As industrialization intensifies across the globe, and as climate change places disproportionate burdens on marginalized communities, local populations mobilize to protest environmental threats. Local NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) protest against large development projects is commonly characterized as retrograde and uninformed.1→Michael Dear, “Understanding and Overcoming the NIMBY Syndrome,” Journal of the American Planning Association 583, no. 3 (1992): 288-301.
→Herbert Inhaber, Slaying the NIMBY Dragon (Routledge, 1997). In reality, community opposition to unwanted polluting facilities often results in innovations of various kinds. NIMBY protest is also often characterized as elitist, evoking images of wealthy white communities blocking construction designed to encourage racial and economic diversity. However, many of the communities mounting NIMBY protest have been selected as sites for environmentally harmful facilities because of their marginality in terms of race, income, and education level.2→Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, 3rd ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000).
→Daniel Sherman, “Hell No, We Won’t Glow! How Targeted Communities Deployed an Injustice Frame to Shed the NIMBY Label and Defeat Low-Level Radioactive Waste Facilities in the United States,” in NIMBY is Beautiful: Cases of Local Activism and Environmental Innovation Around the World, ed. Carol Hager and Mary Alice Haddad (New York: Berghahn, 2015), 87–110. They are not expected to be able to put up a fight. Indeed, they are often unable to prevent the construction of the proposed project in some form. Contrary to the negative stereotype of NIMBY, their protest often results in positive change beyond the particular siting controversy. This is true across regions, types of political system, and levels of economic development. Local action is shaped initially by the political opportunity structure, but it can also reshape that structure. NIMBY protests can initiate a process of community learning in which important issues of citizen self-understanding, democratic politics, technical expertise, and issue framing are addressed, resulting in innovative solutions that can serve as models for others.
My research focuses on three main types of innovation: social, political, and technological. Social innovation involves bridging typical divisions of class, race, and political affiliation. Political innovation happens when marginalized groups develop new ways of organizing and networking, bringing broader attention to common issues and finding strength in numbers. Technological innovation occurs in two ways. Sometimes local protest forces technological improvements that mitigate the negative effects of a facility on the neighboring community. Sometimes the protesters themselves are the innovators, as in the case of solar energy technology in Germany as a result of antinuclear protest. Far from being obstacles to progress, local communities are often best suited to suggest ways to integrate technology into the local culture. My 2015 coedited volume, NIMBY Is Beautiful, offered an explicit challenge to the portrayal of local resistance as contrary to the public good. We view NIMBY mobilization not as regrettable intransigence, or even as a legitimate response to a flawed policy process, but as a potentially beneficial component of participatory politics.
NIMBY in the social science literature
Underlying the negative characterization of NIMBY by academics and policymakers are four common but problematic assumptions. The first is the idea that conflict is undesirable. Although it is true that NIMBY conflict often stems from a flawed policy process, the conflict can bring needed improvements to the process as well as the outcome. Citizens resisting sprawl development along the US Gulf Coast, for example, have drawn public attention to a decision process that excludes communities of color who will bear the consequences of increased runoff and traffic. The longer a conflict persists, the more likely it is to result in political and social innovation.3Helen M. Poulos, “How Do Grassroots Environmental Protests Incite Innovation?” in NIMBY Is Beautiful: Cases of Local Activism and Environmental Innovation around the World, eds., Carol Hager and Mary Alice Haddad (New York: Berghahn, 2015), 15–32. The second assumption is that, while the disputed development projects can be improved, their construction serves the public interest. Experience shows, however, that an avoided project often turns out in retrospect to have been a bad idea. Another assumption is that technical expertise resides solely in the state and industry. NIMBY conflicts reveal that local protest groups have a wealth of resources in terms of their knowledge of local conditions and ways of getting things done. They are often the ones to suggest improvements in design or point out disqualifying site conditions. Finally, much of the literature assumes that NIMBY protest has no effects beyond the particular siting controversy. In reality, networks established during a conflict can persevere and grow, sharing experiences and information that support more effective citizen participation in the future.
NIMBY resistance and energy transition in Germany“Small farmers, vintners, clerics, and university students…overcame barriers of class, occupation, and tradition to mobilize against the industrial build-out.”
My ongoing research concerns the evolution of the Black Forest region of southern Germany from rural idyll to Germany’s “solar region,” a center of innovation in renewable energy technology and in local-level environmental activism. This evolution is tied inextricably to antinuclear protest. In the early 1970s, the German, French, and Swiss governments planned to transform the region into a massive industrial zone, with no fewer than 14 nuclear power plants, plus chemical, metal, and petroleum processing facilities, along a 90-mile stretch of the Rhine River between Gösgen, Switzerland, and Wyhl, Germany. This was a deeply conservative, largely rural region known for its historical isolation. Small farmers, vintners, clerics, and university students from the nearby city of Freiburg overcame barriers of class, occupation, and tradition to mobilize against the industrial build-out. They organized petition campaigns, filed legal actions, mobilized mass demonstrations, and finally occupied the disputed sites in order to stop the construction. Dismissed by the state and national governments as backward-looking NIMBY protesters, activists pushed back, characterizing the development plans as unnecessary, technologically unsound, and environmentally and socially destructive.
