For the past three decades, YIMBYs and NIMBYs have been fighting pitched battles across the U.S. for the heart and soul of future development, but the housing crisis has only grown worse, especially since the crash of 2008, which changed so many things on the supply side. This was followed a dozen years later by 2020, the strangest year of our lifetimes, which made those supply side challenges even more pronounced. The roots of the problem, however, go back further than that, with mistakes made as long as 75 years ago now being repeated by completely new generations. Failure to understand those errors—and even why they are errors and not good practice—will perpetuate and exacerbate today’s crisis into future generations.
The Original Error
“We have a housing shortage. We need to build a lot more housing fast. This isn’t hard.” Are these present-day words, or post–World War II words? Turns out, they are both. As American industry was retooling from military to domestic development in the aftermath of the war, there was no better battle cry to keep the engines of industry humming at war-effort speed than “we must house our returning heroes.”
There was no disagreement on the goal; the only question was the method. Europeans colonized the North American continent in little more than a century after the Revolution with countless small bands of pioneers, but this time the method was set to emulate the top-down structure of military command and control operating at industrial scale. So the sprawl engines soon began paving subdivisions across farmland, doing what industry does best: making many widgets at high velocity. Only this time, the widgets weren’t weapons or welding machines, they were houses.
And subdivisions carpeting the land with highly repetitive houses were accepted as progress through the 1950s. But in time, people began to question the soulless sameness of sprawl, and by the early ’60s the problem reached pop culture with the folk song “Little Boxes,” which begins, “Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes made of ticky tacky / Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes all the same.” If your methods produce a landscape so boring that you have folk singer critics, that’s a problem.
The Downward Trade
This hot mess was built on the site of Penn Station, one of America’s greatest civic buildings, which was demolished in the name of progress. The station itself was forced underground to make way for Madison Square Garden. Architecture historian Vincent Scully famously wrote, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.” For some time, the question of whether the little boxes of ticky tacky were a good exchange for the forest and farmlands they replaced, but the destruction of Penn Station was iconic in the magnitude of the downward trade from what was lost to what replaced it, and thus galvanized the modern-day American preservation movement.
For the next couple of decades, grassroots preservation organizations sprang up across the country on the powerful conviction that the Industrial Development Complex that emerged after the war had produced an incontrovertible track record of downward trades, rarely building something better than what it replaced. This wasn’t a single moment of national epiphany on the morning the wrecking ball first crashed into Penn Station, because the long history of urbanism around the world was a story of upward trades most of the time. So it took a while for enough people to realize the game had changed for preservation to move from small bands of heroic early preservationists to the point that municipalities realized they needed to establish, and then regulate, historic districts.
The Fallacy of Progress
In those early decades of preservation battles, Industrial Development Complex products were routinely sold as “progress,” because who wants to stand against progress? But progress toward what? And, more important, away from what? Because it’s impossible to determine if the trade is upward or downward if we can’t measure both the value of what we’re gaining and what we’re losing.
Two landmark architects began in the 1970s to crystallize what was being lost: Leon Krier’s “cartoons,” as he calls them, measured every conceivable aspect of Industrial Development Complex at the scale of both urbanism and architecture against the high standards of humanity’s best places and buildings with such clarity that a tribe of architects began to assemble into what became the New Urbanism.
Christopher Alexander’s work of that era set out to rebuild the deep vernacular processes that allowed the townspeople to build better towns than could even be conceived of under the postwar development regime, and while his work continues to inspire architects to this day, his book A Pattern Language inspired a legion of computer programmers, influencing innovations from hypertext transfer protocol (http) to the structure of the World Wide Web (www).
Together, the work of these two giants laid bare the fallacy of progress, exposing the fact that not only is the exchange not an upward one, but that it is often damaging to a wide range of things, from the health of our communities to the health of our own bodies.
The term “NIMBY” originated in 1980 as an acronym for “not in my back yard.” No longer was the fight against downward development trades just a philosophical dispute; “NIMBY” made it personal, and there are no fighters so fierce as those defending their homes. As the movement hardened its tone over time, other variations emerged, such as BANANA (build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything) and CAVE (citizens against virtually everything). And to be clear, the Industrial Development Complex deeply deserved its NIMBYs, because its track record of batting nearly 1.000 on downward trades was by that time incontrovertible.
YIMBY (yes in my back yard) appeared in 1993 as a direct challenge to YIMBYs, BANANAs, and CAVEs because their resistance to almost everything proposed to be built had made upward trades every bit as impossible as downward trades. So at that point, the more extreme NIMBYs deeply deserved their YIMBYs.
NIMBY Objections and Tools
There is no doubt that some percentage of NIMBY protests have been made on the basis of race, class, or other demographic factors, often accompanied by high hypocrisy: the “In our America all people are equal …” sign paired with a “Save our neighborhood … stop rezoning” one is classic. But many NIMBY-opposed projects had no such demographic basis; opposition against such projects seems most often based on the perception of the proposed project as a downward trade from what was previously on the site. Often, the core objection is ugliness.
