Nobody seems to like NIMBY-ism. It has a bad – if not the worst – rep in policy discourse. As such, I’m compelled to stand up for the backyard – for the minute, the inflated, the hyper-local – and not just as devil’s advocate. Why? Because we’ve got to stop discounting it if we’re serious about broadening and deepening civic engagement. I think there’s something to be said for NIMBY-ism, and that said something could be valuable.
How can I defend someone who vehemently (let’s face it, NIMBY-ism implies passion and vitriol) defends their neighbourhood in a way that evokes the medieval? For starters, I think the conception that NIMBY-ers have intellectual blinders on that inhibit them from appreciating the bigger picture is farce. The inverse would be “us,” the non-NIMBY-ers, can only see the big picture and are insensitive to the small. You know that’s wrong, too. And since they like their backyards so much, there’s got to be some stuff that they do want in there. But how will or can we know if we don’t listen to the backyard brigade?
Let me illustrate with an anecdote: I was once listening to a panel where a gentleman who ran for city Councillor was lamenting how while he was on the campaign trail, he was struck by how people only wanted to talk about lower-level (more mundane) things. As he is drawn to public service by his intellect and range of professional experiences, I could appreciate his frustration. He wants (or wanted) to dream and envision a better city. And then he had to clock time talking about the placement of garbage bins on a sidewalk. I could sense that he is hopeful for an idealized same-page citizenry – where we’re all engaging on high-level municipal topics. And I respect his idealism, because ideals fuel refinement.
But listen, if in a city (especially) – if you don’t feel that you have the power to act either positively or negatively in your “backyard,” how will you ever engage in broader visioning, etc? Truly, the hyper-local – the backyard – is a useful entry point into more sustained engagement (I think). Moreover, I think that there is a strange and delicate balance of service and creativity in the public sector and they both deserve attention.
Perhaps we should conceive of civic engagement as more of a spectrum than a binary (“we’ve got to get more people engaged!” versus “how and where are they engaged?”). I mean, you’ve got to start somewhere. And now imagine that we might be able to plot ourselves along this spectrum at any given moment in time. In a federalist system, our political geography is (or at least, should be) always be oscillating from the municipal to the provincial and the federal and the international. Somewhere on that spectrum is the backyard, and I can’t help but think of it as a fruitful catalyst for the kind of sophisticated conceptualizing that the Councillor contender is hungry for.
When I was 7, I wrote a letter to the Mayor of Ancaster (with the help of my mom – thanks mom!). I was concerned because there was a ravine with a metal fence at the bottom of a hill (with a sidewalk) where I would ride my bike. I was scared I would fall in the ravine because a) I was a haphazard biker (did not write that) and b) there was no protection on the side of the ravine, only the front. My mom explained that there was someone (other than her) that I could share my fear with. The Mayor (or his office) wrote back to me. And, they added more bars to the ravine barrier. Do you think that man went into local politics dreaming of alleviating little girls’ biking fears? Probably not. Did it show me that I could do things that make places I love better? Absolutely.
One thing that’s true about NIMBY-ism is how potent it is in the policy process. That’s how a backyard expands to become a nation.
Vass Bednar is a graduate of the 2010 MPP class and completed her undergraduate work in McMaster’s Arts & Science program (’08). She was a Research Associate at the Martin Prosperity Institute, now works as EA to SPPG Director Mark Stabile, and blogs at www.vicariousass.com about her (growing) backyard.