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2016-06-27 09:12:09 Commentary

Not In My Backyard, or  “nimby, is a term used around the world to refer to opposition by residents to the negative effects of local industrial and public developments. In China, it is normally directed at public facilities or factories that pollute or otherwise threaten the environment.

But when a company sought to remodel an unused building in a residential compound in Shanghai’s Yangpu District as a nursing home in March 2015, they were surprised to come up against fierce opposition from local residents.

It goes to show that while there is a large camp of Chinese citizens who resist such developments out of environmental concern, there are two other important factors contributing to the rise of nimbyism in the country: the traditional geomantic practice of feng shui, and a lack of government transparency in choosing site locations for the facilities.

Feng shui is a Chinese system of selecting and arranging the ideal living situation based on a range of considerations like climate, geography, topography, environment, landscape, and includes numerous rules and taboos. People who follow this system believe that feng shui done well can bring good luck, while bad feng shui may invite disaster.

In the case of the nursing home, many of the homeowners dubbed it a “dead folks’ home” and demanded that the company not build the facility in their compound. The company had no option but to cease construction in May, despite having the support of the local government.

Although it may be hard to justify nimbyism based on ancient cultural ideologies, like feng shui, one way to help stem these protests before they begin is by increased government transparency.

Two hundred and forty of the compound’s 269 residents cited two chief concerns in expressing their opposition in building nursing home. First, it was rumored that the nursing home would contain a hospice ward and a morgue, which residents argued would negatively affect the quality of life of the compound. Second, the negative environment brought about by this home would bring down housing prices in the compound, threatening local economic interests.

Traditional Chinese ideologies surrounding feng shui lay behind the argument of the residents. They reasoned that the regular occurrence of death in a nursing home would generate a significant amount of negative energy that would destroy the feng shui balance of the community.

China’s middle class developed a collective consciousness due at least in part to the campaign for homeowner rights. Reforms in the housing market in the late 20th century allowed citizens to own houses, ending the period of collectivist socialism where people were assigned houses by the government.

Since a large part of the population now owned their houses, many middle-class homeowners in the country’s richer cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, began forming self-governing homeowner committees and taking collective action to protect their interests against property developers.

Although it may be hard to justify nimbyism based on ancient cultural ideologies, like feng shui, one way to help stem these protests before they begin is by increased government transparency. Residents should have a right to decide what facilities will be developed nearby their homes.

The heyday of nimbyism occurred in the United States in the 1980s as the public became increasingly attuned to the importance of environmental awareness. People protested everything from polluters — landfills, airports, factories  to public facilities like prisons, homeless shelters, and drug rehabilitation centers. Despite residents believing these developments to be indispensable for the development of the city, they also hoped to situate them elsewhere and keep their distance.

In December 1990 the New York City Planning Commission tried to placate the public by issuing a “Criteria for the Location of City Facilities” that aimed to make the process of choosing sites fair and transparent. The process was composed of several important steps.

Every year the mayor of New York City must publish a statement of needs for public facilities, as well as a map showing planned site locations. Community boards of the city are then allowed 90 days to respond with comments. The Planning Commission will pass on the remarks to the relevant construction organizations, who must then evaluate the comments in full during the planning of the facilities. Once a decision has been made about the site location of the facility, the community boards have the right to establish a facility committee to supervise the facility during construction and operation.

This transparency and right to appeal helped ease the minds of protestors in New York, and similar measures were instituted in other states across the country. This goes to show that an appropriately designed system can help change the mindset of the middle class. This is what China must do too if it wants to find an answer to nimby protests.

To satisfy its citizens, Chinese companies and the government must increase the degree of transparency in public decision-making and promote citizen participation. The government must also take a stronger hand in guiding public opinion, and involving the public in the process will help to cut down on misunderstandings and conflicts between developers and residents.

(Header image: Factories are visible behind residential buildings in Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, Dec. 5, 2015. Chen Ronghui/Sixth Tone)