a stone in the backyard: what NIMBYs have to teach us about hospitality


Is a politics of hospitality possible? I believe so, if the relationship to the home is clearly defined, even if this means dismantling the belief that our home is our castle. In this context, the analysis of NIMBY movements and reactions to them provide an excellent starting point. What do we hope to achieve by opposing local residents who refuse point blank to live alongside undesirable social groups?

Let me begin with two personal examples. In March 1998, I began sharing a flat with two friends at 30 rue Beaurepaire, in the 10th arrondissement in Paris. Along the street, at n° 9, a community centre offering services to drug addicts was being set up. The centre was facing local opposition. Local residents rallied together to delay the opening of the centre. Hostile banners hung from windows along the street, proclaiming “No to the centre.” Other residents supported the centre and made their opinions known in the same way: “Yes to the centre.” We proudly hung out a banner: “We’re proud of the centre”.

April 2002. For several months, anti-crack campaigners had been targeting the streets around the Stalingrad metro station in the 19th arrondissement to rid the area of the drug dealers and addicts who were its scourge. Local fathers got together to walk the streets, talking to addicts, trying to persuade them to make a fresh start and to move on from the area. Addicts were offered free metro tickets to get them out of the area. Several of us from the AIDS charity Act-Up were exasperated by this paternalistic approach. We put out a poster expressing our irritation, Stalingrad, not Vichy, referring to France’s repressive wartime government. Other local residents, equally exasperated by the Anti-Crack Collective, joined us to form a association called Stalingrad Quartier Libre.

So, twice now I have found myself fighting local residents’ hostility to the presence of drug addicts. The instinctive belief which drove me remains intact. Their kind of activism is intolerable. But nowadays my belief is tinged with unease — a feeling that doubtless comes with tenuous victories. The centre in rue Beaurepaire did eventually open, but its presence is wretchedly discreet. And although the Anti-Crack Collective was disbanded at the end of 2002, petitions have been doing the rounds around Stalingrad again in the last few weeks. However, what concerns me is not so much the uncertain outcome of the battle, as the lack of transparency of its aims. What did we really hope for, apart from defeating our adversaries? For while it is clear that inhospitality is abhorrent — especially when demanded as a right — it is far from certain that rejecting inhospitality is a solid enough basis for a new politics of hospitality.

Neither the activism of local residents, nor the antagonistic reactions they aroused, were new. An acronym was created to refer to them — usually disparagingly: NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard”. The term, used extensively in the United States and currently taking hold in France, is used to refer to a range of types of activism in which local inhabitants group together to protest against a nuisance that might potentially lower the use or exchange value of property in the neighbourhood. The nuisance might be a new railway line, a proposed shopping centre, a prison, low-cost housing, a mobile phone mast, or an electricity pylon. Or it could be a hostel for addicts, an asylum centre, or the presence of sex workers or homeless people. It is a blunt, catch-all label, whose shortcomings are immediately apparent. But this makes it all the more useful, as by analysing its presuppositions, we will come closer to clarifying our own.

which NIMBYs?

While the history, meaning, and use of the term NIMBY remain unclear, even in the many scientific publications on the subject, some reasonably firm hypotheses can be drawn [1].

The origin of the term is clear. It came, as might be expected, from the United States. It actually originated in a very specific context, coming into use in the late 1970s among town planning professionals, including architects, builders, civil engineers, town planners, and consultants, whose projects met with unexpected local resistance. When the word first appeared, such protests were not new. Nor were they unique to America. In France, the expansion of the railway network in the early 20th century led to significant protests, as did the construction of hydro-electric dams after 1945 — but in vain. However, the term NIMBY was new in that it referred to a specific political context. It was used to disparage the opposition faced by such projects. It was frequently used in the expression “NIMBY syndrome” as a means of suggesting an unhealthy obsession on the part of the protesters, although it in fact tells us more about those using the label. In fact, such disparaging terms came into use because grassroots resistance movements were becoming increasingly difficult to defeat. The term NIMBY is really an expression of astonishment by those in authority, when they discover to their surprise that they must once more govern after long believing they could get away with simply administering.

