No, not here, not in my back yard, but somewhere else

Peter Howard expresses a central thing about landscape in ‘An Introduction to Landscape’. Introductory books or textbooks usually get a bad rep, and I get why that happens, but I think Howard (2) puts it so well in the … introduction to his introductory book … when he bluntly states that “landscape is indeed the Nimby’s playground”.

He (2) adds that Nimby or NIMBY, short for Not In My Back Yard, involves “a position many of us find ourselves in when confronted by new developments.” I’m pretty sure everyone has resorted to this, wittingly or unwittingly, me included. I try to avoid taking this position, but I can’t say I have never taken it. Okay, I don’t think I’ve had much say about anything, so no biggie I guess, but, to be fair, I’ve used that argument in the past. It’s a shitty move to make and that’s totally on me.

To be fair to everyone, me included, it’s not like you shouldn’t ever stand your ground. I think you should. If you oppose something, do oppose it. Don’t cave in and change your mind just because it might offend someone or be against someone else’s interest. You do have to realize that there are people who’ll first pressure you, claim that you are acting all selfish, hoping that you’ll give in to the pressure, so that you’ll see what’s best for everyone, so that they can walk all over you, so that they can act in their best interest, with little or no concern for your interests. The point here is rather that you shouldn’t be an asshole about it.

I put that a bit crudely, perhaps too crudely for your taste, but I think that needed to be said. When people have opposing views and struggle over something, the solution to it isn’t letting the opposition to do whatever they want just because it involves a struggle or a conflict. I’ll return to this at times, noting that you can and probably should, of course, still oppose this and/or that, but, anyway, he (2) explains in less crude terms:

“Landscape is not very rational. It is intensively personal and reflects our own history, our own nationality, and culture, our personal likes and dislikes.”

I’d actually rephrase this, just a bit, to note that it is so, so personal and it does reflect our history, nationality and culture, our likes and dislikes, not because it does so inherently, but because we’ve accustomed to taking it so, so personally, because we’ve been taught to think that it’s the manifestation of our history, our nationality, our culture and our likes and dislikes. He (2) continues:

“It is always about ‘my place’, or at least somebody’s place.”

Indeed. Note how it’s all about me, me and me or, by proxy, about us, about me and my buddies. Relevant to this, he (2) also notes that:

“This is entirely consistent with the plan of constantly underlining that rational judgements of landscape quality are always overlaid, usually buried, by personal preference.”

He (2) further specifies this by adding that he isn’t interested in presenting something, this and/or that, as good or bad, but rather making you think why it is that you think it is good or bad. I agree with him on this. It’s not my job to tell you that you should or shouldn’t appreciate something. If you do, you do. If you don’t, you don’t. What I want you to do is to think otherwise, to think for yourself, to ask why, how did we get to this or, rather, how might have we got to this?

He (2) also points out that while people don’t really think about landscape, what it is and what it does, it is, nonetheless, “immensely popular”, considering how there are all kinds of “meetings to discuss the landscape impact of some local planning proposal” that “attract large numbers” and the people who take part in them “are vocal and defensive.” He (2-3) moves on to liken landscape with place, not because they are the same thing, but because they are often thought to be the same thing. It doesn’t help that the European Landscape Convention also builds on such view, defining it as “‘an area of land as perceived by people’”, which he (2), in turn, spins into “‘an area of land as perceived by me’.” He (3) adds it’s also not just about place but about my place or our place. He (3) doesn’t indicate whether he is for or against this, whether it is a good definition, but he does comment on that in general:

“Academics divide the world of knowledge into much more sophisticated categories of disciplines, but after years of argument and debate they have agreed on a definition of ‘landscape’ that looks remarkably like the local idea of ‘place’ – an area perceived by people, and therefore containing not only their works but also their memories.”

Note how he stresses that it’s not just about the place, as such, nor what’s there, as such, but about how people view it all, as guided by their experiences. This is, of course, the point of contention, where things can get pretty heated.

