It must have been early last summer when I first saw the red ribbons. That’s nice, I thought, supposing that these big bright bows tied to the fences and shrubberies of so many houses in my neighbourhood were a nod to World AIDS Day. My postcode must have come down with a good case of seasonal compassion.
It was, perhaps, two weeks later when Brynlee, the young proprietor of our local His and Hers, was blowing out my hair for a Christmas do that I saw such a ribbon again. “That’s nice,” I said and I pointed to her door. “I hear it’s a terrible problem in Africa.” Brynlee finally set down her volumising lotion (I’d told her twice I didn’t want big hair) and asked what I could possibly mean. To cut a long story and a hairdo more appropriate to a Victoria’s Secret model than a midlife woman short, I learned that the No Sky Rail campaign had really taken hold of our suburb.
Brynlee, to be clear, is not usually a delinquent hairstylist, and I have since returned to her chair, in which I heard that she didn’t really have an opinion about Sky Rail, a project by the Victorian government that will eliminate several level railway crossings by elevating the train line for short stretches. She said she felt she’d be losing custom if she didn’t tie the now ubiquitous ribbon to her door, and she also felt happy to be involved in some kind of noble community action.
When the hairdresser gave her reasons for protesting against a scheme of the Andrews government, I became interested to learn a little more. And not so much in the land use project itself, which still strikes me as a low-cost, low-impact way to stop all of us swearing at trains, and one for which those few hundred residents affected will be amply compensated. I became more interested in what is known, and not a little pejoratively, as NIMBY syndrome.
There is a view that NIMBY activists are motivated entirely by economic self-interest. Many early studies of a phenomenon first given a name in the US of the 1970s proceed from rational choice theory — essentially, a Machiavellian relic that holds that we only protest, vote and act with a good personal outcome in mind. In other words, NIMBYs are viewed as selfish, and this view, now abandoned by many scholars of the trend, persists in popular thought. People don’t even want to be called NIMBY, as evidenced by comedian Rod Quantock, who told The Age last year that his objections to a low-cost housing project for elderly men in his suburb was “not a NIMBY thing”.
Certainly, NIMBYs are often motivated by direct personal gain — I suspect that our own protest was kickstarted by local home owners so over-mortgaged, they won’t run the risk of a slight drop in equity. I also suspect that the apparently noble protests in my area are a fig leaf for opposition to Daniel Andrews, the least consultative premier of my state since Kennett and, in my view, the best one in decades. That guy spends on infrastructure, the arts and schools and personally, I love it.
But aside from political or economic self-interest, NIMBYs can have far more Brynlee reasons for their protest. And many of these cannot be explained by the idea of self-interest, or rational choice.
This is not to say that people are nice; we all know this is bunkum. But self-interest can mean a range of things, some of which may end in a poor economic result for the rational actor.
In understanding NIMBYs, it’s not sufficient just to say that they’re selfish or ignorant. Certainly, selfish and elite motivations can astro-turf a movement, such as we see in many objections to renewable energy projects. And sometimes, people are sufficiently ignorant to swallow and regurgitate elite propaganda — some of the objections to Sky Rail, such as “it will cause a crime wave!” are completely bonkers.
What, as this literature review proposes, might help an understanding of NIMBY is to see that sometimes, people like to feel a part of something. They want to feel that they have a say in local siting proposals and crave connection with the public good.
The salon is one of many businesses in Melbourne’s south-east close to a level crossing. When work on our local crossing is complete, Brynlee’s shop will benefit. Of course, everybody wants the crossings, which bisect communities, cause traffic wait times of up to 20 goddamn minutes and affect the train schedule, gone. But few in my suburb seem to believe that they lack engineering expertise. They want their say.
Of course, I want my say, too, and I certainly gave it to the three No Sky Rail men who have knocked at my door in the last year, all of whom refused to answer my question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Liberal Party?” In my view, which is formed in part by questions to the transport minister’s office, this project will be a boon.
But, as much as I want my say, matters like urban planning and infrastructure upgrades are beyond my ken. These things appear to me as inscrutable, as they appear to the No Sky Rail protesters, who go on with a lot of rot about potential youth crime waves.
This is not to say at all that people should not protest a particular land use and simply accept what powerful experts propose. It is to say that the NIMBY impulse, however noble, can be corrupted not just by self-interested actors, but by our own unexamined frustrations about the nature of public and private property.