NIMBY rears its head again

Monday, July 25, 2005


Written by Scott Piatkowski

As children, many of us learned to sing “Don’t throw your junk in my backyard, my backyard’s full” (usually singing it repeatedly until our parents threatened to stop the car and make us get out if we refused to stop). As adults, cries of NIMBY (not in my backyard) are no less common, but the knee-jerk reaction is often far more sinister and the results more than just annoying.

In my own backyard (I don’t mean literally; I have an elementary school behind my house which, while it does offer some traffic enforcement challenges on weekdays, I’m completely comfortable having as a neighbour), there have been two recent NIMBY eruptions that illustrate how difficult the phenomenon can be.

In one case, the City of Kitchener has drawn a red line around the downtown Kitchener neighbourhood of Cedar Hill and passed two related by-laws. The by-laws dictate that no more social housing, no more social agencies, and no more semi-detached houses, duplexes or multi-unit apartment buildings can be located there. The by-laws came in response to complaints from homeowners in the neighbourhood and questionable research indicating that the neighbourhood’s problems stem from the fact that it is saturated with services and housing for lower income people.

Housing advocates and agencies working with the poor have challenged the by-laws to the Ontario Municipal Board. Gail Slinger of Waterloo Region Community Legal Services told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record that the bylaws smack of “planning for people”, which would violate the Ontario Human Rights Code and likely the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well. “If you take that too far you are going to start planning for certain ethnicities and certain demographics,” charged Slinger.

While Cedar Hill is a neighbourhood with many challenges (but so are many other neighbourhoods), it’s not fair to blame those challenges on the existing social housing and service agencies located there. Indeed, a walk through the neighbourhood will soon make one thing apparent: the existing social housing properties are some of the best maintained homes in the community (the real problems are absentee landlords and a failure by the city to enforce property standards rules). As Slinger told The Record, “They [social housing providers] are good landlords. I think there is some concern that certain problems are being attributed to their presence, and we question and are concerned as to whether that's an appropriate link to be making.”

Of course, The Record had its own role to play in fanning resentment against social housing in the downtown core. A story about a stabbing last year was run with a headline that indicated the address where the stabbing had occurred. Not once in my years as a newspaper reader have I seen a headline that indicated the address of a monster home or wealthy neighbourhood where a violent crime had occurred, but the issue of location suddenly became relevant when an incident occurred in a low-income community whose construction had been opposed by the neighbourhood association.

A less simplistic example of NIMBY concerns opposition to the plan to build a bridge for pedestrians and cyclists across the Grand River near the Lower Doon subdivision (an important link in the ambitious Grand River Trail). Residents of the neighbourhood have complained that the bridge would threaten eagle habitat and, worse yet, they would have to look at it. An environmental assessment discounted the first concern but did succeed in delaying the project for three years.

Lori Shultz, president of the Lower Doon Neighbourhood Association, admits that “If it was up to us we would have no bridge at all. We know that the bridge is going ahead. That is very evident. Would we like to stop it? Sure we would. But is that going to happen? Not likely.”

Interestingly, no assessment was ever done or even requested for the recent widening the Highway 401 bridge, just several hundred metres downstream. Apparently, cyclists pose a threat to natural habitat, but cars and trucks do not (indeed, by helping to get people out of their cars, the trail link should have a net environmental benefit). As well, it strikes me that someone who was really concerned about preserving eagle habitat and protecting scenic vistas wouldn’t have moved into a house or a subdivision that had been built in such a location.

I’m not trying to say that truly bad municipal planning shouldn’t be opposed or that neighbours shouldn’t ever be consulted in development initiatives. But, in the two cases I’ve cited, neighbours’ fears appear to be irrational, selfish, and simply obstructionist. This is NIMBY at its worst.

At the same time, opponents of big-box development, highway expansion or urban sprawl are making an important statement about the principles of how we organize our society, rather than simply arguing that their property values and their view of the scenery should take precedent over the needs of everyone else. As well, no one should be expected to have to live with a toxic waste incinerator, a six-lane highway or a coal burning power plant in their backyard. Indeed in the case of the latter three examples, it doesn’t matter whether the pollution is being spewed into the air from your own backyard. As we know from the seemingly permanent blanket of smog that has plagued Southern Ontario for the past few summers, pollution knows no boundaries.

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