Liberal NIMBYs

I see that the New York Times ran a piece over the weekend pointing out lefty hypocrisy on a handful of green issues. Residents of liberal enclaves like Brooklyn, Berkeley, and Cape Cod proclaim to worry about the environment, but when bike lanes, or bus-rapid transit, or wind farms are planned for their own backyards, they suddenly become remarkably indifferent to the carbon impact of their preferences. What’s always striking about these pieces is how easily the two ideas co-exist in the mind of the NIMBY; the bike lane is obviously a huge problem — dangerous for drivers even — and, oh yes, we should totally take steps to limit auto-dependence.

The Times piece delves into the psychology of this kind of neighborhood opposition, but what it doesn’t say is that as annoying as this is, it has a far smaller impact on net emissions than the far more common anti-development strain of NIMBYism. Bike lanes make New York City a teeny bit greener. But New York is already much, much greener than most American cities, thanks to its dense development pattern and extensive transit network. Net emissions fall a lot more when someone from Houston moves to New York than when someone from New York starts biking.

Happily, lots of people would LOVE to move to New York. This is one huge benefit we don’t need to subsidize to realize. Unhappily, the benefit is nonetheless out of reach because of the huge obstacles to new, dense construction in New York. New York can’t accommodate more people unless it builds more homes, and it can’t build more homes, for the most part, without building taller buildings. And New Yorkers fight new, tall buildings tooth and nail. They fight them on aesthetic grounds, and because they’re worried about parking and traffic, and because they’re worried about their view, and because they just think there’s enough building in New York already, thank you. And many do this while heaping massive scorn on oil executives and the Republican Party over their backward and destructive views on global warming.

Of course, the obstruction of development is offensive for lots of reasons: it makes housing and access to employment unaffordable, it reduces urban job and revenue growth, it tramples on private property rights, and so on. But the environmental hypocrisy is galling, and it’s not limited to New York. My old neighborhood, Brookland, voted overwhelmingly for Obama (about 90-10, as I recall). Many of the locals are vocally supportive of broad, lefty environmental goals. And yet, when a local businessman wants to redevelop his transit-adjacent land into a denser, mixed-use structure, the negative response is overwhelming, and residents fall over themselves to abuse local rules in order to prevent the redevelopment from happening.

This project would bring new retail with it, which would enable more local residents to walk to a retail destination. It would bring new residents, and those residents would be vastly more likely to walk or take transit to destinations than those living farther from Metro. Forget the economic benefits to the city, the people occupying the new housing units would have carbon footprints dramatically below the national average. But this basically does not matter to the NIMBYs however much they profess to care about the environment.

To the extent that public opinion matters and can be shaped, I think it would be a huge boon for humanity for attitudes toward NIMBYism to turn decidedly negative. People should be ashamed of this behavior, which is both selfish and extravagantly dismissive of property rights.


  1. MW says:

    yea! Ryan is the best.

    PS you didn’t say to which neighborhood you moved. But if it was Columbia Pike, you have my vote for ANC chairman

  2. MW says:

    PPS I would nominate you for mayor, but it seems that mayors (and higher up) are powerless to address this issue despite it being central to every major policy goal of both parties. (environmentalism, affordable living, less government regulations, lower taxes)

  3. Christopher says:

    I live in a nice walkable part of Brooklyn. Less than 5 minutes to two subway stops. There are incredible number of empty apartments on my block. And we’re talking two bedroom railroad style apartments at around $1200 a month. There are TONS of empty apartments in similarly accessible parts of Brooklyn. Are these neighborhoods as trendy as living in the East Village? No. But their are plenty of underutilized buildings in NYC. At reasonable rent. (Our rent is $1225 / month another unit our building is $1200.) Even the new places in NYC seem to be all become city apartments from suburbanites who want a crash bad / place to take their mistress. There are several buildings near my work in the financial district — new apartment buildings — that are nearly or completely empty. There just aren’t enough people or jobs in NY. And we really haven’t recovered from the migration of industry further south and out to suburbs.

    People want to make excuses for why they don’t live in NY. But their are apartments for rent at rates below are comparable to DC in dense walkable neighborhoods close to transit and shopping. (Did I mention there are 5 full-service grocery stores within less than 3/4 mile walk from my place? Including brand new fish and meat market and a organic grocery store? And yet, apartments sit empty. Almost all newly renovated.

