Planning Magazine

Saying No to NIMBYs: A Planner’s Guide to Mastering Pushback and Passing Zoning Reform

Here’s how to shut down anti-housing arguments and spark real conversations about policy shifts.

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Engaging with community members on both sides of the issue in ways they relate to is a crucial strategy during zoning reform conversations. Photo by Margaret Barthel/WAMU/

Confronting and combating NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) sentiment has become a necessary part of a planner's job. Alterations to the status quo inevitably bring pushback — whether it's changes to parking codes, commercial districts, or housing — and the structures and rules of local government that planners are bound to follow give local opponents of zoning reform ample airtime and opportunities to plead their case.

Strategic planners can help level the playing field — and create true community conversations around important policy shifts — by following these suggestions.

Seek clarity and focus

Help define the conversation before it begins. The distillation of planning documents down to language devoid of specialist terms and acronyms should be the first part of any public process by planning departments. It's difficult to provide clarity or capture attention with complicated descriptions. The overuse of certain words (such as zoning, multifamily, and density) also may trigger pushback.

But simplicity and clarity are not only about using better word choices but also recognizing the importance of speaking the local language and acknowledging the everyday lived experience, says Taiwo Jaiyeoba, city manager of Greensboro, North Carolina, and former planning director of Charlotte, North Carolina, where he oversaw a successful zoning reform effort. He says that making references to New York City or San Francisco may turn off audiences; they're not those cities, and don't want to be. Show citizens their own streets and districts and exactly how they will be affected by any proposed changes.

In Arlington, Virginia, where new regulations allow duplexes and triplexes in formerly single-family-only neighborhoods, planners led a successful zoning reform effort in part by sharing photos from dozens of Arlington neighborhoods with examples of missing middle housing.

Graphics need to show real impacts on neighbors: where will grandparents age in place, kids play, or consumers shop?

Pictures speak louder than words. When changes can be shown in real ways that people understand, "then, I think it starts to click," planner Nolan Gray, research director for California YIMBY and author of Arbitrary Lines, said during an episode of the APA podcast series People Behind the Plans.

Embrace technology

Countering the views of a small group of detractors means making sure supporters show up. After the pandemic, there's no excuse to not leverage video platforms, online surveys, and other means of engaging outside traditional public meetings. In Charlotte, Jaiyeoba and his team even held a drive-in engagement session during the pandemic to get planning feedback, having vehicles cluster around a stage, listen to a presentation though the stereo, and fill out forms to drop off on the way out.

Rethink the meaning of engagement

Public participation cannot be a bare minimum effort. Jaiyeoba chases engagement, and that means meeting people where they are and talking outside of mandatory meetings and planning processes. Knock on doors, stop by a church or community center, go to a bar — let constituents know you're one of them. That effort can help rally those in favor of reform when the time comes.

Support community organizing

The biggest mistake planners make, says Jaiyeoba, is spending too much time and energy trying to convince NIMBYs to accept something they're dead set against. In Arlington, for instance, NIMBY forces still pursued a lawsuit trying to overrule the change even after losing a three-year zoning reform fight.

Planners should instead focus their creative energy on people who want something different but may not be as loud or persistent. Rallying the emerging YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) and pro-housing contingent, which has an increasingly large, organized political presence across the country, may be key to persevering in a large zoning debate. David Block, a Chicago-area developer and former planner with Evergreen Real Estate Group, says the tools of community organizing are the most effective ones that he has.

"Make the case that this is something we need, this is something that we shouldn't be afraid of, this is something that would benefit the community — and here's why," he says.

While planners need to maintain a credible, neutral public stance and keep debates focused on the facts, Block believes that they shouldn't shy away from being confrontational.

"Where I've found planners to be really valuable is in using their authority as neutral auditors to kind of shut down the worst excesses of the NIMBYs," he says. "If people come out to public meetings, and they're saying things that are just not true, or they are taking a very inflammatory stance, planners can step in and say, 'Wait a minute, that's not right. You're totally exaggerating. Let's get back to facts.'"

As professionals engage in what can often turn into heated conversations, it's important for everyone involved in the process to remember that it's possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

Patrick Sisson, a Los Angeles-based writer and reporter focused on the tech, trends, and policies that shape cities, is a Planning contributing writer.