Racism should obviously have no standing with boards overseeing the debate, but it still sneaks in under cover of “neighborhood safety” and other code-speak implying that those people not like us are likely dangerous to us. And the “not like us” people don’t have to look different; they may only be separated by economic net worth, which means they may be the police and firefighters protecting us, the educators who are teaching our children, or even our adult children who are recent college graduates.
Anything that can be reduced to “aesthetics” has no standing in public debate on a project, so NIMBYs had to find tools that had standing with the boards and commissions. Precious few did; they included density, use-based zoning in general, single-family detached (SFD) zones in particular, floor area ratio (FAR), off-street parking requirements, and traffic impact. So NIMBYs fight their many battles against things they cannot say with a few simple metrics they were allowed to voice. The more extreme NIMBYs, such as BANANAs and CAVEs, oppose almost everything, a highly irresponsible position in places that are growing for many reasons, but chiefly because it forces more new sprawl.
The Fallacy of Metrics
Today, the narratives built around metrics that NIMBYs are allowed to oppose have taken on lives of their own, even though some of the stories were constructed to fight conditions that actually existed a few decades ago, but are very different now. But pain runs long and deep even as the world changes, and healing it is far beyond the scope of this post. But the metrics themselves are not beyond that scope.
Density is chief among the fallacious metrics. For any given density, there are places that are fabulous and places that are wretched. Chicago’s infamous Cabrini Green public housing project (demolished) housed 15,000 people on about 108 acres, for a density of just under 140 people per acre. Pienza, Italy, houses approximately 1,500 residents and guests in its old city, which sits on only 11 acres, for an almost identical density. While Cabrini Green was so bad it was most famous for its rampant violent crime, Pienza is so great that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts thousands of visitors each year.
The only observable density trend is that the most beloved places are somewhat more likely to be either higher-density—such as London, Paris, or Rome in Europe and similar great cities on other continents—or to be lower-density places, like charming country towns the world over. The middle densities of sprawl meet basic needs in efficient fashion, but at the expense of auto domination.
Use-based zoning has a metric of 1, meaning that only one general use is permitted in a zone. And while it’s efficient to develop single-family detached housing subdivisions, shopping centers, office parks, industrial parks, and the like, no other metric is a bigger generator of sprawl, because it forces us to drive everywhere.
FAR is a surrogate metric for density, but like density itself, it tells us nothing about the character of the place. Like Hotel California, “this could be heaven or this could be hell.” Traffic impact is even more indeterminate because it isn’t even based on anything we can see before construction except the report from the “traffic expert.” At their core, metrics can only tell us how big something is, not how good or bad it is.
YIMBY Backlash and Tools
YIMBYs emerged to challenge the ability of NIMBYs to shut down anything for which they had enough passion and resources to oppose. Many valuable places were prevented in the early NIMBY years, and YIMBY advocates set out to turn the tide. Just as the Industrial Development Complex deeply deserved their NIMBYs in the 1980s, the hardened NIMBYs richly earned their YIMBYs by the mid-1990s.
It would have been great to see the YIMBY movement develop an alternative set of tools to oppose NIMBYs, but instead they chose similarly simple metrics. While NIMBYs oppose any change in density, YIMBYs campaign for unlimited density. While NIMBYs stand up for antiquated used-based zoning, YIMBYs call for the abolition of zoning. While NIMBYs seek to preserve huge swaths of America as single-family-detached-only zones, YIMBYs look to abolish single-family-detached-only zones. And on it goes.
Although the YIMBY movement started with a clearer vision of the problems facing American land use, they allowed themselves to get sucked into the same irresponsible, single-minded metrics NIMBYs used to build their movement. To be clear, YIMBYdom isn’t homogenous; there are highly respected authors and content creators producing a lot of useful stuff I support. But I regret that mainstream YIMBYs missed the high road. And “impose no limits on me” has produced some pretty horrific results throughout human history.
YIMBYs and the Housing Crisis
In their rush to combat NIMBYs tit for tat, point for point, YIMBYs blame the housing crisis on NIMBYs’ choice-limitation metrics: density, zoning, parking, etc. But these factors existed decades before the current housing crisis. Yes, they have always been used for racist and classist purposes against those less privileged, resulting in less affordable housing in decent places, but if they were the only factors, the current housing crisis would have begun decades earlier. It didn’t.
So YIMBYs under-reached on tit-for-tat NIMBY points but overreached on the actual causes of today’s housing crisis. To be fair, most YIMBYs agree that it’s a good idea to build as much housing as possible as fast as possible and as inexpensively as possible, which in theory would begin to turn the tide of the housing crisis, but that is not yet happening.