  4. Ian says:

    do you realize how silly you sound? 1200 a month is a lot for rent. you only thinks its reasonable because its NYC, which is circular reasoning.

  5. Sandy Hereld says:

    Well, $1200 is only a little high for Seattle, which also has NIMBY problems with high density building, and some empty apartments. My take is, wait another year for the economy to rebound before making assumptions based on how full apartment buildings are in big cities.

  6. Adam says:

    One other problem is that the City has done a terrible job planning for more students in school. My daughter’s public school is on the verge of being overcrowded, but the City has made no new plans to find more space or set up new schools. Accordingly, I cringe when I see another high rise being built, knowing that for every new 3 BR unit, there are likely going to be two more kids crammed into the school. I don’t mind the density, but without some planning, overuse is a problem.

  7. Iceman says:

    A lot of NIMBYism is not a widespread sentiment at all. Most people who live in cities enjoy urban life and don’t object to taller buildings, greater retail options, more restaurants and bars, etc. In most cases, it is a tiny number of “community groups” and “preservationists” who are objecting, and that tiny number are able to block development that the vast majority of people want.

    I wonder what the solution is – maybe pro-density, pro-growth forces should work to take over zoning boards and community boards. Or we should pressure to change the process by which projects are approved, to make it much harder for bogus legal challenges and small numbers of objectors to block them.

  8. Christopher says:

    I suppose I’m bias from having lived in DC, SF, and NYC over the last 13 years. Although even when my parents were just looking for a temporary rental in Chattanooga, Tennessee they found that most nice places, even places why outside of downtown were around $1000/mo. I don’t think $1200 for a two bedroom is all that insane. That’s $600 / month for two people. I make about $45k a year and that works well within the guidelines for how much rent should be as a portion of your income. We’re also better paid in NY. I found DC had lower starting salaries but rent that was higher. I ended up having a really cheap apartment in NW DC but it was far from the train, was rent controlled, and was basically a drug stash house. There was a shooting in the background, twice.) Still that was a one bedroom for over $700 / mo. And my job was in Virginia so I had to have a car. Living closer to work would have been even MORE expensive. Several of my coworkers lived in Virginia and were paying more than I am in NYC.

    My rent is also cheaper than friends in Chicago, Charlottesville, and Atlanta. And only those in Chicago are able to live car free and close to transit.

    Still the point is that there are tons of empty apartments in NYC. The problem isn’t not enough density. Or that’s not the only the problem.

  9. Jim says:

    NIMBYism and people’s reluctance to condemn NIMBYism come from the same place – this idea that we have a right to try and control what happens in the neighbourhood we live in. Most people seem to think that’s true of themselves and their neighbourhood, so they won’t condemn others for thinking likewise.

    The problem is that people don’t see the aggregate effects. Individually, everyone thinks they can be NIMBYs in their area and there will be no lasting, large-scale damage. But everyone’s doing it, so there is.

    Ideally, we would get people to see the strategic impact of their actions in the same way that some people have been persuaded to see the impact of driving rather than walking, or of using too much energy at home. But large-scale neighbourhood change is a bigger deal than not taking your car or not keeping all the lights on in your house. So it’s a very difficult sell.

    One additional problem is that for simple economic reasons you would expect renters to be more favourable to new supply than homeowners. But renters also tend not to be as involved in / obsessed with local politics, so are typically under-represented in these kind of debates. I long for a ‘League of Renters’ who would go around championing new supply on our behalf, but it has yet to appear.

  10. Jesse says:

    I think you’re mistaken about the vacancies in NYC. I also live in the city (Astoria, to be exact), and I haven’t noticed many apartments open at all. Well, except for a new building which hasn’t gotten its Cert. of Occupancy yet.

    But then, the real issue here is that anecdotes aren’t data. And the data, I believe (does someone else have a handy link?) shows that the vacancy rates for each type of housing in NYC (and in DC, Chicago, other big cities) is solidly below comparable housing outside of cities (ie, compare rental 2br to rental 2br, compare owner-occupied 3br to owner-occupied 3br).

