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Market Squared: NIMBY about NIMBYs, or can we stop fearing and embrace change?

The Not In My Back Yard attitude isn’t a new thing in Guelph
Urban growth AdobeStock_94723914

John Caravaggio said that he knew that change was inevitable, but he was still pretty upset that there was a huge multi-tower development of some 500-plus units maybe coming to his neighbourhood and he only found out about the weekend before the statutory planning meeting.

How to help people stay in the loop of City Hall doings is a constant struggle, but the delegations at Monday’s meeting opened up more than one proverbial can of worms, and the other was NIMBYism.

NIMBY was a word that came up almost immediately in my Twitter feed covering Monday’s meeting and the half-dozen people that came to speak against the proposed development at 1888 Gordon St.

“NIMBY” of course, means “Not In My BackYard,” which is to say, “I don’t want to see three buildings, 10-storeys or bigger, out my back window."

“Mini-Toronto” was how somebody put it, and if you’re living in a residential subdivision, can you blame anyone for not wanting a “Mini-Toronto” built on the other side of their fence?

The phrase NIMBY has an interesting history.

No, seriously. Its usage seems to date back to the 70s, when neighbourhood groups in the U.K. and North America banded together to stop the creation of landfills, or hazardous wastes facilities in their backyards.

It was part of a burgeoning new environmental awareness.

Just dumping stuff wasn’t going to sit well with people anymore, especially if it meant exposing their families to the growing list of toxins and side effects that were being discovered to cause tremendous harm.

Lead paint, anyone?

But over the last couple of decades, NIMBY’s become less a word meaning advocacy for civic responsibility and sound planning, and more of a description for people that don’t like change no matter what that change looks like.

And it’s not just large scale buildings or dumps that court NIMBYism, projects like transit expansion and wind turbines also get NIMBYed.

It’s enough to make you wonder if the caveman seeing his neighbour build a straw hut for the first thought the hut was “ruining the character” of the area.

NIMBY isn’t a new thing in Guelph.

Perhaps the most famous recent example was the Abode attempt to build student housing at the corner of Gordon and Stone.

The neighbourhood there, as now, did not like the idea of being in the shadow of new towers so they fought the proposal all the way to the OMB.

NIMBYism also played a role in the decade-long fight against Walmart, as a wide swath of Guelph’s progressive community rallied to keep the big blue box out of here.

One of these worked, the other did not.

There can also be an incredible ugliness to NIMBYism.

Remember when a group called the Westminster Woods Residents Association tried to make an OMB case to stop the construction of a new Sikh temple on Clair Rd?

Their argument was that the traffic congestion caused by the presence of the temple would be too disruptive, the lights would impact the surrounding neighbourhood, and there would be all these people coming and going 24 hours a day...

Strange, those were the same arguments we heard Monday night about 1888 Gordon.

Traffic, in particular, seems to be the reason most likely to get people angry about a proposed development.

Traffic drove (so to speak) concerns about the construction of Costco on Elmira St, it was also top of mind about the new Solstice buildings on Gordon St. Hey, proud veteran of the War on Cars here, so I get any reason to hate traffic, but honestly, isn’t building anything, anywhere, at anytime going to cause an increase of traffic?

This is the thing about NIMBYism now, there’s a very thin line between legitimate concern, and whether area residents are just not liking the idea of changing coming to their immediate vicinity.

It’s a distinction we’re going to have to make soon because Guelph has very specific borders now that it can’t grow beyond, and about 20,000 more people to cram in over the next 30 years.

If you don’t like the sight of high-rises now, you’re going to be living in misery by the time 2051 comes around.

As for the conscientious objectors to 1888 Gordon, I’m sure they’re in earnest, but what is the endgame they’re going to be striving for?

Do they want the whole development scrapped?

Do they want smaller buildings, or maybe they want another subdivision? On the other hand, maybe this was all a visceral reaction to the sudden revelation that towering apartment blocks were a couple of city council meetings away from being realized.

Perhaps in the end, the people in the area concerned about the development at 1888 Gordon might be able to reach some accommodation with the Tricar group.

Experience has taught me that calm, cool discussion remedies the swift, harsh, sudden impact that big change creates when it lands, so maybe the real lesson of the situation is that communication is key, something that was addressed pointedly at Monday’s meeting.

As for NIMBYism, sometimes circumstances change our point of view.

Remember when the second Walmart opened last year on Stone Rd? Nary a protest was to be seen.

Now is that because Walmart got less evil (so to speak) in the last 10 years, or is it because Guelph was now three Zellers short, and the Internet is slowly killing bricks and mortar? So we have to ask ourselves, is what good for today, going to be good for tomorrow?

No one likes change.

We fear change.

But slapping a group of people with the NIMBY stamp because they don’t automatically get the potential benefit is only going to entrench fears, not overcome them.

As the Urban Dictionary points out, there are good NIMBYs and bad NIMBYs, and we want to encourage the good NIMBYs otherwise we’re left with the LULUs (Locally Unwanted Land Uses), which is another story altogether...