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Getting to YIMBY

Small towns and suburbs can retain their character, and enrich it, without being exclusionary.

When I was a child growing up in rural-exurban central New Jersey, every election day my parents would take me with them to the polling place, in a school or church, and then go out for ice cream. I’m not sure they understood this as a ritual, but I took it to be one, and to this day when I see that retro roadside soft-serve stand I think of fulfilling my civic duty. I’m happy it still stands.

Every time I visit my parents up there, from my home in Northern Virginia, I find myself comforted by the fact that everything looks the same. The same, that is, as it did roughly 25 years ago, when I was a little kid growing up here.

Plenty of forested lots have since succumbed to big box stores, as NJ Route 31 has gone from a two-lane country road to a four-lane suburban commercial corridor. Quite a few of the businesses I recall from childhood are gone; some of the buildings that once housed them are also gone, or transformed beyond recognition. About 10 years ago, an ancient Blockbuster location was divided into four separate stores, none of which still occupy the spaces. Jack’s Pizza, owned by an old-fashioned Italian family who attended the town’s Catholic church, was sold, and tacos were added to the menu (I’m hoping to eventually try them). But the same garden centers and fields, some with cows, signal the approach to town; the same upscale-garish automobile dealer corridor known as Flemington Car and Truck Country endures; for all the individual changes, Flemington is still recognizable as what it is. Or what it was, or what I think of it as. Some see stagnation and others, remarkably to me, see recent overcrowding. I tend to see a pleasant continuity.

This is all to introduce the fact that despite my preference for continuity in the built environment, after some years of following urbanist discourse and living in one of America’s most overpriced housing markets, I consider myself a “YIMBY” urbanist: “yes in my backyard.” I am convinced both that the need for more housing in many places is of primary importance, and that the arguments against building and density are often silly, underhanded, or both.

About a year ago, a piece published over at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency made the rounds on urbanist Twitter, skewering the high-minded self-importance of the people who speechify against development proposals at planning meetings, describing their cookie-cutter suburban surrounds in loving, mystical terms, often as a cover for racism or mercenary concern over taxes and property values.

The satirical NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) rant goes like so:

“I love living in this town….I feel comforted by stasis and regularity, both fed by ignorance.”

“I grew up here and, after leaving for a time to go to college and start my career, returned to this town, my true home, in order to raise a family and stop time from progressing.”

“‘Evidence’ about how policies have worked in other towns simply does not apply to us. No evidence applies to us. Our town exists in a fog of mystery and enigmatic strangeness, and nothing that happens outside city boundaries should have any bearing on how we govern or exist.”

Anyone who has ever heard the real-life version of this knows exactly what is being parodied, and is aware that appeals to “neighborhood character” or some special je ne sais quoi of a place are often mendacious and insincere. This is particularly the case with claims around historic preservation; case in point, a project in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., in which NIMBYs appealed that an empty lot was itself historic, because it enabled a clear view of a nearby historic structure. The cherry on top was that the view was not historic, because the lot had only been empty since the 1990s.

There’s no doubt that racism, along with a sort of risk-averse provincialism, animates a good deal of suburban opposition to density or transit. It’s not even a stretch to conclude that some suburbanites view low density and car dependence explicitly as insurance against the presence of “people who don’t belong here.”

In my last visit to New Jersey, I recalled that essay, and couldn’t help but juxtapose it with my own sense of comfort at Flemington’s “stasis and regularity.” It made me think. I didn’t want Flemington to simply look the same forever (especially since it wasn’t even my home anymore.) A desire for places to keep their broad, categorical identities—urban, rural, small town, suburban—can coexist with a recognition that it is neither just nor economically sustainable to encase places in regulatory amber, such as through zoning codes designed when populations were a fraction of what they are today. Change, in other words, is essential to making a spot on the map a place. Placemaking is never done, and communities are never “full.”

A section of Flemington’s struggling Liberty Village outlet center, a prime location for redevelopment. Addison Del Mastro.

Nonetheless, there is sometimes an element of snobbery in wholesale dismissals of NIMBY concerns, as though nobody could really think of tacky suburbia as a home, a place. Yet in a country with little history, and with few places that have truly earned a hallowed status, the very natural human desire to make and inhabit a place takes the form of treating diners and motels as historic structures, in hallowing Pizza Huts and Applebees. A sprawling sea of junk it may well be. But it is also the setting of daily life for most Americans, and our ability to imbue it with some deeper, even near-metaphysical meaning should not be mocked or dismissed entirely. It is honorable to find meaning in the mundane.

British conservative and philosopher Roger Scruton, TAC’s New Urbanism Fellow before his death earlier this year, coined the term “oikophilia,” or “love of home.” He meant by it something like an enlightened patriotism, a love for the particularity of one’s culture. But as an urbanist, Scruton no doubt also understood it more literally. He famously chaired the UK’s Building Better Building Beautiful commission, which seeks to promote both new housing and traditional architecture. Critics pointed out, correctly, that the majority of NIMBYs are not genuinely motivated by aesthetic concerns, and some even felt that the commission’s premise conceded too much to the NIMBY tendency. We’re going to build this tower, and you’re going to like it!

But the marriage of densification and artistry in placemaking is an important counter to the tendency, found on both the Left and Right, to discuss housing in an abstract, technocratic way, as though housing units and human beings alike are merely interchangeable widgets. (To simplify a bit, the Right, in tandem with developers looking to save building costs, has often done this in dismissing the quality of public or affordable housing; the Left tends to do it in order to get more housing built.) If one’s only exposure to the housing issue came from the most enthusiastic lefty Twitter urbanists, one might be put off by the enthusiasm for more housing in almost any architectural form.

That feeling of comfort, continuity, and familiarity—of belonging to a place that remains itself through time—does not mean that nothing new can ever be built, nor, crucially, does it mean that racial and economic exclusion are necessary for a place to remain itself. That is a classic NIMBY sleight of hand: using arguments about overcrowding or traffic or junk architecture or green space, while really arguing that the essence of suburban life is its exclusionary nature.

The reality is very different. Suburban sprawl and restrictive zoning eat up far more green space than densification of already developed places. “Drive till you qualify” remains our default approach to building, which in turn promotes long and stressful commutes. Suburbia is not “pro-family” if it raises the costs of starting a family to the stratosphere. New Urbanist ideas, drawn largely from classic American towns, can densify and enliven a place with few physical changes at all. Zoning reforms like allowing apartments above stores and allowing duplexes or triplexes in single-family neighborhoods by right could double potential density without altering “character” at all; unless “character” means…something else.

To love a place should mean to love more homes, more neighbors, more families, more places, more memories. That’s the logic that got me to YIMBYism. Great places and neighborhoods need a critical mass of people to support commerce and culture and civic life. Quality of life is not zero-sum. The right-wing stereotype of urbanists as heckling left-leaning busybodies may describe a handful of them. But more often than it implicates urbanists, it indeed reveals a preference for stasis and regularity, fed by ignorance.