Does YIMBY Mean ‘Open Borders’?
Thoughts on liberal vs. conservative framings for the same urbanist results
An open question from a Boston-area pro-housing group last month sparked dozens of interesting replies and conversations. One that I happened to see stood out to me:
People should be able to live where they want. Literally: any person on the planet should be able to live in any location on Earth, down at least to the square mile (provided that any location-specific externalities like fire risk are internalized). https://t.co/tgHP7uzw0y
— Max Ghenis (@MaxGhenis) September 11, 2020
That sounds a lot like the right-wing trope (and occasional left-libertarian dream) of “open borders.” Except it’s coming from a progressive. This is not the first time I’ve seen progressive urbanists draw an analogy between liberal immigration policies at the national level and pro-density, pro-housing policies at the municipal level. Here’s another example, from Maryland’s Montgomery County Council member Andrew Friedson (relayed by Jane Lyons, of the D.C.-area Coalition for Smarter Growth):
👏👏👏 to @Andrew_Friedson at today's joint committee meeting on the county's growth policy: "Housing policy is our version of immigration at the county level. It's a question of what we value, who we want to live here, where we want them to live."
— Jane Lyons (@janeplyons) September 23, 2020
There are more conservative, or more particular, ways of framing the issue of inclusion and housing affordability, however. For example, this tweet by Dan Reed, also a planner based in Montgomery County, and also a progressive.
it's always important to remember that when "the community" shows up at meetings to oppose things, they don't always look like, or speak for, everyone in that communityhttps://t.co/pA1It5mpCE
— dan reed 🦀 (@justupthepike) May 22, 2019
This is an important point that can be abstracted away by the “open borders” framing of YIMBYism, in which the imperative to improve specific places risks being replaced by a general and vaguely defined imperative. What Reed’s point means is that in many cases, we do not have to imagine theoretical people who might want to move in. They are already here—but the processes by which we plan development and seek public input are designed in such a way that their voices are not sought or heard. “The community” is not illegitimate or exclusionary in and of itself, but it is also not congruent with the professional board meeting attendees. This is a fruitful line of argument from both a social justice angle and a pro-market one. Very few laymen truly understand how arcane and byzantine the planning and development process in most localities is. Making these conversations more accessible would probably help to move the needle on YIMBY priorities.
What interests me more broadly here is that the same basic goal—getting more housing built (and sometimes other stuff), and making the process easier and less expensive (for developers) and more inclusive (for the community, fully and broadly understood)—can be framed in ways that range from extremely progressive and ideologically abstract to ways that are concrete, particular, and small-c conservative. Part of the purpose of New Urbs is to make urbanist concerns intelligible and palatable to conservatives, who unfortunately are often predisposed to view urbanism with suspicion. The “anyone should be allowed to live anywhere” framing probably raises a lot of conservative eyebrows. It suggests no particular course of action for any particular place. It invites equally abstract rebuttals, at the level of ideology, rather than forcing NIMBYs to admit in concrete terms what exactly they believe and advocate for (or against).
Of relevance to the reaction it might draw from conservatives, it is also a leveling and universalizing sentiment, one which some will take to mean, “particular communities do not have a right to exist as such.” The appeal to “community,” of course, was commonly used by segregationists, and can operate as a dog whistle today. But a conservative argument for YIMBYism would be one which embraces more housing and inclusion, but as a particular rather than a universal mandate—which, to be fair, many, maybe most, urbanists do! It is possible to argue that more housing, more neighbors, more business owners and entrepreneurship, in fact enhance the things that make a place a place. It is not possible, or rather, it is not actionable, to ensure that anyone can live anywhere. But it is possible for particular communities all across America to break out of their regulatory amber and bring in and welcome new life and new activity and new dynamism. A land-use regime that results in such places, and which makes any other option exceedingly difficult, is both exclusionary and at the same time denies a positive and wholesome particularity to our places.
Now this isn’t going to change any professional NIMBY thinking, but it might nudge some reconsideration among ordinary right-leaning folks whose only notion of urbanism is that it is a sort of leftie lifestyle cause. As Josh Delk wrote a few weeks ago in this space about New Urbanism, but could be said about good urbanism in general, “The best New Urbanist projects make places feel more like themselves.” Conservatives in particular should want places to feel “more like themselves.” And we have a lot of room to broaden what we understand that to mean.
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