About NIMBY

In Italy and, more in general, in developed countries, infrastructural evolution is continuously fraught with obstacles and delays, resulting in economic losses, social tensions and various uncertainties.
NIMBY – ‘Not In My BackYard’ – is the acronym universally used to denote the opposition, generally accompanied by public gatherings, to the construction of infrastructures of a certain size and impact. NIMBY events are traditionally aimed at opposing the construction of industrial plants, transport infrastructures, power plants, etc. In particular, in recent years the widespread diffusion of renewable energy plants has led to NIMBY events targeting the latter, as in the case of large-size wind farms and bioenergy plants.
From a historical point of view, these events started to appear in a significant manner between the late 1970s and early 1980s, when greater environmental awareness as a prerequisite for healthy living conditions rightly began to emerge in developed countries.

If, on the one hand, similar aspirations appear to be legitimate, on the other hand they have often tended to assume political connotations that have nothing to do with constructive dialogue and correct information. Unsurprisingly, actions originally aimed at opposing an infrastructure have often evolved into something quite different, becoming a mere symbol for a more far-reaching ‘political battle’.
Over the years, several more or less imaginative acronyms have been invented to describe the various connotations and degrees of NIMBY:
– LULU: Locally Unwanted Land Uses
– CAVE: Citizens Against Virtually Everything
– BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone
– NOPE: Not On Planet Earth
– NIMTO: Not In My Term Of Office
– NIABY: Not In Anyone’s BackYard

In Italy, despite the public opinion’s traditionally cautious approach towards large-scale projects, the NIMBY phenomenon has always has a marked territorial connotation. This characteristic derives from the fact that, in most cases, local movements opposing the project justify their opposition by claiming health risks for the local population, stemming from the work itself (industrial plants, regasification terminals, cement factories, etc.).
If, on the one hand, these fears are understandable on principle, on the other hand they are also the result of poor information or even actual misinformation campaigns, aimed solely at legitimising unsubstantiated arguments by spreading false fears among the local population.
Its very nature, therefore, makes the NIMBY syndrome difficult to counter, as its roots sink down to our most cherished desires, namely our personal health and well-being and that of our loved ones. It is also for this reason that NIMBY events are difficult to combat once they have arisen.

It would therefore be wiser, more useful and less costly to first engage in a detailed dialogue process with the territory before the project’s implementation, so as to avoid any unfounded fears since the outset and search for solutions to those problems that prove relevant. The media also plays a crucial role during this delicate phase. In fact, the media is strategic in constructing a dialogue with the territory, though unfortunately it is not always unbiased. According to studies conducted by the NIMBY Forum Media Observatory, the media tends to give greater coverage to the reasons of those opposing projects of public interest. The information that tends to prevail, therefore, is clearly biased towards opposition to the projects surveyed, at least in terms of space and visibility. The observations concerning biased perception of the phenomenon by the press, involving the tendency to negatively connote news regarding cases of opposition, are also confirmed by the article headlines, which reveal a decidedly sensationalist vein.

A fundamental factor for understanding and managing NIMBY events is the conflict between vested interests and general interests. In other words, the local population fears or is convinced that the general public will reap all the project’s benefits, while the costs – even in terms of health risks – will bear solely on the local communities. This is a crucial factor, therefore, of which the activists opposing the planned project are also well aware. Indeed, when activists exclusively underline the local aspect of the protest, they risk conveying the impression of defending a basically egoistic position and being incapable of or even hostile to considering the potential advantages of the project for the community, which would thus justify its completion. NIMBY activists are often well-aware of this risk and attempt to minimise it, rather than by merely opposing the work, by envisioning an alternative society in which political, economic and social relations are based on solidarity principles that are essentially hostile to the market economy, or at least strongly diffident towards the latter. This phenomenon has been termed the ‘generality leap’, denoting the socialisation of the protest and the expansion of its social, geographical and, possibly, political boundaries.

Clearly, an explicitly egoistic approach (not in my backyard, but yes in my neighbour’s backyard) would have few chances of winning support beyond the local context, dooming it to inevitable failure at the hands of the project’s proponents. The socialisation of the protest, therefore, becomes a foil for a ‘free rider’ approach, whereby the community wishes to enjoy the benefits of a work without sustaining its costs, which it prefers to offload onto other more or less neighbouring communities. Though seemingly unavowable, this behaviour is rather common and its existence can also be inferred from the silence – in terms of lack or protests or solidarity – of the neighbouring communities towards the community called upon to house the project. Such a situation is particularly dangerous and difficult to manage for the institutions and companies involved, as, in this case, the costs are concentrated and the benefits spread out on a broader area, with different subjects benefiting in varying degrees. Waste dumps or other waste treatment facilities are a typical example, as the neighbouring communities are more than happy to reap the benefits of the waste disposal service, without having to bear the costs sustained by the community hosting the relevant facility.

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It is worthwhile considering the drawbacks of the NIMBY syndrome for Italy, that is, the costs that the national economic system must sustain for the failed or delayed construction of an essential infrastructure. The most recent data of the 2014 NIMBY Forum Report showed, for the first time, a slight decline in the number of opposed projects, though this trend should not warrant any easy optimism. Firstly, because the overall figure (336 plants) still remains rather high. Secondly, because investments in new projects have declined as a result of the economic crisis. Some 336 contested projects were mentioned in the 2014 edition of the NIMBY Forum Report, down 5% from the previous edition. The 2013 survey confirms the sector trend emerging in the past editions of the Forum, with a marked predominance of the electrical segment (213 contested plants, equal to 63.4% of the total) over urban and industrial waste treatment and storage facilities (85 plants, 25.3%) and infrastructures, with 32 contested works (9.5%). The ‘electrical segment’ category includes plants for producing energy from renewable and conventional sources, besides infrastructures for transporting electricity and gas.
Nowadays the NIMBY syndrome probably transcends its original scope, no longer being restricted to committees opposing the construction of infrastructures or industrial facilities near their area of residence.

Rather, it has evolved into a more sophisticated emergency, which experts term ‘NIMTO’ – Not In My Term Of Office’ or, in other words, a form of political (and, as often occurs, bureaucratic) immobility that shuns decisions capable of ‘upsetting’ part of the electoral constituency. In a country characterised by exasperated parochialism, it’s easy to postpone decisions and shy away from responsibility. It so happens that non-binding opinions of local bodies (regions, provinces and municipalities) often end up actually blocking the development of projects. All the while, the central government and ministries are totally powerless in coping with the unending sequence of administrative procedures and judicial proceedings or reviews. The situation reveals agonisingly long waits for permits, postponed decisions and unending red-tape.

The end result? International investors shy away from Italy, and large domestic companies are discouraged to start new projects on the national territory. According to estimates of the Agici Bocconi Observatory, the ‘cost of not doing’ amounts to some 50 billion Euro each year. Such a phenomenon, therefore, is a complex one that poses a considerable threat to the sustainable development of the country and its strategic infrastructures, with serious and concrete effects on the economy and employment situation.