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A blog on urban issues with a sociological focus.

Housing as a public issue: Understanding community opposition to housing beyond NIMBYism

When communities oppose proposed housing developments, are they being self-interested NIMBYs or do they have valid concerns that the public should know about? In this post, I comment on how concerned citizens challenge housing proposals by making them visible as wider public issues.

I draw on sociological ways of thinking and the findings from my research on public opposition to a proposed housing development. My research was recently published as a journal article in the European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology. The article is called From housing crisis initiative to public issue: Justifications Analysis of land-use proposals in the public sphere” (2022).

Sociology and community opposition to housing

Everyday, people struggle with a variety of problems. It could be unemployment, an unsafe work environment, the rising cost of living, a medical condition, or perhaps a local park is being used for a new housing development. While these problems can affect the individual personally, not all of them will become public issues; that is to say, issues that are ‘political’ or contested in a public forum. Sometimes, a problem only affects a small number of individuals or it is only a problem for certain people and not others. This becomes a complex topic when you consider all the different people and groups who have different interests and thoughts on what they think are personal problems or public issues.

The topic of how personal problems become public issues is a sociological way of thinking that was, perhaps, most clearly articulated by the sociologist C. Wright Mills. It is something that I have found incredibly useful in my own research on public opposition to proposed housing developments.

Community opposition and public issues

I am interested in understanding how people can make a positive difference in society by questioning and challenging the problems they personally encounter. This has led me to focus on conflicts over proposed housing developments and how they become public issues or not. This type of conflict is often only seen as a problem for local residents who oppose it for self-interested reasons (so-called NIMBYs). However, I noticed that residents seem to base their arguments on the common good rather than their own self-interest. By mobilising common good arguments, residents attempt to effectively politicise proposed housing developments as public issues in the news media.

While the word ‘politicise’ has a variety of meanings and is often seen negatively, I use it in the sociological sense of people contesting the meaning of things in society. When something becomes ‘political’, it becomes a contestable issue and moves beyond the level of individual self-interest to the level of the common good.

In my research, I focused on citizen opposition to a proposal to develop part of the Point England Reserve in Auckland for housing. The reserve is used for sporting events and has access to a beach and cow pasture. It has also become home to the rare New Zealand Dotterel. People were concerned that part of the public reserve would be used for private housing, which they believed would be problematic for a variety of reasons.

I utilised justification theory (originally developed by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot and recently applied to the issue of NIMBY and land-use conflicts by Veikko Eranti, 2017) and a methodology called Justifications Analysis (Tuomas Ylä-Anttila and Eeva Luhtakallio, 2016). Using this sociological approach, I examined how supporters of the proposal justified it and how citizens effectively critiqued it. I examined the broad common good principles that underpinned their arguments. These principles (such as environmental, equality, or market-based principles) provide a way for people to evaluate the people or things in a debate by providing a common frame of reference.

Citizens mobilised a range of common good arguments that went beyond their own self-interest. They argued that public reserves should not be sold for private housing and that parks need protecting for environmental reasons and Auckland’s growing population. While the proposal was a complex issue, concerned citizens made it visible as a public issue by drawing on a range of common good arguments.

Community opposition and local democracy

While some community opposition can be based on self-interested action, it can also be a form of political action that brings attention to important issues in society which might otherwise be seen as nonissues. The term ‘NIMBY’ tends to be used to shut down a debate without engaging with people’s concerns and can feed a narrative that the public lack the knowledge to engage with important urban issues. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, but, if people do not feel encouraged to voice their concerns, this could contribute to political apathy, especially with local politics.

Although community opposition can be reactionary and can take many forms, I think it is useful to see it as a form of local democracy and a sign that people are engaged with issues they are concerned with. The actions of communities and concerned citizens can also help make urban planning more democratic, which could help bring positive change in society or help create more meaningful public participation with urban issues.

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