Let’s go back a bit, just a bit, to the point about landscape being about me, me, and me, and my buddies. We like to think that we simply know what’s good and what’s bad, if not evil, that I know what I want, but that’s not how things work. If we take ourselves for granted, if we start from the ‘I’, the self or the subject, whatever you want to call it, we ignore how others have made us who we are, how everything we’ve learned is from other people, including our views and tastes. Okay, fair enough, maybe, just maybe, we’ve come up with something minute but unique, like once, but I think that even then we just flatter ourselves. That may seem quite offensive to people, I know, because it’s like saying that no one is unique, but it’s not that people aren’t unique but rather what makes them unique is the degree that they copy other people and the number of people they copy, who, in turn, do copy other people to certain degree and so on, and so forth. So, yes, we are all unique, but our views are remarkably alike, albeit their similarity, of course, depends on who it is that we are dealing with.

To give you some examples of how this works, let’s start with something as contentious as religious buildings, such as churches or cathedrals, mosques, synagogues, temples, shrines. If you haven’t noticed, most of these buildings tend to stand out from other buildings, occupying a central place, and/or dwarf other buildings near them. Something tells me that this isn’t a co-incidence. Okay, it does make sense to have the building in a central location rather than in a peripheral location so that it’s equally close to as many people as possible. It also does make sense to have a large building rather than a small building because more people can fit in then. Then again, something tells me that centrality has to do with asserting that the faith is central in that society, an integral part of it, regardless of whether it is or isn’t. The buildings also don’t need to be as big as they tend to be. You could replace one bigger building with many smaller buildings scattered across that society, so I’m not really buying the number of people it can accommodate argument either.

The way I see it is that religious buildings tend to be large and set in central locations, often without anything built right next to them, because, well, they stand out from everything else that way. In other words, they enjoy a privileged position, and they are so prominent in the landscape that they dominate it. It’s not just that they are easy to spot, which is true, but that they are hard to miss. It’s like they are always there, no matter whether you are close to them or far away from them. This is also why the buildings aren’t just large but also tall. If you have a tower or a dome, it can be seen from a far.  It’s like a constant reminder to you that this faith is important.

Some religious buildings are, of course, more dominant in the landscape than others, but if you somehow fail to get the gist of this, look up Hagia Sophia, the once Byzantine orthodox cathedral turned into a catholic cathedral turned back into an orthodox cathedral turned into a grand mosque turned into a museum turned back into a grand mosque. While there are others that are far grander, the Cathedral of Córdoba, once a grand mosque, is another good example of a central religious building, not only because it is large, but because its minaret tower was replaced by a bell tower. The function of a minaret and the bell tower is very similar, to make sure that people know that it’s time to attend the mosque or church. That said, they also serve as a visual reminder that the faith in question is central to that society. I mean, just to have the resources and the influence to build them, for no other official purpose than to let people know that it’s time to attend a ceremony, should tell you enough about their centrality in that society.

Now, of course, most grand religious buildings were built in times when such buildings were built because surely some all-powerful deity needed a lavish palace, as that’s what they really are, palaces, and it’s only likely that you wouldn’t be allowed to build such buildings anymore. Okay, sure there are some new religious buildings that are massive, but they aren’t built by the dozen as they used to be in every central place in various societies. Of course, we could add here that they’ve been succeeded by another type of religious building, the skyscraper. I mean, you could say that they are modern day temples and monuments of capitalism.

To be clear, I have nothing against religious buildings, as such, nor any other kind of building, as such. That said, I don’t think we need to build more constant reminders of this or that religion in our societies, especially when their tall bits, such as minarets and bell towers, don’t even serve a real purpose anymore, as everyone has a device that tells them what time it is and can set it to remind them to attend whatever it is that they are expected to attend as a member of a religious society. I just don’t think they are necessary. Now, that doesn’t mean that we should go tearing down minarets, bell towers or the like just because they no longer serve the purpose they used to serve. It’s the same with old palaces. They are quite useless and probably cost a fortune to maintain, but, then again, demolishing them and replacing them with something more practical would also cost a lot. So, yeah, I wouldn’t do that either. Of course, not that it matters as none of this is up to me anyway, nor do I feel like I should be the guy in charge of that, nor much of anything else for that matter. This stuff is usually handled by some planning department that you probably have never even heard of.

