ACTION | Yes to Yimbys in my backyard

Posted on 13/03/2010

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Australia’s population is growing and our cities will particularly need to adapt to accommodate much of this increase. Population is a hot topic in Australia, anticipating projected population increase from the current 22 million to 35 million in 2050, and specifically in South East Queensland which is the fastest growing region in the country. Recently, I attended a forum featuring the Premier Anna Bligh, Brisbane City Lord Mayor Campbell Newman, Sunshine Coast Mayor Bob Abbott and Social Scientist/Academic Brendan Gleeson in discussion about population growth. There were no surprises here as the discussion focused on statistics and projected population increases and wafted into some commentaries about population policy and issues associated with carrying capacity. When question time came around, the audience had its turn with some fear mongering about environmental impacts, population caps and unsustainability. However, there are other issues, such as climate impacts, to consider on how to plan and design these growing cities.

Successive media reports have clearly indicated that there is anxiety in the community about population growth. So I wanted to spend some time thinking about population and cities without any pretence of having anything meaningful to offer in this debate. Given some of the commentaries heard at the forum, population growth has the potential to spark a hysterical epidemic, an idea drawn from Elaine Showalter. So, with the Queensland Growth Management Summit scheduled for the end of this month, many questions emerge about how this whole debate might unfurl despite the earnest efforts of politicians, public servants and experts drawn from a range of sectors.

A recent article, Signs of the Times, in the Courier-Mail’s QWeekend magazine supplement discussed a range of protest and resident action groups. In it Trent Dalton pens a rather frustrated response to the pace of change and the perception that we pay a handsome price – ecologically, socially and financially – for that change. He canvasses the types of issues that community action groups are championing, including opposition to social and affordable housing. Communities seem to feel like they are at war with the political and governmental interests that are driving change; the distrust is palpable. With an estimated 55,000 people moving to South East Queensland every year, there is significant population pressure. In four decades, according to Dalton, 4 million people will be living in the region. Residents opposing community housing are concerned about the ‘wrong sort of people’ moving into their area. The fighting continues across the city: opposition to highrise, opposition to bus depots etc. I’m also not suggesting for a minute that these causes are not worth fighting for, with the exception of the housing in a region that is experiencing a shortage of housing generally and a dearth of affordable housing options. Other signs of general unrest about population growth were evident on a recent episode of Insight. In a By Design (Radio National) interview urbanist Michael Sorkin also considered the prevalence of an oppositional culture in New York where one of the ways people can engage planning and other public processes is by their power to say no. He speculates that there must be ways to activate a more positive way of planning the environment.

Obviously something has gone awry with consultation, governance and engagement processes, which residents dismiss as meaningless box ticking. People seem to steer clear formal processes, disbelieving the negotiation process and the possibility of having their voices heard (one of the pillars, I believe, of a social inclusion agenda). Instead, they take it to the media and the political realm. The citizenry (let’s not get warm and woolly by evoking ‘community’) is only invited into the discussion via choreographed, indeed silencing, means. They are rarely involved in the process of negotiating development and planning as an equal partner in that process rather than have proposals just cast into their midst for comment. Where processes of consultation  ultimately silence citizens, there has to be some expectation that opposition will bubble out by other means. However, in that incendiary silencing,  support for some proposals, like affordable and social housing or increased density, is also quietened. And in so doing the fluidities of what it means to live in a city, what it means to develop practices of the city/urbanism and what it means to cultivate urbanisms are lost – all that is left for people is to refuse. However, let’s be clear this is no argument for sacking the environment and the heritage of people and place.

Having seen groups opposing social and affordable housing emerge in my own locality, I had wondered if there were alterative modes of citizenship that weren’t so bogged down in self-interest and preserving the status quo. These groups might be referred to as Nimbys, a naming convention, almost an accusation, I don’t really like but one that sometimes seems apt. A few months ago I learned about Yimbys – the antithesis of Nimbys – as a groups of residents who are vocal in their support of contentious developments, social diversity and change (Yimby means ‘yes in my backyard’ indicating a willingness to embrace and negotiative change). I find this fascinating and started looking for Yimby activity in Brisbane and other parts of Australia, where communities and groups are self-organising and endeavouring to constructively engage with the development, renewal or redevelopment process. In other parts of the world Yimby groups have cropped up, as articulations of an adaptive drive, to support affordable and social housing, alternative energy generation and other developments that can have positive environmental, employment and social impacts. There are also Yimby movements supporting nuclear power plants (and I am informed this often relates to the need for employment in isolated communities, so this indicates potential for co-option).

There is clearly some panic around population growth and the aging population. The Federal Government’s Intergenerational Report 2050 makes for some sobering reading on that front. Obviously, the development industry will always advocate for more development, including that most unsustainable of all, low density suburban development, on fairly spurious grounds. The Queensland Growth Management Summit is big on big names from a variety of sectors and perhaps some type of grassroots response is warranted, a process that involves citizens as advocates or champions in their local communities and networks. Perhaps a Yimby movement around population growth needs to be cultivated and address alternatives to the wall builders who call for population caps and family size regulation. For me, the problem isn’t population per se but rather our excessive consumption and production, our waste of resources (including land) and our reliance on continual growth to drive the economy. Finding the ways we can accommodate this population seems to be a better course of action than simply raising the drawbridge or opening the floodgates in the name of protecting unsustainable lifestyles and greed.

Some international Yimby activities worth looking up:
http://www.livableplaces.org/news/yimby.html
http://www.walkablestreets.com/yimby.htm
http://www.epath.org/yimby/index.php

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