One key is the fact that the towers often celebrated by mainstream YIMBYs tend to work best in places with substantial infrastructure, including good transportation connectivity. Real estate values in such places tend to be high, which doesn’t help the cause of affordability. If you do the math on projects mainstream YIMBYs post daily, it’s clear that most of them are attainable only by the top few percent of American households.
Historic Districts: There are other problems with YIMBY ideology beyond its flawed history and housing crisis views. First, it actively attacks historic districts, which were previous generations’ attempts to preserve the most-loved places in town. Any ideology that attempts to degrade or demolish places people love is flat wrong and should be tenaciously resisted unless what is being proposed is by supermajority community consensus considered more lovable than what will be lost.
Design Review: Design standards outside historic districts are an easier target of the more-faster-cheaper ideology. Design review boards really are arbitrary and capricious far too often. And written design standards run a wide gamut of effectiveness and are usually intended to do little more than preserve the status quo. Architects are right to protest their hands being tied by such documents. The highest standard is design guidance that opens the rationale to each pattern so that everyone can think again, and therefore innovate within the principles of the pattern, but such documents are exceedingly rare at this time.
Missing-Middle Housing: Of all the YIMBY targets, this one makes the least sense. Missing-middle housing can deliver serious affordable density with building types least likely to generate opposition from neighbors. But more extreme YIMBYs will accept limits no lower than towers. Never mind the fact that cities around the world built with a fabric of five-to-seven-story buildings built to the property lines regularly clock in with higher density than skyscraper cities.
Insults and Injuries
Unfortunately, just as NIMBYs have a set of mostly outdated opposition narratives instead of clear-eyed vision as to the best ways to combat downward trades today, mainstream YIMBYs have their own set of narratives about who and what they oppose, such as the targets just mentioned. And for the more combative wing of NIMBYdom, that has degenerated into outright attacks that seem to have more to do with gleefully hurling insults and less to do with affecting actual change.
Here are a couple such attack posts from the past few days: “Does anyone else have this recurring dream where you just airlift an entire apartment building and drop it in your city’s NIMBYest neighborhood?” In other words, repeated dreams about shoving exactly what the neighbors fear right down their throats. “How many times do we have to teach you this lesson old man!? Time to unleash the Great Sunset Skyscraper on San Diego.” This one was illustrated with one of the most out-of-context towers imaginable.
A steady diet of these sorts of attacks, both verbal and actual physical attacks on the structure of a neighborhood by those who insist on zero limitations on their work, will inevitably generate a backlash. Because YIMBYs advocate for more affordable housing in larger quantities, and because they oppose any design-related impediments, they are already known in some circles as the people who are for “lots of cheap, ugly junk.” But the fact is, what they’re getting built isn’t usually that affordable, nor is it anywhere near as tall as the Great Sunset Skyscraper. So the narratives and what usually gets built aren’t in close alignment.
Promises vs. Deliveries
The most profusely delivered buildings so far, especially in terms of total bedrooms produced, are known both by their type—“five-over-ones,” “five-over-twos,” “podium buildings,” “stumpies”—and also by their styles—“developer modernism,” “fast casual,” “Mr. Potato Head architecture,” “boredom boxes,” “ransom-note style”—for the way they splash unrelated elements across the structure (just as ransom notes are made of random letters cut from magazines to prevent tracing).
Stumpies are widely panned when they show up in town. The joke about them is that only the people in the country who love them are the developers and the bankers because they make so much money, and it’s not really a joke because it’s so spot-on. The brilliance of the stumpies is that they’re so boring that they don’t tend to generate the kind of ferocious opposition inspired by hardcore Modernism, so they’re “too dull to reject.” But do we want to see our hometowns transformed into Stumpytowns?
It is excruciating that there’s an obvious process nobody seems to see that could resolve this decades-long agglomeration of placemaking debacles. For starters, stumpies have essentially the same physical envelope as countless Parisian buildings. The only differences are skin deep, where the stumpy skins tend to be more hyperactive compared with the calmer skins of Parisian buildings. Given that revelation, here’s how the process could work.
Industrial Development Complex: Drop the thoroughly debunked narrative that we can’t build places people love anymore because they’re too expensive. They’re not. And the problem is literally just skin deep. For the first time in nearly 80 years, the prevailing trades of existing to new can be mostly upward again, as they’ve been throughout most of human history. This is bona fide good progress.
NIMBYs: Jettison the old, fearful narratives about how every change is a bad change. Get out and see the amazing places people have been built in recent years in spite of you. They do exist. Field trips can be eye-opening. This is not 1980 all over again.
YIMBYs: Ditch the confrontation-first approach and try to inspire better things instead. Some of your own are turning out reams of inspiring content every day; the only problem is that you only have a tiny handful of these colleagues … so far. And especially be sure to get rid of the narrative that your mission is so righteous that nothing can stand in the way of your metrics, especially anything that might be confused with aesthetics. Because that’s an architect-spawned slur against places people love. There are reasons for hope today. See them.
All photos courtesy of the author.