Mass mobilization against a nuclear plant near the German village of Wyhl drew broad public attention to energy issues and started a national conversation about economic growth and energy policy goals. Residents were concerned about the risks of nuclear power and the effects of the facility on neighboring communities. They also objected to a planning process that excluded local voices. Finally, they questioned the assertion that perpetually expanding energy use was a prerequisite for economic growth. Protesters staged an eight-month-long site occupation that drew participants from all over West Germany as well as France and Switzerland. They hosted discussions about the pros and cons of different energy sources. The protesters included university students, scientists, and local tradesmen who began experimenting with solar collectors at the site. Counter to the NIMBY stereotype, the Wyhl protest was scientifically and technologically forward-looking. The state government eventually withdrew its proposal for the plant. Wyhl became the touchstone for ongoing nuclear protest nationwide and arguably the site at which Germany’s famed Energiewende (transition to renewable energy) was born. Support for renewable energy has become a hallmark of German politics; in 2011 the federal government announced the phase-out of both nuclear and coal-fired power plants.“Networking organizations were established to connect the various participants and to market their vision more broadly.”
The site occupation at Wyhl also gave rise to a self-reinforcing network of innovation for the development of distributed, environmentally friendly energy technologies. Veterans of the occupation founded their own scientific research institution, the Eco-Institute in Freiburg, which gave a home to experts critical of nuclear power. Local residents opened hundreds of renewable energy businesses. Freiburg became the home of the newly founded Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, now the largest solar R&D institution in Europe. Other Wyhl veterans brought renewable energy education to the local trade school and university. Local activists helped found the Green Party in the region and infiltrated the established political parties as well. Networking organizations were established to connect the various participants and to market their vision more broadly. This area is now widely known as Germany’s “solar region.” Visitors from all over the world come here to learn about locally generated, environmentally sustainable energy solutions. It has become a magnet for progressive thinkers. As one long-term activist puts it, “Every pioneering activity here leads back to Wyhl.”4Georg Löser (Ecotrinova), interview with the author, 2014.
NIMBY, focusing events, and sustainable development in marginalized American communities
Not every case has Freiburg’s happy outcome. And not every community facing unwanted development can draw on the resources that were available there. Nevertheless, this case has parallels to NIMBY mobilizations in marginalized communities elsewhere. One parallel is the importance of focusing attention on key events for drawing public attention to the larger issues behind the protest. In Germany, highlighting public “bads” stemming from the disputed technologies helped reinforce the protesters’ message. The decline of coniferous forests due to acid rain brought attention to the hazards of coal-fired power plants. Nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and especially at Chernobyl in 1986 turned an already skeptical German public strongly and permanently against nuclear power. In the United States, natural disasters are focusing attention on issues of unchecked development that communities of color along the Gulf Coast have been trying to raise individually.
Turkey Creek is a neighborhood in Gulfport, Mississippi, that was founded by freed slaves in 1866. It is surrounded by pine forest and freshwater marshland that has been fished by its residents for generations. Like many African American neighborhoods, Turkey Creek has seen the construction of a disproportionate share of nearby polluting facilities, including a creosote plant, a coal-fired power plant, and an Agent Orange repository that leaked into the bayou. Most recently, its residents have mobilized against encroaching sprawl development, particularly a port expansion project, which was viewed as purely positive by local political officials but which would exacerbate existing problems in the watershed. Hurricane Katrina was the event that brought the development issue to a head and enabled Turkey Creek activists to network with other communities along the Gulf Coast.
In Gulfport, as in Wyhl, NIMBY activists were protesting the process as well as the outcome. Marginalized communities were not consulted in the planning for the port. These communities suffered some of the worst flooding but received little or no aid in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Then-governor Hailey Barbour diverted money intended for low-income housing reconstruction to the port expansion project. Turkey Creek activists faced the added burden of marginalization by race. As in the German case, though, Turkey Creek residents were not uninformed NIMBYs. They were able to leverage connections with community-level groups as well as national ones—from local faith organizations to the NAACP and Sierra Club—to draw attention to sustainability in land use planning. Some activists founded their own organizations, such as the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Environmental Health, a regional philanthropy, and Bridge the Gulf Media Project, which promotes citizen media. When the BP oil spill impacted the same region a few years later, the activists were able to use their growing network to advocate for sustainable community recovery. They helped draft legislation to restore the shore, and they kept tabs on federal relief money to ensure it actually reached the communities it was supposed to help.“Local protesters crossed boundaries of geography, race, and class to build an enduring network for change.”
Local knowledge, not only of the wetland landscape but also of the political landscape, is an invaluable form of expertise. As activist Derrick Evans reminds us, Turkey Creek is not a success story in terms of halting sprawl development. It is, however, a case of social and political innovation arising from NIMBY politics. Local protesters crossed boundaries of geography, race, and class to build an enduring network for change.
NIMBY protest is generally dismissed as backward-looking, uninformed, and selfish. Targeted communities are often those with few resources to resist unwanted development. It is all the more remarkable, then, when these protests result in social, political, and technological innovation. In our climate-altered world, increasingly frequent natural disasters will focus attention on the unwise development choices marginalized communities have protested for decades. In this sense, Houston in 2017 is Gulfport all over again. Sprawl development in Houston increased the risks to low-income neighborhoods, which tend to be located in flood-prone areas with less flood control infrastructure than in other parts of the city. The massive flooding from Hurricane Harvey also shone a national spotlight on the disproportionate siting of poorly regulated hazardous waste facilities next to neighborhoods of color. A closer look at NIMBY should lead us to rethink common assumptions about the nature of local mobilization as well as its impacts. Perhaps in this light NIMBY mobilization will inspire hope rather than scorn.
→Daniel Sherman, “Hell No, We Won’t Glow! How Targeted Communities Deployed an Injustice Frame to Shed the NIMBY Label and Defeat Low-Level Radioactive Waste Facilities in the United States,” in NIMBY is Beautiful: Cases of Local Activism and Environmental Innovation Around the World, ed. Carol Hager and Mary Alice Haddad (New York: Berghahn, 2015), 87–110.