Since then, the term has spread to Europe and Australia and has been used in other fields. Politicians swiftly adopted it as an ideal vindication of their vocation to serve the common good over and against short-sighted local interests. It also effortlessly moved from the field of power to that of research, when, in the 1980s, researchers and then journalists found it to be a convenient explanation for many types of social behaviour and conflict. It explained that people are both rational and stupid. They consider both the benefits and the costs in weighing up a new development. But the costs, or nuisances, are more readily apparent than the benefits, and are also less evenly shared. To gain support for a project, people must either be given further information or granted compensation.

As the term spread, it gave rise to alternatives. On the one hand, the array of disparaging terms has expanded, with the NIMBY’s urban cousins, the NOOS (Not On Our Street), the die-hard NODAM (No Development After Mine), the CAVE (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) and their political counterpart the NIMEY (Not In My Electoral Yard or Year). On the other hand, terms representing the opposite attitude have emerged. In the United States and the United Kingdom, planners encourage and even undertake the organisation of YIMBY groups (Yes In My Backyard). In the Netherlands, local councils have planned entire urban redevelopment programmes called WIMBYs (Welcome In My Backyard). These aim to prove that negotiating the acceptance of huge urban redevelopment projects is in the general interest, attracting both investments and employment. Meanwhile, NIMBYs reject accusations of self-centredness. They call themselves NIABYS (Not In Anybody’s Backyard), NOPES (Not on Planet Earth), LULUs (Locally Unadapted Land Use), or BANANAS (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). They claim that by fighting for their own interests, they are defending the common good.

This transformed the attitude of researchers. Having contributed to the naturalisation of the term used in polemical contexts, scientific studies began to undertake a critical analysis of it. In France, since the late 1990s, it has mainly been studied from two perspectives. On the one hand, it has been seen as a case study for the imperative of legitimacy that weighs on political movements, that must become more general in order to create a “cause” to be defended. On the other hand, it has also been seen as an indicator of the transformation of modes of conflict resolution. Researchers have focused on the way public authorities learn (or fail) to overcome their own annoyance against the resistance they meet. By objectivizing NIMBYs as a category, both approaches tend to redeem their subjects. They are no longer a group of selfish people reacting to a single stimulus, but organised activists putting forward a set of arguments. They are not blinkered local residents, but experts in the art of citizenship.

A final point to note is that the NIMBY category has diversified. As we have seen, in addition to movements opposed to industrial infrastructures likely to have a negative environmental impact, such as railway lines, pylons, waste disposal sites, and so on, it now includes movements objecting to services likely to attract “undesirable” social groups, such as tents for the homeless, social housing, centres for those living with HIV, and so on. When did the term expand to include such protests? No available research addresses this question. This is unfortunate, for two reasons.

First, thus expanded, the NIMBY category — already extremely varied — splits apart. When researchers suggest a way of organising its diversity, they classify NIMBY movements either by the nature of the conflict or the way they are regulated, but never according to their object. However, it is clear that it is inappropriate, both objectively and politically, to equate the inhabitants of a village mobilized against EDF Energy and the residents of a tower block clamping down on crack addicts, or movements that target machinery and those aimed at people — groups which oppose nuisances perpetrated by objects and groups that reify people and label them as detrimental.

Secondly, the two parts on either side of the split are not of equal size, in terms of the attention focused on them and the treatment they are subjected to. On the one hand, when researchers explore the processes by which NIMBYs are stripped of their legitimacy, they limit their research to the first type of NIMBYs (which I refer to as “environmental”), without ever specifying whether their conclusions might not also be true for the second type (which I refer to as “residential”), mentioned only in passing. Similarly, the national newspapers tend to refer to the first type of movement in terms of the environmental cause, keeping the NIMBY label specifically for cases of rejection of social proximity.

This elegant division of labour misses the point that is of most interest to us: an analysis of how inhospitable residents become the object of disparagement. This is a personal loss, as the knowledge could have led to a process of self-analysis. But it is also a loss for research, as this analysis could shed light on the specificity of the second type of conflict with regard to the first. The tensions do not play out solely on a vertical axis from authorities to residents, but also on a horizontal axis opposing not only residents and undesirable groups, but also inhospitable and hospitable citizens. This is the space of urban hospitality. We shall now try to frame it.

what hospitality?

