‘Twin Peaks’ and the Dark Motivations of Suburban NIMBYs
Urban planning might seem like a dull profession, but our popular culture is replete with small references to the forces that shape our cities, from House Hunters to Show Me a Hero. When you know what to look for, you start seeing urban planning in books, video games, TV shows, and movies all the time. And with so many of us living in lockdown these days, online streaming provides ample opportunity to search for diversions—while also considering how the American built environment is full of ironies and depressing power dynamics.
A couple years back over at Market Urbanism, I discussed what Pawnee’s hapless planner, Mark Brendanawicz of Parks and Recreation, could tell us about the steady decline of the planning profession. If Parks and Recreation seems too obvious, consider Twin Peaks (which this week celebrated the 30th anniversary of its original ABC debut in the spring of 1990). When viewers reach the tail end of the show’s second season, the cult-classic mystery drama provides some dark insights into the intersection of NIMBYism (known as not-in-my-backyard obstructionism) and environmentalism.
[Spoiler Warning: This post contains major spoilers about the first two seasons of Twin Peaks.]
Twin Peaks is superficially a show about one question: who killed Laura Palmer? As fans know, this is little more than a pretext for showrunners Mark Frost and David Lynch to explore everything from the social dynamics of small-town life to the peculiar, heavily-caffeinated philosophy of Special Agent Dale Cooper. Within this simultaneously delightful and horrifying world, one character might stand out to the urban-minded: Ben Horne, Twin Peaks’ very own business mogul. Throughout the show, Ben is single-mindedly focused on developing Ghostwood Estates.
Taken at face value, this subplot adds a dose of dark comedy to the show. At the same time that a primal evil is emerging from the Ghostwood National Forest, Ben and his colleagues are busy trying to turn a section of it into a suburban subdivision and country club. But it gradually evolves into a remarkable insight on the nature of NIMBYism.
Let’s start with some recap: Ben is introduced in the pilot episode as an enthusiastic promoter of the Ghostwood Estates project. With lover Catherine Martell, he conspires to burn down the Packard Sawmill—the proposed site of the development—in order to pressure a recalcitrant Josie Packard into selling the land. Ben eventually goes through with the arson conspiracy but—plot twist!—he also attempts to kill Catherine in the process to tie up loose ends. Catherine’s body is never found and she is presumed dead. Ben moves forward with the Ghostwood Estates project.
A few episodes later, it is revealed that—plot twist!—Catherine is alive and she tricks Ben into selling her the site. Enraged by this deception, Ben superficially embraces environmentalism and becomes a relentless opponent of the project. He launches Twin Peaks’ very own NIMBY group—”Stop Ghostwood”—and begins to publicly fight the project on the basis that it could drive the endangered “pine weasel” into extinction.
In a monologue unveiling the NIMBY push in Episode 23, Ben makes lofty appeals to the future of humanity and even points to an environmental impact study on the project. “I want Twin Peaks to remain unspoiled in an era of vast environmental carnage,” he pleads.
While viewers will pick up on Ben’s transparently cynical about face on the project, residents of Twin Peaks seem to buy it. At the Miss Twin Peaks contest that Ben organizes to gin up support for his cause, Annie Blackburn—Dale Cooper’s late-season love interest—dedicates her personal statement to an impassioned case against the development.
Around this time the original run of the show abruptly ends, but in the book The Secret History of Twin Peaks, we learn that Ben succeeded in killing the project. He eventually took control of the site back from Catherine and, predictably, finally develops Ghostwood Estates. The fate of the endangered pine weasel remains one of Twin Peaks’ many unsolved mysteries.
It’s easy to write off Ben Horne’s machinations as a final cynical act by a defeated character. But if you’ve spent much time in the world of urban planning or development, you know that stories like this unfold all the time. In California, for example, NIMBYs often leverage the state’s environmental protections built into CEQA to demand costly and time-consuming environmental studies as a way to kill new residential development. These housing proposals, oddly enough, are often in existing urban areas.
As legal scholar Michael Lewyn notes, NIMBYs in New York often use the Empire State’s equivalent—SEQRA—to kill unwanted infill projects. Similar environmental opposition to new urban development happens all the time across the country, occasionally with the support of local branches of major environmental groups like the Sierra Club.
The ironic result of these efforts is that most new housing and office space is then forced out onto the periphery of town, consuming agricultural land, open space, and mandating auto-oriented development. Over time, this imposes a far greater burden on the environment than comparable transit-accessible infill development.
As the urban economist Bill Fischel points out, this environmental NIMBYism may be a feature of the movement rather than a bug. Consider that much of the modern environmental movement emerged in the 1970s, at a time when Baby Boomers were moving to the suburbs en masse. Shortly after many young homeowners moved out to the outer edge of cities, Fischel suggests, they watched with horror as the next ring of development consumed the open space that briefly abutted their backyards.
Many of these new suburbanites sought out the environmental groups who shared their opposition to these new developments—conveniently ignoring that their own homes had themselves consumed open space—and gleefully consumed the anti-development “limits of growth” literature that emerged at this time.
At the same time, explosive demand for housing and high inflation in the 1970s, combined with favorable federal tax policy, turned single-family homes into a safe place to park one’s life savings. As Fischel notes, environmental efforts to block new housing construction had the effect of restricting the housing supply, which in turn increased the price of homes and enriched existing homeowners at the cost of future residents.
While there’s little doubt that many in the modern environmental movement mean well, and some of their accomplishments speak for themselves, it’s hard to deny the strong NIMBY strain that lives on in the movement to this day.
Ben Horne is meant to be a horrifying figure. Through the duration of the show, he abuses vulnerable young women through One Eyed Jack’s, attempts to kill his lover Catherine, and betrays Leland Palmer, his loyal right-hand man. It speaks to the quiet genius of Twin Peaks’ writers that Ben leaves us undertaking such a banal form of public manipulation. We are left with a believable kind of evil––a selfishness that lives in plain sight and positions itself as righteous and well-meaning.
As more than one critic has pointed out, there’s a lot to critique with Twin Peaks’ troubled second season. But Ben’s late-season embrace of environmental NIMBYism is a refreshing element that leaves the viewer positioned to read between the lines the next time someone in their community makes an impassioned plea against new housing. The perceptive observer might ask: who is the real weasel being protected?
Nolan Gray is a research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, professional city planner, and senior contributor for Young Voices.