Tuesday 31 July 2012

Goodbye NIMBY, hello PIMBY

by Richard Hartung, Published TODAY, 30 Jul 2012

From opposition to facilities for eldercare and the disabled, to construction of MRT station launch shafts near a block of flats, the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) syndrome tends to rear its head among Singaporeans whenever something that is perceived to be unpleasant is about to be constructed near a residential area.

But in some communities elsewhere, what may have started out as a NIMBY case may well end up as a PIMBY - Please, (put it) In My Backyard. It is not easy, of course, to get from NIMBY to PIMBY, but it can be done. What it takes is a new approach. 

At the recent Singapore International Water Week, water industry leaders provided great insights into what that new approach could be, when they shared about what worked for them.


Citing the case where a wastewater treatment plant has to be built within a community, some industry leaders discussed how three steps - planning, education and true stakeholder involvement - can get citizens to want something they may not fully understand initially.

Planning, for example, requires more than just a simple technical decision about where to build such a plant. 

In Los Angeles, CDM Executive Vice-President Paul Brown's firm is balancing technology that turns waste water into clean water and the need for flood control, with the benefits of water for transport as well as water being a source of beauty and inspiration. "Combining water treatment with functional landscape helps meet these needs and creates livable cities," he said. 

The next step is education and communication. "The entire process of communication needs to be re-thought," Mr Brown said. "We have frequently worked in a room and come up with a plan and pushed it into the community, and usually the response is bad."

Ms Linda Macpherson, Vice-President of CH2MHill, said the public needs to understand that wastewater is actually a valuable source of water, energy, food and nutrients. What the industry needs to do is "change the way we talk and think about water".

Positioning water as "pure", educating the public about facilities called "resource recovery plants" rather than wastewater treatment plants, and putting that water in lakes or other places the public can enjoy, begins to change how residents think about what is going on in their neighbourhood. Decentralised resource recovery facilities can then be integrated into the community, which can take pride in the ability to use resources efficiently. 

The third step is to engage with the community to gain their buy-in and backing. Working with all the stakeholders to reach consensus about a firm's water initiatives, and developing integrated solutions jointly with them, can result in better outcomes and more community support, said Mr Bart Parmet of the Dutch Delta Programme.


It is not just the water industry where this new approach of transmuting NIMBY-ism into PIMBY-ism works. 

In the entirely different context of renewable energy projects too, University of Exeter Professor Patrick Devine-Wright said, the traditional "decide-announce-defend" model "can be blamed for much of the public resistance to renewable energy projects". Engaging the public much earlier in the decision-making process is crucial. 

As consensus building expert and MIT Professor Larry Susskind put it: "The only way to overcome the NIMBY syndrome, regardless of the type of facility, is to make sure that the overwhelming majority of people in the area believe that the benefits to them, if the facility is built, will outweigh the costs and impacts they are likely to experience." 

In the Singapore context, it is increasingly clear that the old "decide-announce-defend" model is less likely to work than in the past. 

Going through the three steps of integrative planning, community education and then gaining buy-in through true stakeholder engagement could work far better - whether it is situating water resource recovery, eldercare facilities, or other potentially objectionable facilities in the community. 

With eldercare centres, for example, discussing them as places for the grandparents to get help rather than as anonymous facilities, educating the community about the ageing population in their midst and then engaging in real dialogue where plans can actually change, could be critical parts of the process that may go some way in overcoming the NIMBY syndrome in Singapore. 

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

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