NIMBY movements of local residents are not simply the flip side of a politics of hospitality, they are the trap it conceals. NIMBYs hold a broken mirror to those who confront them, reflecting two different aspirations for urban hospitality. The first model is based on an analogy with private hospitality, while the second rejects this analogy. Both are ambiguous.

When opposing people whose sense of belonging leads them to refuse others the right to settle in their area, the first option is to remind them that we belong as much as they do, and that we are no less entitled to open the door than they are to close it. In short, saying “yes” as stubbornly as they say “no.” In other words, adopting the acronym WIMBY — which I think I prefer to YIMBY — and obstinately refusing to let go. At a more fundamental level, this means claiming the local patch as “home”. Although this immediately rings alarm bells, let’s not pass judgement for a moment or two.

After all, what’s wrong with that? Claiming some kind of belonging does not necessarily mean a deep-rooted sense of ownership. Doesn’t claiming a sense of belonging as part of a social struggle defuse the notion of ownership and transform it into support? And is it really so unworthy just because it is archaic? Is it not precisely this kind of infra-political ground that creates both an instinct for the intolerable, and the strength to resist it? The strength of the movement that organised the petitions against the Debré law, whose first article stated that people housing foreigners must declare them to the authorities, makes the question necessary. The movement was entirely founded on an unconditional refusal to allow a third party, even a representative of the law, to prevent people from welcoming guests to their home.

And yet, for several reasons, the issue is problematic. 1) Because the figurative “home” of WIMBYs is not the literal “home” of the petition’s signatories — in fact, it is not a “home” at all, either in law (as we shall see), or in fact: if you doubt this, try to sleep outside in the street tonight and see what happens. 2) Because this conception of urban hospitality, copied from private hospitality, concedes the essential arguments of the NIMBYs: the guest remains an outsider who is not at home, and who must therefore behave and should not outstay his welcome. 3) Because it places the host in a position of charity, which may be quite appropriate in a private context — it is perfectly allowed to be nice, or even Christian — but which teeters on the verge of paternalism or mere conscience-assuaging when it becomes the principle behind an intervention in an urban context. 4) Because the support it provides to WIMBYs is not as solid as it might appear at first. In the city — the prime site of social differentiation — the positions of insider and outsider are in fact the two end of a continuum, with a whole gamut of intermediary situations. By claiming local resident status, the WIMBY lays himself open to defeat: he will always find people who have been resident for longer, and thus less open to accusations of being just a temporary resident; likewise, he will always live a little further away than someone else from the point at the heart of the dispute. 5) Because in emotional terms, the claim to a “home” is not — and this is its main limit — the sole preserve of a kind of delight in urban living that I believe is at the heart of the anger that drives people to oppose NIMBYs.

The second option is to break the symmetry, doing away with any claim to residency, denying it to the adversary and forbidding him to expropriate a common space. That is what I think actually makes NIMBYs so despicable. If there is such a thing as a syndrome of residential NIMBYism, it is not defined by its localism, nor its indifference to public interest. Struggles are always defined by a locality and are always collectively self-interested. Nor is it in itself the confusion it creates between private and public spaces: why should local residents not act as citizens, and vice versa? The beauty of feminism, for example, lies in the way it refused to leave issues of gender at the boundary of public space. No, if there is such a thing as “residential NIMBY syndrome”, it is to be found in its claim to regulate public space as its own private, domestic space. The group of anti-crack fathers in Stalingrad represents the crowning moment of this attitude.

