NIMBYs and the Environmentalists Fighting the Wrong Battle

By Dom Nozzi

November 26, 2000

While I agree that it is nearly always suburbanites who are cloaking their NIMBY arguments under the moral-high-ground mantle of environmentalism, it is far too often the case that strong, intelligent environmentalists (who perhaps should know better) often get caught up in the NIMBY hysteria. It has only been recently that the national Sierra Club has started to stop (at least in some of their public statements) their widespread NIMBY efforts and focused more attention on the real culprit — sprawl.

In the Florida town where I worked as a town planner, a number of in-town projects were hammered by intelligent environmentalists — environmentalists who were comparatively silent in the face of the incremental, relentless, profound, larger-scale ecological destruction that happens in outlying (sprawl) areas.

In the grander scheme of things, the natural environment is much better off if a few urban trees are lost, a disturbed urban woodland is replaced by housing, or the habitat for a few raccoons and squirrels is removed rather than the common alternative: the loss of hundreds of acres of nearly pristine woodlands, and high-quality habitat that is home to, say, eagles, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoise.

I honestly don’t believe there is a third choice: Loss of neither. I believe that south Florida and southern California are testaments to the belief that there was a third choice.

I continue to remain highly annoyed (but not surprised) that for many intelligent environmentalists, minimizing residential densities is the be-all-and-end-all of NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341environmental conservation when it comes to urban development. I shall not name names, but there are local environmentalists who were guilty of this just this past week. There is little that I can think of that is a more ruinous strategy for our future in this county than to persist in the strategy of thinking that low densities will save us.

Environmentalists must get on board with the idea that we need higher, livable densities (or to give it a less controversial name, “compact development”) in proper locations. If this does not happen, we will have no chance of averting a car-happy south Florida future…

My experience, in other words, is that it is not just suburbanites cloaked as environmentalists.

The key to a future rich in sustainability, quality of life, transportation choice, and civic pride is modest size. Modestly sized street dimensions. Modest distances between land uses (and, implicitly, modest community and neighborhood size). Modest building setbacks. By stark contrast, sprawl is most accurately defined by large size. Big setbacks, large distances to destinations, tall lights, massive parking lots, and huge street dimensions. In other words, sprawl is characterized by being scaled for cars, not people.

Far too many environmentalists fight, ironically, for excessive sizes in their advocacy regarding local development.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

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