think anyway? 

But rather than being scorned, I say that the Nimby should be celebrated. Note that we are not talking here about those curtain-twitching, back fence-peeping types who use local council regulations as a cudgel to harass their neighbours into dropping plans for a back shed or make sure that entire streets only hang their toilet paper in the correct, heritage-approved ‘overhand’ orientation. Rather, the Nimbys in question are the ones who prevent entire suburbs from having their amenity trashed by the imposition of high-rise, high-density development. 

While Nimbys may be acting in their own interest in not wanting to see their properties devalued and local charm diminished, they are also doing the community a world of good by breaking, or at least exposing, the nexus between government officials and developers. After all, Nimbys live in the streets they fight to save; bureaucrats and builders can join forces to wreck a place and move on, all in the name of ‘sustainability’ or ‘affordability’, of course. Investigators in NSW have their work cut out for them untangling the deals between builders and the previous Labor government, but of course it is already too late to undo the damage to the built environment brought on by bad or even corrupt decisions. 


That is why the Nimby may, until a better model comes along, be the last thing preventing our capital cities from turning into endless corridors of mid-rise glass curtain apartment blocks sporting concrete balconies just big enough for a drying rack and a mate who still likes to smoke. 

Developers have done little to prove that they can be trusted with our urban environments, which once ruined can take decades to recover — if they recover at all. In the 1950s, it was only pesky Nimbys who prevented Sydney’s majestic Queen Victoria Building from being bulldozed to make way for a car park. Even high-end apartment complexes suffer from the same depressing white-and-glass uniformity, with buildings set around mandated open spaces and anchored by retail chains: a Coles or Woolworth’s, a Baker’s Delight, a big-name bottle shop selling corporate wines parked next door to a franchised butcher shop. Hardly the stuff of vibrant street frontages called for by Jane Jacobs in her iconic and much-cited work on urban communities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  

Not surprisingly, developers are pushing to change planning laws to make it much harder to object to their designs — again in the public interest. The CEO of one developer lobby group last year urged the NSW Planning Department to include an ‘anti-Nimby provision’ in new regulations. As the submission put it, ‘It’s not healthy to allow wealthier house owners to use their local council to block more affordable housing and deny middle-income earners … inner-suburban living.’ 

This is not the language of the economic libertarian — with whom this columnist generally casts in his lot — who can generally be relied upon to defend the right of developers to build whatever they damn well please. This is the language of the socialist revolutionary hollering to smash the kulaks and capitalist roaders and redistribute their grain. 

Indeed, having gone this far, what’s to stand in the way of government forcibly acquiring — or ‘resuming’ — land for developers, all in the name of ‘affordable housing’ or ‘sustainability’ or whatever the greater good of the day might be? It has happened already in Australia: in 2010, residents of the south-west Sydney suburb of Leppington got word from state planners that their land would be compulsorily acquired for a relative pittance ($70 per square metre, when local land values were, at the time, more in the order of $400 per square metre), supposedly for a rail line, but with the government zoning much of the ‘resumed’ land for developers to build high-rise apartments. In the US, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, local governments can put entire neighbourhoods to the wrecking ball and hand over the resultant blank canvas to well-connected developer mates, all in the name of ‘economic development’.

Ultimately there is nothing ‘free market’ about spending money to change the rules to make a profit and shift wealth from one class to another. That’s not capitalism, that’s corporatism. But the question never answered is, how does a bunch of private and government interests colluding to destroy local amenities, transferring the wealth of incumbent property-holders into the hands of the politically connected, further the cause of freedom?

The short answer is, it doesn’t.

James Morrow blogs about food, culture and politics at prickwithafork.wordpress.com.


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