Confronting NIMBYs by Polling Community Interests

by Spenser Havlick [1] [2]



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog


In 1993, the Consortium hosted its first conference of what was then called the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project.  We invited about twenty five people who had been involved in a variety of challenging local (Boulder, Colorado) conflicts to join us and to present their thoughts about how people in their role could confront those conflicts most constructively. 

This was a reframing of the way we—and most of our colleagues-—used to approach conflicts.  We used to look for ways to resolve them, usually through compromise.  And our activist friends accused us of "selling out."  They didn't want to compromise in order to resolve their conflicts; they wanted to win!  But when we asked how they could confront these conflicts more constructively, they were intrigued and eager to discuss that notion.  They all knew that these conflicts had a tendency to get ugly and destructive. They, too, were interested in exploring better ways of achieving their goals.

Now, 27 years later, we looked back at a few of these presentations and were struck by how relevant they still are today.  So we are re-publishing a number of these talks as blog posts in our Constructive Conflict Initiative Blog. 

People should widen their notion of "their backyard" and make an effort to see how their problems and concerned are shared by others in their neighborhoods and/or wider communities.

The reason we are republishing this article is the idea presented early on, that people should widen their notion of "their backyard" and make an effort to see how their problems and concerns are shared by others in their neighborhoods and/or wider communities. Havlick goes on to discuss how the formation of neighborhood associations could encourage such broadening of views.  I just checked the City of Boulder website, and it seems that some neighborhood associations still exist, but I didn't find evidence of many.  But that's not really the point of interest to me now.  What I particularly like about this presentation is the notion of broadening the concept of one's "backyard" and the importance of working together with others to gain power in local (and wider) decision making processes. 


What would you say if I were to ask you, "What is your backyard?"

What would you say if I were to ask you, "What is your backyard?" My answer to that question would be, "Boulder." The community of Boulder is "my backyard" because I serve this community as a councilman. But other citizens have a much narrower definition of "their backyard."

I have been intrigued over the last decade because, year after year, citizens from different niches and corners of the community come to their elected officials and plead for guidance and for protection of their "backyards." What they are really pleading for is preservation of property value and tranquility, which they thought they had secured when they rented or bought their property. In recent years, with the increasing attractiveness of communities like Aspen, Boulder, Telluride, and Crested Butte, or even more recently towns like Rifle or Carbondale, people are becoming much more protectionist toward property and community. I struggle to deal with this trend at the local level.

About two or three years ago, after receiving ten or fifteen calls a night on different issues, and from various neighborhood associations, I began an experiment. I would say to the callers, "Earlier in the evening I got a call from so-and-so. Have you ever talked to the folks across town? They have the same traffic problem as you do. Have you ever talked to person X, who is proposing an annexation for a new housing complex?" Often their reply would be, "No, we haven't." Then I would suggest that they just chat with the other person(s) about their common problem.  "If two or three of you were to find some common ground, I suggest, then, when you come to the council, you would have a more persuasive point."

Wouldn't you find it somewhat empowering to gather together with others with similar concerns, and when you did find common ground and approach your elected officials and ask for some assistance in a larger sphere?

After people began talking with each other in this way, I would ask them, "Wouldn't you find it somewhat empowering to gather together when you did find common ground and approach your elected officials and ask for some assistance in a larger sphere"? In fact, after six or eight months of trial and error an organization, The Boulder Neighborhood Alliance, was established as a result of this effort. The group worked reasonably well for a short period of time, but when it came to writing by-laws and operating procedures, they found differences, as well as commonalities, which caused some problems.

Splits within neighborhoods also caused difficulty. One neighborhood in Boulder is Mapleton Hill. There was a group dealing with conflicts in one part of that neighborhood that were not of great interest to another part of the neighborhood. Consequently, there was a fracture in the neighborhood group. A vote was taken by the larger group saying that person X could no longer represent Mapleton Hill in the Neighborhood Alliance. Slightly later there was another dilemma. A new land-use conflict occurred in another section of Mapleton Hill and another group began to emerge.