In this context, residential NIMBYism should not so much be compared to environmental NIMBYism as to other urban practices which extend the private space of the home to the streets. The indoor public spaces in Los Angeles represent a radical form of this practice [2], while the perfect continuity between interior and interior in “bourgeois” neighbourhoods is a more discreet example of the same phenomenon. Isaac Joseph, a leading urban sociologist, gives in La Ville sans qualité what is probably the clearest definition of the politics of hospitality, highlighted by the contrasting example of such privatisations of public space: “to emphasise the qualities of accessibility of urban spaces, as opposed to values of expropriation associated with residential spaces”. The idea is to make the city the place where Kant’s “right to visit” comes to fruition — a right he describes in his Essay on Perpetual Peace as “the right that a foreigner has, on arrival on others’ territory, not to be treated as an enemy”, “the right that any man has to put himself forward as a member of society.” The statement is powerful. It is not without flaw. I can point to three at least. First, it represents the politics of the passer-by. To a great extent, this is what makes it so powerful, since it links the demand for accessibility to the specific experience of the city: not the fact of residing there (people also “reside” in the country, and maybe even better), but the “co-presence of moving bodies within the same space of circulation”. However, this is also what lays it open to empirical objections. The few studies that provide data on the experiences of protagonists involved in NIMBY conflicts suggest they owe much to the co-presence of groups that are socially and spatially immobilised. For example, in the northern suburbs of Paris, such groups include middle and upper-middle class families who recently moved in, but are trapped by the fluctuating housing market, working class families whose only chance of housing is in dilapidated tower blocks, immigrants living in hostels, and squatters presenting a show of family respectability to escape eviction [3].

The argument cannot, however, be turned round. Residential NIMBYs also demand that public spaces be accessible. They readily complain when young people expropriate the streets to play games, drug addicts and dealers use it as their market, immigrants use it as a community space, sex workers as a workplace, or the homeless as a place to live.

At least, the issue is getting a little clearer. How can we split political hospitality off from the model of domestic hospitality, without reducing it to the right to mutual indifference in public spaces? It would be absurd to give a single, global answer to this question. However, it seems to me in the light of such a question that the demand for and defence of places open to all by opponents to the NIMBYs seem even more justified. Demanding that a part of the public space be allocated to people rejected by others avoids the dual trap of domesticisation (since it is public space) and negligence (since it means at the very least organising a safe place). This is true on the understanding that this is not simply a way of managing nuisances that have proven impossible to get rid of. For example, in 1997, WIMBYS in Eindhoven accepted the opening of a support centre for drug addicts, but subjected their agreement to so many security guarantees, such as surveillance, lighting, an emergency hotline, and instant recording of complaints, that their hospitality does not appear to its best advantage. The limits of such spaces must therefore be outlined more precisely, more in ethical than in architectural terms.

I shall describe two of them. At Espoir-Goutte d’Or (rue Saint-Luc, 18th arrondissement), a neighbourhood charity founded in 1987, social workers and local volunteers offer a “welcome with no pressure or judgement” and advice on social and health issues to drug addicts and anyone who asks for help. The Petite Rockette squat (rue Saint-Maur, 11th arrondissement), which opened in October 2005 in a building left vacant by the Ministry of Finance, is an “autonomous, temporary, self-administered zone” where people can stay a few nights, learn to be computer literate, get after-school support, rehearse a performance, share a workshop, or find a doctor. Both are vulnerable. NIMBYs recently prevented the first from moving to premises nearby. The second is illegal and, as such, could be evicted at any moment. Both are open to their local neighbourhoods. The first could not have opened or survived without local support, while the second was “reclaimed” by local residents. Both are full of life. The first is tiny and bursting at the seams, the second is huge, with people everywhere. Both are deeply moving. We feel a sense of grateful self-consciousness there, and suddenly we understand that we are being given a taste of hospitality.


[1J. Lolive, “La montée en généralité pour sortir du NIMBY. La mobilisation associative contre le TGV Méditerranée”, Politix 39, 1997. A. Jobert, “L’aménagement en politique ou ce que le syndrome NIMBY nous dit de l’intérêt général”, Politix 42, 1998. D. Trom, “De la réfutation de l’effet NIMBY considérée comme une pratique militante, notes pour une approche pragmatique de l’activité revendicative”, Revue française de Science Politique 49 (1), 1999. J.-M. Dziedzicki, “Au-delà du NIMBY: le conflit d’aménagement, expressions de multiples revendications”, in P.Mélé et al, Conflits et territoires, Presses universitaires François Rabelais/MSH, 2003.

[2A concept developed by John Portman and inaugurated in Los Angeles, now found in many cities across North America, often in the form of enclosed or covered private malls. Access may therefore be denied to populations deemed undesirable.

[3Isabelle Coutant, Politique du squat. Scènes de la vie d’un quartier populaire, La Dispute, 2000.