Don’t you be my neighbour: Ontario’s new NIMBYism

ANALYSIS: The province will be home to millions more people in the decades ahead — but many existing residents don’t want new neighbours. Here’s why it can be good thing when strangers move in on your block
By Diane Peters - Published on May 9, 2019
construction site in Toronto
Currently, Ontario has 14.4 million residents; by 2041, it’s expected to have 18.5 million. (Fred Lum/CP)

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Most Ontario urbanites can look out the window of their home or workplace and spot a towering crane. The province is expected to be home to 18.5 million residents by 2041 — it’s at 14.4 million right now. Much of that growth will take place in cities in southern Ontario. Halton Region, for instance, is projected to more than double its population in this time frame.

That means a lot of future residents coming from other parts of the province, across Canada, and faraway countries to live in new condos, mid-rises, townhouses, and subdivisions — maybe even in laneway homes or duplexed houses, too.

But people who already live in established neighbourhoods don’t always welcome the idea of newcomers moving in across the street. “People are anxious about change in general,” says Cherise Burda, executive director of the Ryerson City Building Institute. “There’s a lot of development going on right now.”

Call it the new not-in-my-backyard: bias against future residents. While garden-variety NIMBYism involves residents worrying about such things as shadows from tall condos or the nuisance of having a school nearby, this more nuanced form is directed at the newcomers themselves and focuses on how they’ll behave as neighbours. It triggers concerns that students in an off-campus dorm will party in the streets, that low-income renters will lower real-estate values, that condo dwellers will clog up roads with their cars.

In many municipalities, bylaws encourage this form of thinking. Ottawa, for example, limits the number of bedrooms in each home — in an attempt to crack down on rooming houses. Toronto voted against letting homes have two front doors. When municipalities assess new developments, the existing look and feel of a neighbourhood and the current lifestyle of longstanding residents often take priority. “People want their neighbourhoods to look like they always have,” says Caroline Andrew, retired professor of political studies from the University of Ottawa.

A fear of new arrivals, Burda says, can lead current residents to ask the wrong questions. “When people go to a public meeting on a development, they just want to know how high it is and how many units, and they’re worried about parking.

Instead, she says, they should be more concerned about advocating for street-level design that promotes walkability and encourages new business: a condo’s height won’t make or break a neighbourhood, but if its ground-level retail looks awful and works only for fast-food chains and dental offices, or ends up empty, the streetscape will suffer.

In fact, our so-called yellow-belt neighbourhoods — those dominated by single-family dwellings — desperately need new residents. “The population of these communities isn’t stable; they’re actually declining,” says Burda. Decades ago, it was the norm for large families to live in small bungalows; now our families are smaller, but our houses are larger. “Development can help communities by adding more people who shop more and partake in the community,” she adds. Newcomers fill up schools, keep the bus routes busy, and encourage produce shops, flower stores, and coffee houses to open up and thrive.

Many of our communities also need more diversity, Andrew says: “Local employers need employees; we’re all getting older.” And when an area has a wider mix of ages and cultures, she notes, it can become more vibrant.

The alternative to creating more density in old neighbourhoods is to create new suburbs: when developers buy and build on the outskirts, there are few current residents to push back. But building there can have a negative impact on the entire region. “It makes congestion worse; it makes climate change worse,” says Burda.

Andrew says that residents facing new development should consider liaising with city-wide groups, such as Ottawa’s City for All Women Initiative. “They bring forward a much more balanced voice,” she says of such groups, noting that they can offer perspective on what a new building might do for an area, how much density is appropriate, and which design changes would be most advisable.

Bringing in people with experience, she says, can encourage longstanding residents to fight on behalf of their future neighbours — to advocate, say, for more bedrooms or the creation of a parkette. They can identify neighbourhood problems that have the potential to intensify and see what builders, the city, and the business community can do about such issues as dangerous intersections, emerging wind tunnels, or a lack of food stores.

And they can provide necessary context: many residents, for example, are opposed to development projects that house or serve at-risk people, fearing the impact they’ll have on the neighbourhood. But this 2006 report from British Columbia indicates that North America’s first safe-injection site, in Vancouver, didn’t lead to an increase the local crime rate.

Cities are increasingly talking about “present and future residents” in their communications and trying to figure out how to make much-needed developments in urban areas work for everyone. They’re looking at demographic and population projections. They’re tracking the location and development of food deserts, identifying a lack of parks around new developments, and trying to sync up in-development transit lines with housing. “Future residents will vote, too,” says Andrew, adding that politicians are in a position to support developments that will make life better for as many people as possible in the years ahead.

After all, who lives their whole life in their childhood home? We’re all newcomers at some point. newcomers as we move around for school, work, and family — we’d all benefit from being able to join a community without being judged even before we hang up the kitchen curtains.

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