Understanding and Responding to Nimbyism (Not in My Back Yard)

As cities all over North America work to provide low-income households a safe and affordable home, they face numerous persistent barriers.  These include the high cost of land, the search for funding for development, policy and zoning, and a very human challenge: Nimbyism in the local community.

Here’s a story to illustrate the challenge of Nimbyism:
A few years ago, I ran into an old friend at a consultation for a new affordable housing complex proposed for her neighbourhood, and asked her what she thought.  She said, “Look, I get it that everyone needs a place to live, and that we need more places like this, but here?  On the corner of my park?  My kids have to walk past there all the time on their way to school.”

Now I know my friend to be a caring and compassionate person, and a great mom.  But faced with this change, she had a strong reaction; one sometimes referred to in shorthand as a NIMBY reaction:  “Not In My Back Yard.”

On May 14, 2019, the Interfaith Housing Initiative hosted a workshop at Queen Alexandra Community League called “Understanding and Responding to Nimbyism.”  This was the third of four workshops in a series called, “Getting Consultation Right!”  This event featured two panels of speakers, including three housing providers and two community leaders all willing to share their experience and insight in how to both understand and respond to Nimbyism.    You can watch the full panel discussion at the link below, or keep reading for a summary of key points:

Here is some of what we learned together:

How can we understand Nimbyism?
Here is a working definition we are using:  Nimbyism (Not in My Back Yard)  is a (sometimes) strong reaction or response to more significant changes in a local area; especially those perceived as possibly negative.

So how should we understand why people react as they do?
In our second panel discussion, Fraser Porter, the current president of the Edmonton Federation of Community leagues observed that “Love and attachment are the root causes. We love our neighbourhoods and we resist change because we worry something we love is being lost.”

That natural fear of change was also noted by Carola Cunningham, who serves as CEO of Niginan Developments, a provider of Permanent Supportive Housing.  Cunnningham noted that “it is only natural to object and respond with fear to the unknown (color, culture, addiction, etc) and all those things must be meaningfully addressed to have an honest dialogue.

Certainly, the love for what we have and the fear of losing it are very powerful impulses. Some of those fears may be connected to structural changes to infrastructure such as parking and traffic flow, the fit and flow of architecture, the loss of trees or open spaces.  But other fears may centre around who the new neighbours might be, and how they will integrate into the local community.

Q: How can we respond well to Nimbyism?
The answer that seemed to come forward from our panelists was to respond to fears with clear, honest and open communication; working to build both a shared understanding and a trusting relationship moving forward.  To do that, the housing provider should avoid thinking about or treating local neighbours as opponents, even if there are strong feelings or anger.  As with all relationships, how we conduct ourselves in the midst of conflict can either inflame or resolve concerns.

Sherri Shorten, a community voice from Holyrood said it was important to “Believe in the community voice. The people in our community were hurt by being called NIMBY. It broke down relationships when they were bringing truly valid concerns to the table.” 

Cam McDonald from Right at Home Housing Society noted that:  “What was important in the North Glenora context was an openness on both sides. What I learned was just how much the community was willing to give to create a shared vision and understanding.

Demonstrating openness and a will to patiently answer people’s questions makes room for trust, and for the community to also give of themselves to the health of the project and their new neighbours.

Consultation pic

Q: Is it problematic to tell the community about the health problems of residents?
At one level, even talking about who is going to live in a new housing development seems problematic.  In Canada, no one has the right to choose their neighbours, and discrimination based on age, ability, illness, race or culture, or religious belief is not permitted.  But our panelists responded in favour of answering those questions openly and honestly.

“It can be heard in comments like, “How do you screen your tenants? How do you ensure our community remains safe?  At my house I don’t get to pick who is my next-door neighbour. The zoning bylaw is very clear. It’s not about the USER, its about the USE. However, its so important that you don’t offend the people you’re talking to. You do have to address their concerns.” (Cam Macdonald, Right at Home Housing Society)

Trueman Macdonald, who oversees the work at Iris Court a supportive home for formerly homeless persons with schizophrenia shared their approach:  “We actually saw it as an opportunity to educate the community as well. It was just natural for us to talk about it. Our whole mandate is advocacy and breaking down those barriers. Our people with lived experience want to get their stories out to reduce the stigma surrounding their illness.”

Addressing people’s concerns with patience and respect is the best way to help them better understand and put their fears and concerns into context.  It also paves the way for understanding and healthy long-term relationships in the local community.

A very helpful tool in this regard are Good Neighbour Agreements.  With Iris Court, the Schizophrenia society provided a detailed “Good Neighbour Agreement” to the local community that included info regarding tenants, services, house rules, and how the organization planned to respond to community complaints.  Having a clear plan and a process available showed the community the strength of Iris Court’s commitment to being a good neighbour.  It also helped the tenants feel safe and secure in their new community.

The Nimby response is a very ordinary and human reaction to change in a local community.  Good consultation takes the time to work through people’s questions and concerns openly and honestly, without judging them or treating them as opponents.  A patient approach builds toward a trusting relationship between the local community and the developer.  In the space of that relationship, honest and constructive engagement is able to flow, supporting the long-term health and vitality of the project, the local community, and those finding a home there.


By Mike Van Boom, Network Animator for Interfaith Housing Initiative (CRIHI)

The article is presented as a summary of key learnings in this third, of four workshops in a resource design project hosted by CRIHI, involving community leaders, housing providers and people of faith in a collaborative creation of consultation resources.   The full resources we have developed together will be delivered in the fall of 2019; made possible by a grant from the Edmonton Community Foundation, with Al Rashid Mosque serving as fiscal agent for the project.