Neutralising NIMBYs

St_Kilda_Triangle_SurroundsThe NIMBY Brigade is a blight on urban civil society. These people have never seen a new development that they don’t oppose, unless it’s a community vegetable garden or possibly a Montessori preschool built from mud bricks (although only if they’re very quiet middle class kiddies whose mothers parents drop them off on foot).

Their opposition to any new development is always couched in impressive-sounding terms: residential amenity, excessive noise and traffic density, streetscapes and shadowing. But the real unspoken reason is always that they have an irrational fear that the development will damage their property values.

In fact, most studies of urban consolidation/densification have shown that it’s a positive for property values, as long as the new buildings are not complete slums and attention is paid by planning authorities to transport, social and environmental factors.

I had all this in mind a few days ago when I penned a brief but indignant letter to the local Northern Territory News. It was published today:

I’m out of sync with the compulsive correspondent zeitgeist.

I support flogging TIO, as long as cyclone surge and proper flood cover at reasonable premiums are made a condition of sale.  Government has no place in the insurance business in a competitive market, especially given that sale qualifies the NT for federal infrastructure funding.

Nor do I see any reason to oppose building high rise apartments in Gardens Hill Crescent.  It’s a perfect inner urban location and “densification” is environmentally desirable if done carefully, whatever the NIMBYs may claim.

The same goes for Noonamah Ridge.  One acre blocks are still rural residential and may help achieve more reasonable land/housing prices.

It may cause the odd problem with the ageing hippies on Jen’s and my Facebook friends list, but you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

The Gardens Hill Crescent high-rise apartment development site really IS just about as appropriate a site for residential densification as you could possibly imagine. It’s walking distance from the CBD, about 100 m from the six lane Stuart Highway where buses pass every five minutes or so, and only a couple of blocks away are the Darwin Botanical Gardens and Mindil Beach foreshore reserve. What’s more, the street is hardly a quiet, pristine urban enclave; the proposed development site is a vacant lot right next door to the Channel 9 Television Studios and the entire other side of the road is occupied by commercial and light industrial buildings.

In a wider sense, Darwin actually needs more development and growth. The population of Greater Darwin currently sits a touch above 150,000 people, isolated on Australia’s north coast. We really need a population of around twice that number to have a critical mass that would make a whole range of businesses and industries viable, cut shipping and transport costs and lots of other advantages. That’s why governments of both political persuasions have sought to encourage development, sometimes by hare-brained schemes that have crashed and burned spectacularly. But the principle is a good one, even if the execution has often been lacking. We should certainly give the NIMBY mob a respectful hearing, because on odd occasions they really do have a point. But in Darwin the prima facie/default position should always in my view be support for development rather than knee-jerk opposition.[1. I’m not suggesting that it should be open slather for high rise development in any area of any suburb.  There are lots of quiet suburban streets and precincts where it really would be inappropriate.  But in inner urban areas like Larrakeyah (where we live now), Stuart Park, parts of Parap and northern suburbs like Nightcliff and Casuarina there is no sensible reason to oppose high rise.  They are already relatively high density and well able to cope with further densification because they have good transport links, roads, shopping facilities and community infrastructure. Some densification should be facilitated even in quieter suburbs, with dual occupancy and rezoning for duplex development readily permitted.]

Unlike older and more established cities like Melbourne, there isn’t much built heritage to protect in Darwin. Just about everything was destroyed either by World War II bombing or Cyclone Tracy; and most of what was left up until fairly recently was flimsy and shoddily-built anyway (or built like a bomb shelter in the case of development straight after the Cyclone) and not worth preserving. Darwin is a much more attractive, orderly and congenial city today than it was when I arrived here at the beginning of 1983, when it was still a ramshackle post-cyclone boomtown/sh*thole. Some old-timers still reminisce about those times and earlier as “the good old days”, but personally I can’t see it.

Even in Melbourne, where many buildings have a provenance and the notion of a streetscape isn’t a complete joke, the NIMBY brigade is still a menace. I was reminded of that just a couple of days ago when I read a beautifully written article by Helen Razer reminiscing about St Kilda in the context of ageing rock legend Tex Perkins announcing that he was standing as an Independent candidate for the local seat in State Parliament on a single issue platform of “Save the Palais”:

I visit St Kilda now chiefly for shows at the Palais Theatre by the bay, and last time I saw the overture to a drug or sex exchange in its ugly car park. I remember thinking here was the most successful and enduring business conducted on the site. At about the time I left the neighbourhood for good, plans for the so-called Triangle Development had animated the suburb’s stony faces. None of them wanted change to the foreshore. Save for the scars of a few commercial fires, there were no changes. All business in St Kilda’s foreshore triangle, save for drugs and sex, remained static.