    The reasons, I suspect, that you think you see a lot of vacancies are twofold:

    First, NYC is a heavily renter community, and renters like us are transient. We don’t often occupy the same apartment for decades. So a renter community will always have a lot of turnover, and a decent amount of (temporarily) vacant units. But it’s not like the same units are perpetually vacant. Here’s a good test: do you see many places you’d describe as “abandoned”? I sure don’t.

    Second, I suspect that you live in a neighborhood of Brooklyn that was rapidly gentrifying between 2000-2007, and is now caught in an uncertain market. The landlords want, badly, to be able to rent out their places at the higher rents that they were just reaching before the market bust; but nobody is being priced out of the nicer neighborhoods anymore and the demand just isn’t there for what these landlords want. And so, an increase in vacancies occurs in your neighborhood. But eventually, this will resolve itself: in the short term, most landlords will come to terms with renting places at lower prices again, and in the long term the market will pick back up and gentrification will resume.

  11. mike says:

    NY’ers fight tall buildings tooth and nail? Huh? Well, in some respect you may be right, but it has made no difference. Anyone who wants to build a 50-story tower in NYC is more than welcome. Given that about 100 have gone up in the last 8 years, it doesn’t seem to pose too much a problem to developers.

    I grant that a small faction of the left does go crazy to stop new development. Just look at the Atlantic Yards proposal in Brooklyn next to where I live. People have been fighting that for years. But alas, it has made no difference, and the steel structure rises out of the ground as we speak. To be honest, I can’t recall a single instance when development was successfully stopped here. So while some may protest loudly, it has no effect on policy. Bloomberg knows how to run the city.

  12. Sade says:

    I feel like this blog entry could be titled “There are liberal assholes too.” Which is clearly true.

    I don’t know how powerful these groups are though. In NY there was an outcry when they announced that they’re beginning construction at Penn Plaza which will be as tall as the Empire State Building. But most New Yorkers just shrugged. It’s just another tall building. Generally the people who are against them live at the top of a building someone else decried at some point as being ruinous to the skyline.

    If you want low buildings you should live in Brooklyn. Which is a better borough anyways.

  13. Daniel says:

    This is hilarious. New Yorkers “fight development” tooth and nail, and their are huge obstacles to new building. Meanwhile the population density of Manhattan is 70,000 per square mile, of Brooklyn is 36,000, and of Houston is 3,900. The development boom of the 90s and 2000s was staggering. Williamsburg and Greenpoint are FULL of half finished large condo buildings. Given massive density, major transportation challenges, and a very green city per capita, you might cut, for instance, Brooklyners who opposed Atlantic Yards a little slack, particularly since the world’s rich people will still be able to find somewhere to live that doesn’t involve displacing a whole bunch of low income Brooklyn residents.

  14. Lara says:

    I don’t get it. Of course the rest of the planet would be better off if the world’s entire population crammed into a few really tall buildings in one spot. The problem is we’d all go crazy and start eating each other. You do have to take into account how much crowding the human psyche can handle, which isn’t quantifiable and so has to express itself in the push-and-pull of development struggles. Why is your point that the entire population of every environmentally unsound city should be able to move to NYC, instead of that other cities should try to model NYC’s layout and mass transit infrastructure? It makes absolutely no sense.

  15. Josh says:

    Yeah, liberals can be assholes too, and humanity’s cognitive dissonance is always astounding. But I’m not entirely sure why the onus should be on New Yorkers, who already deal with crowded trains and much-higher-than-average population density, and not on Houston and the many, many other American cities where the mere thought of walkable neighborhoods and public transit is for some reason considered anathema.

  16. Andy says:

    You got me so worked up about this I posted about it at my own blog. As I note in that post, Ed Glaeser makes the same point repeatedly in Triumph of the City (which I’m currently reading).

  17. Christopher says:

    Jesse —

    But Astoria is one of those trendy neighborhoods that people want to live. And yes, I would describe the turnover in our neighborhood as more than just natural turnover.

    The upstairs units in my building haven’t been rented in years. And the buildings next door are similar.

    There are just a lot of empty apartments in NY. Now some of that is sure things are overpriced. And landlords would rather sit on an overpriced empty building than rent below cost. (That’s certianly what I see in the Financial District. They are “luxury” buildings. And it’s more cost effective to keep them empty than rent below what they think is market.)

