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Opinion

The problem with NIMBY – and it might not be what you think

Published on 28/02/2022

Sometimes NIMBYs get a bad rap. You know the type: the Not-In-My-Back-Yard people who oppose change in their neighbourhood, from the siting of new condo developments, or shelters or supportive housing, to the regularization of multi-tenant housing (a.k.a. rooming houses) – any change that threatens the “character of the neighbourhood.” NIMBYs are self-interested homeowners looking to protect their property value and their parking spots, and anxious about those people encroaching on their daily lives.

Or so the story goes. Most of us are familiar with that negative NIMBY story, and with the very real effects that these voices can have on efforts to bolster affordable housing, increase housing density, or permit anything that is not a traditional single-family home. But as with most things in the housing world, opposition to change is more complicated than that.

Many of us are also familiar with the thoughtful activism that springs from our communities, such as standing in support of preserving or increasing affordable housing, or of enclaves that provide a sense of belonging and a feeling of home. Activists might oppose overwhelming densification in the form of towering condos; or take issue with gentrification or developments that will bring the big chains that threaten local independent businesses. They might also argue that the “character of the neighbourhood” is at stake. Should we call them NIMBYs, too?

The problem with the concept of NIMBY is not so much that some people oppose change while others embrace it. The problem is that some people seem to get their voices heard loud and clear, while others are left out of the conversation completely. Lumping everyone together under the label of NIMBY can make it easy to dismiss public input altogether.

Rather than trying to limit people’s ability to weigh in on decisions about their community, our leaders should expand their efforts to include voices from across the community. Public consultation cannot be narrowly focused simply on those with the loudest voices or with the deepest pockets. For this to happen, leaders need to be intentional and skillful. They need to construct processes that invite meaningful input from people across the community, and then make the best use of that input for decision-making. This must be planned for and fully resourced at the outset; it cannot be an afterthought.

It can be done. For example, when Adam Vaughan was a Toronto city councillor, he put a community process into place for all big developments in his ward. Councillor Joe Cressy continued the process when he took office.

Inviting people to provide input will mean sorting through a wide variety of opinion on complex issues. And that will mean looking both at the concerns on the surface and at the values that underlie them. Leaders should prioritize inclusion and reject exclusion. They must discern whether a proposed change brings diversity that will strengthen the fabric of a community, or if it could weaken the ties that make it feel safe and welcoming. They must go forward with changes that will give more people the opportunity to thrive – by making a home, finding work or education, and belonging to a community.

These are the types of values that will shape our communities and our daily lives. Just as importantly, these are the types of processes that inform our relationship with and trust in our governments.

The way forward will not come with the absolute agreement of everyone involved. We elect leaders to exercise their best judgement and to make hard decisions. We look to our governments to use their powers to protect individuals and communities, and to create the conditions where people can live with dignity and participate fully in society. It is a hard job, and people seeking public office must be prepared to take it on dutifully, with humility, and with a view that extends beyond the next election.

This spring, voters in Ontario will have the opportunity to cast a ballot for provincial leadership. Right now, candidates and political parties have the opportunity to show us how they intend to move beyond that single story of NIMBY to include voices from all parts of our communities in constructing their platforms and, most importantly, in governing.

Topic(s)

Civic engagement, Housing and homelessness

Summary

When it comes to public consultation, some people seem to get their voices heard loud and clear, while others are left out of the conversation completely.