Defending the NIMBY

Uncertainty and Democratic Planning


Source: Kathleen Ross

“The researchers think that a sheep is a sheep; the farmers know that such a tautology is a big mistake.”1

Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe

Over half a century of calls for more empathetic and participatory forms of planning have yielded limited progress. Forty-seven years since Peter Marris explored the grief provoked by planning, many planners remain at best ambivalent toward distressed citizens. Fifty-two years since the publication of Sherry Arnstein’s “ladder of citizen participation,” most planning remains mired in the “tokenism” segment of the ladder, where citizens may “hear and be heard,” but influence little.2 At the same time, participation and democracy remain much-heralded principles and priorities within virtually all planning literature. What explains this discrepancy between principle and action?

Sue Brownill and Andy Inch strike at the heart of the matter when they describe the “basic level of ambiguity and confusion” that continues to attend discussions of participatory planning.3 Participation appears as a self-evident goal, but the purpose of participation is unclear and always shifting. As Brownill and Inch eloquently put it, “if participation has more and more often been the answer… it has not always been clear what the question was.” Lost in this confusion is the possibility that more democracy—and empathy—within planning are actually ends in themselves.

 Nowhere is the failure to see empathy and democracy as ends in themselves more evident than in the continued anxiety and distaste around the figure of the NIMBY. The most basic empathy with the feelings of impermanence and uncertainty provoked by planning renders the NIMBY inherently sympathetic. The most basic commitment to democracy in planning seems intuitively incompatible with contempt for the NIMBY. If people have the right to participate in decision-making about their communities, and if their desire to do so is clearly sympathetic, then the epithet of NIMBY is obviously counterproductive.

Toward Empathy – Rereading Peter Marris

Like calls for more participatory planning, a roadmap pointing the way to more empathetic planning has existed for several decades. The late sociologist Peter Marris published Loss and Change in 1974, connecting his earlier work on widows to broader questions of change and grief. Marris compared the feelings of loss provoked by urban renewal to bereavement, establishing a lifelong interest in the emotional and psychological impacts of planning. The book is highly empathetic, but it’s also eminently sensible. When Marris describes “the conservative impulse,” a “fundamental and universal” desire to “defend the predictability of life,” the idea should ring familiar to anyone who has ever attended a community board meeting.4 If its existence is so obvious—and it is—then why are planners continuously taken aback by it?

 Marris published an array of additional work about the psychology of change, much of it focused entirely on planning. His entire body of work provides a deep depiction of the wholly sympathetic reasons that change produces feelings of loss and grief. Of particular interest to Marris were the ways in which people construct the meanings that structure their lives. Marris argued that all personal meaning derives from emotional attachments, most often a love of people, places, and institutions. Attachments therefore become the “organizing principle of a life,” making their loss inherently traumatic.5 It is in this sense that social changes, much like the loss of a loved one, become a form of bereavement. The impermanence of attachments provokes tremendous grief, undermining the ability to give meaning to life.

Another recurring—and related—theme in Marris’ work is the concept of uncertainty. Attachments and meaning create a shield against the uncertainty of the world, both psychologically and in material terms.           Much of Marris’ writing took place in the context of rising austerity in England, and he appreciated the extent to which, in a world of declining social provision, attachments could be a matter of survival. This was also the context in which he came to understand certainty as a primary form of power. Marris endorsed a conception of power “which emphasizes control over contingencies rather than control over resources”6 Society is marked, he argued, by a continuous competitive struggle over the distribution of uncertainty, which “thrusts the burdens of insecurity progressively onto the less and less powerful.”7 Class conflict is as much about “the displacement of uncertainty onto others” as the distribution of resources.8

Ideally, planning is an effort to manage uncertainty less competitively and to distribute it more collaboratively and equitably. This becomes difficult, however, when plans fail to account for the meanings and attachments that structure a community and the lives of the people within it. Marris holds that any plan or policy, however well-meaning, that does not “take into account the web of attachments which typically bind people to particular places” is doomed to maintain the inequitable distribution of uncertainty.9 The best planning, therefore, attempts not only to distribute uncertainty more evenly, but also to grasp the private meanings and attachments that both shape places and allow people to weather the uncertainty of the world. It infuses general purposes with particular understandings.

