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"Not In My Backyard" be gone - why we need to rethink acceptance conflicts

Michael Felber, Partner

Recently, I took the opportunity to attend the Swiss Landfill Conference and noticed that 'NIMBY' is still a common blanket explanation for the difficult search for suitable sites.


Time is of the essence when it comes to transforming and expanding important societal projects. The question of how to deal with resistance from local communities is always present.


But does the blanket explanation of the "Not In My Backyard" phenomenon fall short? Does it even prevent viable solutions in the end? I believe so, and yes.

Lessons from the energy transition


A look at the debate on the energy transition shows that acceptance conflicts in infrastructure projects are complex and cannot be reduced to a simple formula. Research* on wind power and solar plants provides valuable insights that can also be applied to other areas such as infrastructure or the use of natural resources. They make it clear that we need to find new ways of dealing with these conflicts.


Trust, fairness, participation - acceptance is more than NIMBY


The NIMBY concept, as catchy as it may be, often falls short as an explanation for acceptance conflicts. Studies show that the reservations of the population are usually much more nuanced. It's about issues of trust in operators and authorities, the perception of risks and burdens, and the fair distribution of advantages and disadvantages. Finally, the possibility of having a say and being involved plays a crucial role.


All these factors influence whether a project is accepted or rejected on the ground - and they cannot be dismissed with a blanket reference to stubborn NIMBYs.


Dialogue instead of demonization


Reflexively labeling critics as NIMBY is not only questionable in terms of facts - it also prevents a constructive discussion of the actual concerns and worries of those affected. Instead, what is needed is an open and appreciative dialogue at eye level.


Studies on wind and solar parks prove that early information and involvement of the population is the key to greater acceptance. Where people are taken seriously and their perspectives are included in the planning, conflicts can be defused, and viable solutions can be found.


Regional planning as a foundation for acceptance


An important insight from practice is that acceptance for individual projects cannot be forced - it has to be earned. Studies show that strategic development planning with the involvement of the population creates the foundation for successful projects. It's about transparently weighing criteria and alternatives, distributing burdens more fairly, and creating compensation mechanisms. Synergies with other goals, such as nature conservation or tourism promotion, can also increase approval.


Forward-looking, participatory, location-conscious planning is thus the key to avoiding or defusing acceptance conflicts – this applies to wind turbines as well as to landfills or gravel pits.


Don't forget the landscape


One aspect that often gets lost in the debate is the symbolic (emotional) significance of landscapes and places. As studies on the acceptance of energy installations impressively prove, support for projects depends heavily on whether they are perceived as fitting the respective landscape.


Near-natural areas or traditional cultural landscapes often have a high emotional value for the population - interventions are viewed particularly critically here. Conversely, the willingness to accept changes is often greater in landscapes that are already technically overprinted.


For planning, this means that the careful selection and design of sites, considering the landscape, is an important prerequisite for acceptance.


Recognizing limits, learning from mistakes


As important as dialogue, participation, and balancing are, it would be naive to believe that this could solve all acceptance conflicts. There will always be situations where even the best of intentions does not lead to consensus.


In such cases, it may be useful to bring in external moderation for mediation or even propose mediation. The path of a dosed, step-by-step escalation - for example, initiating the next procedural step or announcing legal action - can also lead back to the negotiating table. At the same time, the willingness to find an amicable solution must always be signaled. And finally, one must always ask oneself whether a project is really without alternative, or whether there might not be new scope for compromise after all.


And if a project fails due to resistance? One can learn from that, too. An open analysis of the dynamics and one's own mistakes can help to do better next time. Because giving up is usually not an option.


From NIMBY reflex to reflection


That's exactly why it's time to leave the NIMBY trap behind and look at acceptance conflicts in a more nuanced way. The insights from the energy transition and our many years of experience in dealing with prominent projects show that blanket assessments do not help - neither with wind farms nor with landfills or quarries.


Instead, new ways of communication, participation, and conflict resolution are needed. This often requires a rethinking of all involved parties, and not just when a project is publicly presented: Authorities and operators are challenged to take the concerns of residents and critics seriously and to integrate them into their planning early on. At the same time, the population is also called upon to contribute constructively to planning processes and not to fall into a reflexive attitude of refusal.


If these approaches can be anchored in practice, it opens new opportunities. Acceptance is not a given, but a task.


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