Tex wouldn’t need to stand for Parliament if the NIMBY mob hadn’t sabotaged the Triangle Development project. It included a stipulation that the developer must restore and maintain the Palais. Tex could be doing what he does best, bathing in the adoration of his equally ageing fans and doing occasional tasteful Johnny Cash covers.[2. I wrote a post some years ago where I was fairly negative about the urban design theories of Richard Florida: “I can’t help thinking it has something to do with the fact that Florida’s shtick panders to the desires and prejudices of the chattering classes. He reckons the “creative class” needs lots of cheeky little trattorias, art galleries, al fresco dining with great lattes, superb theatre, and a generally “gay friendly” and “bohemian friendly” ambience.”  Nowadays Jen and I live in just such a “creative class” paradise (St Kilda) when in Melbourne, and we find it very congenial.  A city’s inner suburbs should be like that, with other densified areas studded along heavy rail transport corridors in larger cities.  Quarter acre block suburbia and rural residential areas are also lifestyle choices people should have, but planning authorities should not be required to take too seriously any objections from NIMBY types against development in areas patently suitable for densification.]

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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7 years ago

Just to show that NIMBYism isn’t purely a phenomenon of the developed world, I saw this morning in one of the leafier suburbs of Asuncion, Paraguay, banners expressing the locals’ opposition to multi-storey buildings in their area.

To put this in some perspective, three or four kilometres down the road, on the lawns across the street from the Congress building, you will find a (officially sanctioned as I understand it) refugee camp of plywood shacks containing people still unable to return to their homes after the disastrous floods mid-year, which displaced – depending on whose figures you believe – 10-20% of the city’s population.

jenny mcculloch
jenny mcculloch
7 years ago

I always wonder who lives in all those buildings – I can’t see them on the street.

I am still Not Trampis
I am still Not Trampis
7 years ago

NIMBYism can only work if the pollies think most of the populous thinks as they do.

If they only represent a small amount of people then they could not succeed.

I think what Ken is riled about is that the NIMBYies are much better organised and succeed.

That’s politics Ken.

Organise against them

7 years ago

In Newcastle NIMBYS agitate over coal dust blowing into their houses. The EPA monitored the dust at the track and didn’t find any but NIMBYS say it is carried downwind, away from the site.

Tangled up and by debate Newcastle voted in a progressive Mayor and progressive State members (ie progressive as in prodevelopement ) but it all went pear shaped when ICAC came to town.

Here is one story from ICAC, that of Jodi McKay.

7 years ago

I agree with the need to push our population up, although 350,000 would be better. Within urban anthropology & planning circles that’s the identified figure at which population turnover drops sharply as professional/trades classes stop coming and going. (The greatest benefit would be if the population was spread between Darwin, Palmerston and Darwin Rural.)

I favour the Gardens Hill Crescent development as well (Stuart Park needs it desperately, but mainly in the form of renewal – replacing old apartment blocks with new). But you’ll never win the argument with NIMBY’s, so why bother? They oppose all development, whether it be the kind of ‘good’ development they’d identified prior as needed/appropriate, or not. The Darwin isthmus is turning into a bit of highrise residential park though. I don’t have anything against it but as the one city in Australia where we still have a attitude of ‘can’ rather than ‘cannot’ it’s a pity we aren’t pushing the design boundaries a bit more.

I always favour utility over appearance but we’re not building anything that special. The greenery, weather, landscape and people are what stands us apart but at the street level; design is pretty FAQ. I’ll defend vehicle access to the CBD to the death, but equally I’d like to see more use of interesting walkways and lighting. (The path up from Deckchair, the walkway down McMinn from Bennett to Stokes Hill Rd, and the ramp from Hughes Ave to the top of the Waterfront lift are all good – but only a start.) And if ChinaTown ever rises again I’d hope we’d have the sense to legislate it comes with laneways. Nothing is more attractive in the inner-city than a warren of good laneways.

The Palais in Melbourne is an interesting case. The local council put up scaffolding recently as a political act rather than due any danger of bits of the building falling off. It needs work but nowhere near what is claimed in $ terms. St Kilda (like a lot of the Melbourne urban landscape) is simply a blight. It’s ugly, difficult to get round and there’s really not much there. A couple of coffee/restaurant strips, an art house cinema, Luna Park, the Espy and the Palais. It’s a lot quieter than most people are aware, particularly at night.