How I stopped being an incidental NIMBY and started living my values

This is a guest post by my wife, Danielle. If you’d like more Ann Arbor City Council content, you should check out the a2council tag here.

I moved with my parents to Ann Arbor in the mid-80s when I was just three years old. I attended Northside, King, Clague, Huron, and U-M. I have been a U-M employee for the past 17 years. Several years after college, I married my high school boyfriend who had bought a house in ward 4—the same house we live in together today. I guess you could say these are my townie credentials. I mention them because they inform how I saw—and now see—this great little city of ours.

Here’s my confession: I was a NIMBY1. Not on purpose. I had never even heard the term until a couple of years ago. But, I was one.

I liked Ann Arbor how it was because, you know, it was the Ann Arbor I had grown up in. I didn’t want new buildings or roads. Even as a teenager planning to go to U-M, I didn’t like move-in week or football traffic. Yes, I was cranky beyond my years, but the point is that I was resistant to change and only thinking of my own immediate convenience.

I barely thought about my NIMBY-ism. I was busy with my life and would occasionally just remark “ugh, another luxury apartment building for students going up on campus” or “I hate traffic, I hate parking” or “tearing down old things is a shame.”

When my husband was adamantly opposed to a ballot proposal to make a small (unfunded) park in downtown Ann Arbor instead of the multi-use building for which the space was intended, I didn’t get it. I said something like, “more people would mean more traffic.” And that was the first time anyone pushed me to think about whether I was being consistent with my own values—and whether I actually understood the consequences of my simplistic and reactionary opinions.

If you had asked me at any point, “Do you think people of all income levels, ages, and abilities should be able to live and thrive in Ann Arbor?” I would have said, “yes, of course I do!”

If you had asked me, “Do you really think a community that never progresses can somehow stay wonderful?” I would have said, “no, of course not.”

And if you had asked me if I knew the first thing about how market-rate and subsidized housing, land use, transportation, and climate change were all intertwined and the unanticipated consequences of my NIMBY reflexes, I would have said—and did say—“I have no idea.”

Once I started to learn, started to talk to knowledgeable urban planners, started to think not only of the Ann Arbor I knew but the Ann Arbor I could know in the future, I let go of nostalgia, selfishness, and knee-jerk reactions. I asked better questions about the real impact of housing and transportation decisions. I became more grateful that this world-class university that gave me a great education and a fulfilling career continues to flourish in my backyard. I stopped thinking about what I’d lose and started thinking about what all of us could gain.

Here are some of the ways I reconsidered my stance:

  • I will never again take the university for granted. Sure, there are a lot of students and people coming to work every day, but on the other hand, there are a lot of students and people coming to work every day! That’s a great thing. U-M fills this city with interesting, diverse, brilliant people and lands opportunity right on our doorstep. Sometimes it will be an inconvenience (like on 8 Saturdays each fall) but the jobs, arts and culture, and medical care accessible to us more than outweigh any inconveniences.
  • The students need someplace to live, and large apartment buildings right on campus are exactly where they should live. Build up, not out, so that students are close to everything they need and surrounding areas can remain permanent resident neighborhoods. And we can employ “gentle density” principles in our neighborhoods, like allowing townhouses, duplexes, and mixed-use buildings; one thing that excites me about “gentle density” is that it leads to vibrant, practical communities in which there are more shops, restaurants, services, and workplaces located in proximity to people’s homes (think of Kerrytown as an example).
  • Everyone wants great stuff but very few people want higher taxes, which means we need to grow our tax base with new residents. Also, it is impractical to think that we can build enough low-income or publicly-owned housing to have that be our only strategy out of this housing crunch. For these reasons, I changed my mind about new development projects in the city.
  • Not everything that is built is going to be exactly what I would have designed, but if it safely houses more people it’s a win. I live close to an apartment complex that took a long time to build, called The George. Sentiment about this building is divided but did you see what was there before? It was an abandoned strip mall on a brownfield. Now people live there and there’s a dog park and a playground. It’s on a bus route. What more could I ask for? Sure, my favorite urban architecture is Haussmann-style Paris but it doesn’t have to be my favorite architecture ever to still be an improvement. (Historical sidenote: Paris had a lot of NIMBYs in the 1800s with one legislator saying, “We weep with our eyes full of tears for the old Paris, the Paris of Voltaire, of Desmoulins, the Paris of 1830 and 1848, when we see the grand and intolerable new buildings, the costly confusion, the triumphant vulgarity, the awful materialism, that we are going to pass on to our descendants.”)
  • More housing does not necessarily mean more cars, particularly when we build on transportation corridors. Many more people come in to the city for work each day than leave it. If there were available housing, many people would choose to live closer to their places of work. Additionally, we need to keep building infrastructure for safe biking and walking—in addition to supporting public transportation—so that these are viable methods of travel.

If you’re ready to hold a mirror up to your own inner NIMBY, I want to encourage you to do it! There are tons of patient, knowledgeable, nonjudgmental people who can help you think about what Ann Arbor needs to do to grow sustainably. They will fill you with optimism for the future of our city and you will be able to see how living your values can manifest the kind of city we can all love.

To start, this August, join me in voting in favor of the bus millage and supporting these great candidates to lead our city: Mayor Taylor, Cynthia Harrison (Ward 1), Chris Watson (Ward 2), Ayesha Ghazi Edwin (Ward 3), Dharma Akmon (Ward 4), and Jenn Cornell (Ward 5).

  1. NIMBY stands for “Not In My Back Yard”. According to Oxford, a NIMBY is a person who objects to the siting of something perceived as unpleasant or hazardous in the area where they live, especially while raising no such objections to similar developments elsewhere. ↩︎