The NIMBY vs. YIMBY Dichotomy Risks Destroying Consultation and Community Input in Development and Planning

Image courtesy of Pavel Špindler. This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

Recently, there has been a lot of attention directed at NIMBYs (Not in my backyard), particularly by YIMBYs (Yes in my backyard), around the housing crisis and ensuring that new housing supply comes online as quickly as possible. As we look for ways to streamline and accelerate housing delivery pathways, we must ensure that citizens do not lose the right to have their say about a new development.

Andrew Butt, Associate Dean of Sustainability and Urban Planning at RMIT University, wrote an excellent article in the Guardian titled The Demonisation of Nimbyism, where he suggests that rather than rushing to condemn communities for engaging with the planning system, we should consider nimbyism as a learned behaviour of place protection that arises from many disappointing experiences of increased urban density.

I understand why some politicians may think that removing consultation from the statutory approval pathway would improve assessment timeframes. However, will it deliver faster approvals or result in heightened community unrest and citizen-led action?

At this juncture, it is timely to reflect on how community engagement came to be part of the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 in the first place.

In the 1960s and early 1970s citizen-led consultation and green bans dominated the Sydney landscape.  It was a time when communities demanded a more significant role in determining the quality and future of their built environment. The movement resulted in people of all backgrounds coming together to fight what they saw as social and environmental injustice. Heritage conservation, affordable housing, the scale and character of development, natural conservation, recreation, air quality and the like were all contended development impacts.

The following account of the Rocks Green Bans that The Rocks Authority wrote in October 2021 provides an excellent insight into what was happening:

The Rocks’ Green Bans arose not as a direct response to the threat to historic buildings but in response to the already initiated activism of residents aiming to preserve their community and demanding affordable housing. This local movement was one of many such groups formed in Sydney at the time, each with its own specific agenda and personality. The Rocks Resident Action Group was led by Nita McRae, a fifth-generation Rocks resident, and women were prominent participants leading this and other resident action groups. The activism of the Rocks Resident Action Group was targeted towards the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, which in 1970 was given responsibility for the redevelopment of The Rocks.

The sympathetic Builder Labourers Federation leadership, given voice by Jack Mundey, were enlisted to the cause of the various resident action groups. Frustrated by existing government channels, unlikely alliances formed throughout Sydney between resident action groups (often in middle-class suburbs) and the left-wing Builders Labourers Federation. In The Rocks, the BLF formed a more ‘natural’ alliance with a working class community. Greens Bans, placed only at the request of local residents, were presented as the last resort to halt development happening against the wishes of the local communities.

The protest in The Rocks, and the Green Bans movement as a whole, received its greatest public attention in October 1973 when residents and four members of the BLF barricaded a demolition site on Playfair Street and climbed onto the roof of the buildings and even into nearby trees. The police response, the ensuing scenes, and the large number of arrests (including Jack Mundey) provoked widespread media coverage and commentary. Government and developers cast the Green Bans as undemocratic and provocative actions by a militant union. However, the widespread community support for the Green Bans demonstrated not political support for the far left but a commonly shared view that local residents had little voice in planning and development processes.

The Greens Bans in The Rocks had mainly been a response to the issues of affordable housing and preservation of the existing community, but they had the effect of delaying major development until after the introduction of new heritage and planning legislation.

Remembering Jack Mundy, The Rocks, 17 October 2021

Community activism led the Wran Government in the late 1970s to introduce the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act in 1979, which included principles for public participation and the assessment of the environmental impacts of new developments. Object 1.3(j) of the Act is:

(j) to provide increased opportunity for community participation in environmental planning and assessment.

Regarding increasing housing supply, the answer to streamlining statutory pathways doesn’t lie in removing community consultation from the planning process. We must continue to actively talk to and listen to what communities have to say. We must give citizens a voice about the planning and development of their communities. The demonisation of nimbyism often overlooks that consultation processes frequently highlight local support for projects and enables residents to provide feedback that can improve a design response.

We need to change the development sector’s thinking towards consultation. After working at the coal face of engagement for the last 30 years, I am still in disbelief when I hear developers say they want to fly under the radar and say as little as possible about their projects. I cannot understand that thinking. Good quality development needs to be talked about. Saying nothing can be interpreted as arrogance by a community and does little to engender confidence in the end project.

We need a new approach to consultation that provides communities with the essential information they need to understand what is being proposed, and we need to be engaging early on at the policy-setting stage. Often it is the media rather than the Government who is breaking the news about housing supply policy to communities. This approach does not build confidence, trust, or certainty in planning.

We need processes that allow for consultation and, more importantly, community education. A frontloading of community consultation initiatives will help minimise objections and manage change if we are to realise housing supply targets.

Today would Jack Mundy have been labelled a NIMBY, or would he have been applauded as an environmental activist and city shaper? It is timely that we reflect on Jack Mundy’s legacy and not lose sight of why community consultation is intrinsic to planning and development.