How Online Citizen Engagement Can Turn NIMBY Into YIMBY
NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) is a term used to characterize opposition by residents to nearby projects and developments (e.g. housing, infrastructure, energy, facilities for the disadvantaged, etc.) because of the perceived negative impact. As a result, NIMBYs are often viewed as selfish and/or ill-informed people who only care about their own interests.
On the other hand, people who challenge these projects claim that they are wrongly portrayed as NIMBYs in order to dismiss their concerns, such as decrease in property prices or public safety.
Regardless of which perspective you agree with, these behaviours can be disruptive and cause long-term delays in projects or developments. How can you turn NIMBY to YIMBY — “yes in my backyard”? Here are some ways that online tools can help minimize disruptions, ensure that a diversity of voices are being represented, and make the public engagement process smoother.
1. Find out whether opponents to your project are really NIMBYs
These days, “NIMBY” is frequently used to refer to people who object to development projects or energy projects, but are these disruptive participants truly residents who will be affected? Many controversial projects attract widespread attention, and some of the loudest voices may come from activists, lobbyists, or other special interests who will not personally be impacted by the final decision. So, how do we prioritize feedback from people who actually reside in the area and will have to live with the final decision?
In traditional forms of public engagement, determining where a participant comes from is based upon their self-report and anecdotes. Data collected from online surveys and polls is far less defensible due to the prevalence of ballot stuffing, astroturfing, and other bots which can spoof IP addresses and submit multiple responses.
PlaceSpeak’s unique technology geo-verifies the address of potential respondents before they participate in a consultation. Consultation proponents can define the geographical boundaries of any consultation, and limit participation to people within those boundaries or keep the topic open to anyone. Decision-makers can then ensure that the interests and concerns of people who live or work within the affected area are adequately considered and addressed during the process.
2. Reach out to the silent majority
NIMBYs tend to be vocal in their opposition and make their views heard. Some participants come into the engagement process with pre-existing conceptions and are unwilling to compromise, work with others, or adapt their views based on new information. But how about the rest of the community who may hold moderate or even supportive views? Many people do not feel comfortable participating in traditional public engagement, such as town hall meetings or public hearings, which are often filled with shouting, angry people.
Given that public speaking consistently ranks at the top of people’s fears, such behaviour creates an intimidating atmosphere for the vast majority of residents and deters participation from those who hold less extreme viewpoints. This can be even more challenging for new immigrants or residents who speak a different first language. However, this means that in-person events tend to be dominated by the vocal minority and reflect a very narrow subset of views.
Online means of citizen engagement are convenient and accessible 24/7 for groups which usually do not show up to town halls or public meetings, such as youth, families with children, people with disabilities, people who speak a different first language, and more. By supplementing traditional forms of in-person engagement with online methods, you can ensure that you are hearing from a broader range of voices, including the silent majority who usually don’t turn out.
3. Facilitate deliberation and dialogue, not just knee-jerk reactions
Public meetings are often filled with the “usual suspects” who show up with knee-jerk reactions and shout past one another. It comes as no surprise that the arguments made at public meetings are unlikely to change the minds of participants. In fact, the “boomerang effect” can cause people to double down on their existing views. The challenge becomes even more profound online, where anonymity allows for trolling, spamming, harassment and other negative online behaviour. How do you encourage participants to leave their preconceived notions at the door and become open to dialogue with decision-makers and their fellow community members?
Firstly, try asking questions that encourage the sharing of experiences and provide opportunities for participants to find common ground and co-create solutions. People who are taking the time to participate already have something in common: they care about their communities and want to make an impact. Use that as a good starting point for finding shared values and opportunities for collaboration. Establish clear guidelines for participating and hold people responsible for what they say (i.e. asking them to clarify or elaborate on their position). In addition, consider the importance of curbing anonymous participation, especially online, and being an active moderator on the platform.
For more tips and tricks, read our article on keeping online discussions respectful and productive.
4. Provide ongoing opportunities for engagement
Open and consistent communication is crucial for tackling concerns within the community over proposed projects in the area. As Patrick Condon, Chair of the Urban Design program at UBC, said in our expert Q&A, “What happens in most public processes is that decisions have largely been made by the time they have the public hearing, and therefore all that citizens can do is object.” Repeated experiences with this sort of “public engagement” are likely to cause residents to believe that a pre-determined decision is being pushed onto their community, and distrust the process right from the start.
By involving the public early on and providing multiple opportunities for ongoing engagement, residents feel a greater sense of shared ownership towards the final decision. Consider different ways of getting residents engaged during all phases of the project, such as including them in charrettes, discussion boards/forums for brainstorming or ideation, polls/surveys for collecting large-scale aggregate data, and more. Incorporating opportunities for co-creating solutions shifts the discourse from anger or blame (“I don’t like the look of this new development.”) to compromise and partnership (“Here are some tangible ways in which this development can be improved.”)
At the end of the day, even if the final decision is not one which they personally agree with 100%, they are more likely to recognize that a legitimate process has been undertaken with the community and accept the result.
5. Engage with the public in good faith and build trust in the process
According to a Pew Research Center study, only 39% of Americans believe that elected officials and decision-makers cared about the opinions of citizens — and often, justifiably so. Public consultation is commonly perceived as a sham: people believe that their feedback will have no impact on the final decision. Research has indicated that a key cause of NIMBY attitudes is a lack of trust in the project proponent or sponsor: as long as people fundamentally distrust the process, they will be inclined to oppose any projects that are brought forward.
If residents perceive that the consultation is just for show, and that the decisions have already been made, it will be very difficult for citizens to trust the process. Particularly in communities with a negative history between residents and decision-makers, there cannot be an immediate expectation of trust. It must be earned through repeated positive experiences which demonstrate that decision-makers are actually open to citizen feedback and input. This can be done by creating a safe and transparent environment that encourages participation amongst residents and by closing the loop with effective post-engagement feedback.
Read our article on building trust through legitimate, verifiable citizen engagement.
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To get started with your online public consultation, visit placespeak.com.