This requires, of course, that participants in planning can communicate private meanings and that planners will listen and understand them, making space for emotion and empathy. There is no such space in most planning forums, even many that are intended to be participatory. As with other areas of formal expertise, such as science and the law, planning favors a language of detached logic, with little resemblance to everyday communication. Marris describes, for example, the fate of many well-meaning attempts to engage “disadvantaged communities”: said communities discover that “their own account of their needs [is] not assimilable as valid information… because they could not translate their understanding into the language of government.”10

The problem is, in part, that planning continues to presume the same model citizen and the same idealized public sphere that Jürgen Habermas described nearly 60 years ago—and that Nancy Fraser critiqued over 30 years ago.11 For Habermas, the perfect citizen entered the public sphere having bracketed both their personal interests and their different statuses and circumstances. The public sphere thus becomes a world of perfect rationality and impartiality where all citizens are rendered equal through unclear mechanisms. To Fraser, this vision of the public sphere is neither tenable nor necessarily desirable. And to Marris, such a vision has nothing to do with the manner in which citizens actually communicate. Outside of arenas of formal expertise, communication is situated, contextual, and emotional. Everyday communication requires an empathetic form of “mutual understanding” which “recognizes that the experiences of each particular speaker, that speaker’s feelings and purposes at the moment, are necessary to interpret the meaning of what is being said.”12

Planning simply needs to evolve—to become more collaborative, more empathetic, more attuned to the meanings and attachments at the heart of communities and their residents’ lives.

It is the failure to accept everyday communication and the empathy it demands—and the insistence upon Habermas’ ideal citizen, with his bracketed identity and detached rationality—that renders the so-called NIMBY abominably unsympathetic. To enter the planning process with emotion, place attachments, and a situated identity is to be the opposite of the ideal citizen and to commit a grievous sin against the norms of the public sphere. In contrast, Marris describes a number of reasons to humanize the NIMBY: she is, perhaps, protecting the attachments that give meaning to her life; she is trapped in what appears to be a zero-sum competition to avoid the burden of uncertainty; she is likely struggling to make herself understood in a forum that demands the mastery of a wholly new language. All of these characteristics call for more empathy in planning, no less, particularly if planners’ apparent enthusiasm for participation and collaboration is to be taken seriously.

Marris may have been a prolific critic of planning, but he was also one of its great admirers. Who else would describe planners as “a priesthood” that creates social meaning?13 Never a cynic, he argued explicitly against depictions of planning as a mere tool of capital accumulation, preferring to believe in the good intentions of planners. He ended Community Planning and Conceptions of Change, his tremendous critique of two failed English planning projects, with an exhortation that planning is still the answer. Planning remains, he insisted, the only way to manage uncertainty and “a crucial part of carrying out any practical ideal of social justice.”14 Planning simply needs to evolve—to become more collaborative, more empathetic, more attuned to the meanings and attachments at the heart of communities and their residents’ lives.

It becomes difficult to maintain the same faith as Marris when planning has evolved so little in the intervening decades. Empathy toward citizens remains limited, as evidenced by the continued acceptability of what Inch calls “labelling practices.”15 Oppositional citizens, particularly emotional ones, are still frequently labelled in ways that undermine and dismiss their participation—NIMBY, of course, being the obvious example. Extending empathy to citizens—acknowledging their right to input and making room for their communication, emotional or otherwise—should be seen as a goal in itself, but also as a basic prerequisite for truly participatory planning. That planning has advanced so little up Arnstein’s ladder in empathy’s absence should be no surprise.

Toward Democracy – Rereading Sherry Arnstein

First published in 1969, Sherry Arnstein’s “A Ladder of Citizen Participation” is a clarion call for more democratized planning. Arnstein skewers the vapid lip service and “empty ritual” that typically attends so-called participatory planning. In place of merely manipulating, informing, or (at best) persuading citizens, Arnstein argues for genuine citizen control. If the piece remains rousing to this day, it also displays a bit of the conceptual uncertainty that continues to haunt the discussion of participatory planning. Take, for example, Arnstein’s definition of citizen participation: “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included” and “to share in the benefits of the affluent society.” 16

What Arnstein describes isn’t citizen participation itself so much as a prerequisite for it. Of course, full-fledged participation requires an undeniable redistribution of power, and planners shouldprioritize empowering precisely the people and communities who have been historically marginalized. To return to Marris: if planning is (ideally) about redistributing uncertainty more evenly, then asking who has been disproportionately burdened with uncertainty is an obviously relevant question. There is nothing wrong with having priorities regarding participation and empathy in planning—Habermas’ bracketing of identity serves only to mystify power and to shut out precisely the kind of situated, empathetic communication that is most essential! Arnstein’s goal here is both unassailable and the inarguable first step toward genuinely democratic planning.

There is a difference, however, between arguing for the first step toward democratic planning and arguing for democratic planning, period. Arnstein is far from alone here and is closer to a full-throated advocate of democracy than most. The endless literature on participatory planning overwhelmingly stops just short of advocating for democracy as an end in itself. Instead, participation and collaboration are frequently heralded as strategies for reaching other (always admirable) goals—the empowerment of particular groups, better plans, less frustrated communities. The ability of the planner to define an ultimate goal, perhaps related to but ultimately distinct from democracy, is preserved. If some power over the plan itself is ceded, then some control remains over who that power is ceded to and why it was a good idea to do so.

By carefully skirting assumptions that democracy is simply an inherent good, planners thus preserve their own power. Rather than being undermined, their expertise is merely shifted. In this sense, the failure to make planning empathetic and the failure to make planning democratic are linked in, not one, but two ways. First, as already mentioned, causally—even hearing citizens’ opinions, let alone acting on them, requires a basic engagement with empathetic communication. Second, the merely selective application of both principles performs a highly important and unified function: it keeps planners’ feet firmly planted on the pedestal of expertise, thereby sustaining their basic raison d’être. Notably left intact is the planner’s ability to know, in some sense, what is right. If it’s not what should be done, then it’s who should be asked.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for some of the anxiety that participation provokes. The question of how far and in what directions to extend empathy and a microphone is genuinely challenging. Take, for example, that segment of “NIMBYs” who most deserve the name: the racists or the homeless shelter opponents or the otherwise genuine reactionaries. Certainly, little is to be gained from their participation, and much has been lost to their historically disproportionate engagement with planning. At the same time, it seems clear that these NIMBYs are a problem best solved by more democracy, not less. Arnstein’s have-nots, after all, obviously outnumber the haves. And if the term NIMBY were applied only to the haves, shoring up their certainty at the expense of others—if only they were denied empathy and participation—then there would be little reason to question planners’ commitment to democracy.

Instead, however, NIMBY accusations are often hurled at those questioning or opposing much more ambiguous assertions of the public good. Inch, for example, describes a pattern in Scotland in which all opposition to development is defined as NIMBYism and therefore illegitimate. Pro-growth planning paradigms ensure development is always defined as “synonymous with the public interest, the primary good that the planning system should seek to promote.”17 Similar patterns play out across the equally pro-growth United States. Incredibly, astroturf, real estate-funded “YIMBY” groups even wield the term against community activists fighting gift-to-developer rezonings.18 Tenuous, highly ideological claims about the link between development and affordable housing are thus easily repackaged as objective, common-sense approaches to the common good that could only be opposed by the cruelly selfish.