In Boulder we're beginning to see very similar problems in many neighborhoods--increased noise, increased density, LULUs (locally-unwanted-land-uses).  But often people are so intent upon their own vexing dilemma that they forget about the commonality of the issue.

Here in Boulder we are facing a possible moratorium on commercial and industrial building permits.  We are also taking a new look at how to use the last twelve or thirteen hundred acres of land in the immediate service area of Boulder. So, we also have to look at trying to prevent the fracturing of these groups, who have been called together because of their NIMBYs.

Some possible solutions came out of the National League of Cities meeting that I attended in December 1992. During this meeting, there were presentations by people from cities in the United States that had many years of experience with neighborhood organizations. These are cities much larger than Boulder, but there were some interesting models. These cities—Birmingham, Dayton, Portland, Norfolk (VA) and several others—have experience and successful solutions that may be useful to other cities, including Boulder.

Their "alleged" [3] secret to success included the establishment of a city Neighborhood Association Office. The office was said to be successful because it wasn't just some vague person in a planning firm, but an actual office (within the city organization), which serves the neighborhood groups. Portland, Oregon has 89 separate neighborhood organizations; Dayton has 102; Richmond has 67; and Birmingham has 112. The organizations have large budgets. Portland spends $2.1 million on neighborhood associations to make certain that concerns of communities and their backyards do not go unheard.

How did these cities establish legitimate neighborhood groups? There was a consensus from the neighborhood leaders that they all should have the same general by-laws. In other words, they all pick their leadership (officers) in the same way, and they all established similar criteria for their boundaries, most of which were geographic. As a rule, the neighborhood organizations represented from three to eight thousand members. (There weren't three thousand to eight thousand folks participating, but the neighborhoods consisted of up to eight thousand residents.) That seemed to be a critical mass for the recirculation of talent and leadership. It seemed that a geographic area in most of the cases was the commonality that held the groups together--an expressway, a stream, etc.

Another thing that each of these exemplary models had done was to fund a newsletter so that there was a means of communication amongst the residents of that neighborhood area. Also, many neighborhood groups had a council of neighborhood leaders and they actually began to deal with some budget issues such as road improvement, park improvement—investments in the community. All capital improvements were discussed at these association meetings. Ideas were screened, highlighted, and forwarded to their city councils.

I kept wondering which one of these experiments might be adapted and modified for application in Boulder. I think the notion of a city-funded neighborhood assistance office, or neighborhood association office is a viable and useful thing to try. Also, it would be useful to make sure that there is some reasonable mechanism for electing leaders of these neighborhood associations. That magic number of three, four, or five thousand people might fit Boulder quite well. The community might find logical geographic boundaries which can expand citizens' concept of "their backyard" to include their whole neighborhood.

I thought the idea of dealing with budgets was delightful also --some of the lightning and thunder would then be dealt with at the grassroots level. Maybe that would spare council members long evening meetings where neighborhood representatives traditionally come with legitimate concerns. Neighborhood organizations become a more unified voice where there are truly broad issues of concern. As some of you may remember, this concept comes out of the model city program of twenty years ago; one of the tests of success is that they have survived and thrived.

To conclude, we are putting into the current city budget resources to establish a type of neighborhood assistance office. Of course, part of the responsibility for success will lie with the neighborhoods. They will need to develop their own by-laws and find geographic boundaries and leadership. We hope this it will enable Boulder Neighborhood Associations to evolve gently and gracefully and to encompass larger concerns.


[1] This paper, after the introduction, is an edited transcript of a talk given by Spenser Havlick for the Intractable Conflict/Constructive Confrontation Project on April 10, 1993. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium.

[2] NIMBY stands for "Not In My Back Yard."

[3] I say "alleged" because the presenters could have taken poetic license with the term "success"; the neighborhood groups were not there to confirm such successes.