    Now admittedly these buildings in NY are not necessarily entirely empty in the way that DC buildings in my old hood there were. But the idea that there aren’t already plenty of places to live in the 5 boroughs is false.

    The problem isn’t housing. It’s jobs. And the people I know that are leaving aren’t leaving because they couldn’t find apartments it’s because they can’t find work.


  18. sp6r=underrated says:

    I’m not sure pointing to NYC is the most effective way of gaining converts to denser development.

    A large part of opposition to denser development is the belief that it will lead to the inevitable transformation of their city into NYC. This crowd is even more likely to be skeptical of urbanism when they read a writer who supports supports urbanism state that NYC needs to be denser.

  19. Tom says:

    Hey. If you want to score some points in some meta-battle about whether liberals are a**holes (or jerks) too, have fun doing it. The fact is, we’re all jerks if by jerk you mean that we disagree with other people’s point of view or our thinking can be self-serving and inconsistent.

    If you want to be taken seriously as a thinker, you should use a little data to back up your point. Check out the history of major building permits in NYC and include a chart showing where it has been… Check out the power of the real estate industry to get what it wants from the city.

    Data on the first point is easily attainable if you’re interested in reporting fact or writing commentary based on fact.

    The second point would be more nuanced, perhaps requiring a bit more reading, but I can assure you that many people not looking to grind an ax, would come to the conclusion that the real estate industry in New York is extremely adept and maximizing its assets while fighting off fighting the really hypocritical, ferocious, mean, “offensive,” “galling” NIMBYS.

  20. Tom says:

    Sorry, I should have reviewed my comment… I meant, in the last sentence, “the real estate industry in New York is extremely adept AT maximizing its assets while FIGHTING OFF the really hypocritical, ferocious, mean, “offensive,” “galling” NIMBYS.

  21. EngineerScotty says:

    The reason many on the left oppose projects like Brooklyn Yards (and many libertarians as well) have nothing to do with NIMBYism or objections to density–its the eminent domain abuse which I and others find problematic.

    Certainly, you’ll find plenty of NIMBYs among the limousine liberal set. We have ’em here in Portland, too. But not all opposition to proposed development projects springs forth from NIMBYism.

  22. Alex B. says:


    There are all kinds of limitations on development. You only see the towers going up that made it through the ringer.

    Even if the developers win, a long fight only serves to add on more cost to new construction.

  23. Giles says:

    I suppose you already know that there is much more to the controversy over Ratners Atlantic Yards project than an aversion to density. The project was rammed through on the basis of a very flimsy community benefits agreement and without any public review process. Ratner committed to building several residential towers designed by Frank Gehry, but was legally bound to none of it, despite receiving huge tax incentives from the state and city. He has now formally reneged on all of his commitments. The basketball arena will look dramatically different than the proposals that received plaudits from critics (a design by ShoP architects not Gehry, who left the project completely last year). And exactly zero of the surrounding residential towers are going to be built in the next 5 to 10 years. A vast majority of the surface area of Atlantic Yards will be devoted to a parking lot for 500 cars, despite being located to the biggest transit hub anywhere in NY, Manhattan included. In short, it was a boondoggle. Not a good example of NIMBYism at all.

  24. OGT says:

    I think the reason you are destined to lose the larger fight here is apparent in your last paragraph.

    Urban economics is more or less the study of spillover effects, or, externalities, since every development has some tangible effect on its neighbors. Explicit property rights and implicit property rights collide all of the time.

    Every buyer is, in addition, to their own specific property, buying a basket of neighborhood amenities to which they have (or feel they have) quasi-property rights claims. So if current zoning and development means that there is one on street space per housing unit, it is not surprising that neighbors react with ferocity if a new development threatens that quasi-right by changing diluting it. The same with current view sheds and traffic patterns.

    Part of reason we have sub-optimal density is the inability to match the real and perceived costs of new development borne by immediate neighbors, and the gains to new development shared in greater efficiency by the wider area. So I think a quasi-property rights frame is very useful. If some of those implicit rights were made more explicit and tradable, I think we’d actually increase the political support and feasibility of increasing urban density.

    Just whining about NIMBYism won’t do, because those NIMBY’s and many third party viewers believe they are merely protecting their “property” rights. Whether you like it or not.