Democracy in planning is therefore undermined at the same time that conventional depictions of rational, technocratic expertise are reinforced. This is hardly surprising, as the latter is always a barrier to the former. The apparent certainty of expertise inevitably undermines lay claims to decision-making rights. And the NIMBY epithet serves to shore up claims of expertise through a sort of triple duty: reinforcing the authority to select deserving citizens, the authority to define good policy, and the need to not take democracy too far. Always lurking in the shadows is a citizen ready to undermine the common good with pure self-interest and no sense of proper policy. If some citizens have earned a say, some, at least, still need everything explained to them.

Such expert certainty is another link between certainty, uncertainty, and power, different from the one identified by Marris. In this case, power derives not so much from true certainty as from the appearance of it. To declare a question a matter of technical expertise is “effectively to remove it from the influence of public debate” by proclaiming the certainty of its answer.19 In the case of planning, empathy—particularly for oppositional citizens—threatens to undermine this certainty by allowing residents and communities to voice their own meanings. These meanings can call into question the goals of a particular plan or policy, elucidate in advance unconsidered problems, or render the reality of a place with a specificity unavailable to outsiders.

Writing about scientific controversies, Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe describe the way in which the perceived certainty of expert solutions gives way to “overflows”—unexpected impacts identified, not by scientists, but by lay citizens.20 Their work recognizes, more than most planning literature, the inherent value of expert-lay oppositionality. They write, with apparent exhilaration, about “the unusual confrontation that socio-technical controversies organize between specialists and laypersons… [establishing] a brutal short circuit between these two poles, which are usually separated by an almost unbridgeable gulf.”21 Such controversies don’t undermine science so much as they enhance it.

Planners would do well to take note of one anecdote in particular. The passage of Chernobyl’s radioactive cloud over England provokes repeated interactions between sheep farmers and scientists concerned about their sheep. Over and over, the scientists’ assumptions fail to take into account specificities—of place and of sheep—that are obvious to the farmers. The authors refer to “translation.”22 At issue is not a demand that the farmers learn to speak in the language of the scientists, but an opportunity for the scientists to be translated into the real world. If planners were to loosen their grip on expertise, and to prioritize democracy as an end in itself, they might discover the particular expertise of citizens: their ability to translate planning into the real world.


1. Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes, and Yannick Barthe, Acting in an Uncertain World: An Essay on Technical Democracy (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009), 93.

2. Sherry Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” Journal of the American Planning Association 35, no. 4, (1969): 217.

3. Sue Brownill and Andy Inch, “Framing People and Planning: 50 Years of Debate,” Built Environment 45, no. 1, (2019): 12.

4. Peter Marris, Loss and Change (London: Routledge, 1974), 2.

5. Peter Marris, The politics of uncertainty: attachment in private and public life (London: Routledge, 1996), 49.

6. Marris, The politics of uncertainty, 1.

7. Marris, The politics of uncertainty, 104.

8. Peter Marris, Community Planning and Conceptions of Change (London: Routledge, 1982), 125.

9. Marris, The politics of uncertainty, 46.

10. Marris, The politics of uncertainty, 74-75.

11. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text, no. 25/26, (1990).

12. Marris, The politics of uncertainty, 74.

13. Marris, Community Planning, 62.

14. Marris, Community Planning, 127.

15. Andy Inch. “Ordinary Citizens and the Political Cultures of Planning: In Search of the Subject of a New Democratic Ethos.” Planning Theory 14, no. 4, (2015): 412.

16. Arnstein, “A Ladder of Citizen Participation,” 216.

17. Inch, “Ordinary Citizens,” 411.

18. Nathan Robinson, “The only thing worse than a NIMBY is a YIMBY,” Current Affairs, January 9, 2021,

19. Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe, Acting in an Uncertain World, 25.

20. Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe, Acting in an Uncertain World, 30.

21. Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe, Acting in an Uncertain World, 33.

22. Callon, Lascoumes, and Barthe, Acting in an Uncertain World, 93.

Kathleen Ross is a graduating senior at Hunter. She is grateful for the incredible education she’s received from the undergraduate Urban Studies program, especially Professors Pollans, Bezborodko, Shipp, Schneider, and Lim.

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