To go back to the start, the point I wanted to make with religious buildings is that we’ve grown accustomed to them or, rather, some of them and take their presence for granted, but oppose other similar buildings, just because we haven’t grown accustomed to them. It’s that simple, really. A minaret and a bell tower are equally offensive to someone who’s not part of those particular societies, in the sense that their purpose is to constantly remind you, even at great distances, that these faiths and those who believe in them are a big deal in the society, whereas you are not. In itself, there’s nothing inherently offensive about a building, be it tall or short, big or small. It’s rather about the size and position those buildings enjoy in the society that may make them offensive to people.

Mines are, perhaps, better examples than religious buildings. Unlike religious buildings, they don’t really concern most of us. Most people live in cities where you have many, many religious buildings that dwarf everything in their surroundings and their centrality is, at times, a hotly debated issue. Such debates are not, however, even close to embodying the NIMBY-attitude as a mine. The thing with mines is that we don’t get by without them, but people are against them because they do tend to pollute, some more, some less, depending on the circumstances and the people involved, and because they are considered to be the worst eyesores ever, despite usually being located in areas that don’t really concern most people directly.

I’m looking at the stuff in this room, wondering if there’s anything that doesn’t have something that has been mined or something that has required something that has been mined in order to produce it. Maybe dirt? Then again, that dirt only got here because I wore shoes that either needed some mineral or the production of those shoes relies on some mineral. So, can I really be against mining?

It’s tempting to be against mining, arguing that it ruins the environment, that is to say it ruins our environment, which, of course, it may well do and often does, but when just about everything we use on a daily basis requires minerals, I’m not so sure how we can simply oppose it. Okay, okay, we can, of course, have others do the dirty work for us, but that’s the textbook definition of NIMBY. I don’t think it’s very responsible to deny mining our own back yard because it would pollute the environment and ruin the landscape, while letting others do the dirty work for us, in some mine, in some poor foreign country. It’s like saying I want to enjoy pristine nature, while also browsing the internet on a smartphone that requires rare earth metals extracted somewhere out of sight, somewhere where you never need to visit to see mines. It’s also like enjoying the country roads, taking pleasure in the rural landscapes, on one of those electric vehicles, powered by lithium-ion batteries that probably has cobalt mined in Congo in it, possibly by children. Now, of course, the point here is not to blame you, to be like ha-ha, gotcha, you hypocrite, as that doesn’t get us anywhere. The point here is that we all have blood on our hands and we should owe up to it.

Now, I’m not saying that you should be all in favor of mining, to give it a free pass to do whatever, wherever. No, no. It’s rather that it’s pretty shitty to make others pollute their back yard, for you, while preventing others from polluting your back yard, just because you don’t want some eyesore to ruin your landscape.

I know where the idea to this came from, from Howard’s book, but I don’t know what made me write this essay. Maybe it was some documentaries on architecture or mining. Anyway, this also led me to other acronyms, such BANANA and CAVE, Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything and Citizens Against Virtually Everything. I don’t know how things are elsewhere, but at least here you’ll find people who seem to complain about just about everything, for the sake of it, albeit it might be that they actually in the NIMBY camp. Others include PIBBY and the less specific SOBBY, Place In Black’s Back Yard and Some Other Bugger’s Back Yard, which both seek to explain what tends to happen when the NIMBY-attitude prevails, you know like when mines are built in some poor African country instead of somewhere close to you, even though building it in that place close to you would probably be better for the environment and the workers than building it in that poor African country.

I also provided just a couple of examples, but there are plenty of others to explore as the way landscape functions as an argument lends it so well to NIMBYism. To name a couple more, think of power plants, landfills, wastewater treatment facilities or amusement parks. Even roads and railroads can be understood as ruining the landscape, despite having being part of crucial infrastructure. It’s the same with power lines.


  • Howard, P. J. (2011). An Introduction to Landscape. Farnham, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing.