Urban form: neighbourhoods, NIMBYs, and nuance | #TOpoli
Nuance is, by definition, an elusive thing.
It’s easy, in an age where discourse is so frequently defined by extremes, by over-the-top appeals to gut instinct, by recourse to lowest-common-denominator catchphrases, to go with the flow and channel our thinking, to the extent that we bother to think at all, in line with those extremes.
It’s easier to adopt and repeat shallow memes that fit on lapel buttons than it is to think critically. It’s easier to adapt and paraphrase, or even repeat verbatim, simple and facile arguments that can be expressed in 300 words or two minutes than it is to analyze, to gather information from a variety of sources, and to compare arguments, evaluate evidence, and arrive at a considered view of things.
Nothing new in any of this, of course. It’s why so much of what passes for public conversation is reduced to binary either/or terms. And it’s why so much of that conversation seems to find expression in simple manufactured narratives; no matter what the issue, no matter what the facts, just pass everything through a predefined ideological lens and bingo, you’ve got your storyline.
Civic engagement demands more. Yes, we’re all busy, and yes, there’s more information than ever coming at us, and yes, there are more demands on our time. But that makes the filtering imperative more important than ever; recognizing the worthwhile information and distinguishing it from bullshit is what makes us active citizens rather than passive consumers. And it’s no great insight to suggest that there’s a lot invested in keeping us in the latter camp; the more passive and less analytical we are, the easier we are to manage.
The Ford ascendancy has crystallized this for the last couple of years, of course, but the City Hall gong show isn’t what prompts today’s argument. Bike lanes, football, casinos, subways, cuts to community programs … whatever. Those are city-wide conversations that started before the current administration and will almost certainly survive it. What concerns us today is a little more local: it’s about neighbourhood planning and land-use disputes, the language used in conducting them, and the way they’re characterized.
There aren’t many things packing more emotional freight than neighbourhood land-use discussions. Their impact is immediate, tangible and visceral. They’re an exemplary illustration of the dynamics described above; anyone who’s attended a public meeting or taken part in a public-consultation process knows just how charged things can get.
The planning process in Toronto isn’t perfect, of course, and neither are the mechanisms for resolving disputes, building consensus, or balancing interests and arriving at solutions that reflect the public good. That’s not the fault of the current administration, or the city planning department, or any group of municipal officials. The dysfunctions inherent in our systems of governance go deeper than that. Minimizing the effect of those dysfunctions requires a commitment to balance, to civility, and to embracing exactly the kind of nuance described above; it requires a recognition that things aren’t black and white, and that most of the issues we have to wrestle with have aspects that lean more than one way.
In short, if we are to resolve local planning disputes in a way that produces the greatest good for the greatest number, we must first recognize and embrace their complexity. And that means being conscious of the language we use and the messages we adopt; not merely the words we choose, but the assumptions and values implicit in those words. This is essential not just for discussions of contemporary urbanism, but for larger political and social conversations as well.
That’s the context that makes contemporary discussions of local land-use and planning issues so disturbing. Frequently, those discussions seem to fall into the kind of facile and binary narratives described above; read some of our more prominent columnists and it’s easy to think that most neighbourhood land-use disputes are battles between innovative and forward-thinking developers on the one hand and selfish, insular NIMBYs on the other.
… more often than not, the NIMBYites’ real problem is with change itself. Perhaps such a fear makes sense, or is at least understandable at a time when the future looms dark and scary. On the other hand, it’s hard to understand what’s not to like about a condo that would bring new investment, money and people into a neighbourhood.
… NIMBYism runs rampant. On Ossington, where misguided locals are fighting a six-storey condo project that would replace a used-car lot, it has reached the point of self-destructiveness. It is an appalling spectacle, a civic embarrassment.
In the spring a planned six-storey midrise condo near the bottom of Ossington caught the ire of a small group of local residents who said that the new residents, who hadn’t yet materialized, would be frat-boy partiers, disrupting the neighbourhood. Pity the people who move into a neighbourhood that has already decided what they’re like and that they’re not wanted.
Most NIMBYs share this allergy. Whenever a new apartment or condo tower threatens to go up anywhere in Toronto, residents swarm out with torches and pitchforks to get it cancelled - or at least cut it down to size. It’s a weird vestige of small-town thinking.
These caricatures do a disservice both to the specific instances and the larger urban discussion. A recent meeting in Etobicoke is a good example; reading popular mainstream accounts, it’s easy to think that the controversy over a development proposal in Humbertown is reducible to that. I’m not familiar with the details, but I don’t want to think people are as selfish and narrow-minded as some of the accounts suggest. Maybe I’m just naive that way.
It’s not just Etobicoke, of course. There are local land-use disputes all over the city: in the Beaches, in Cabbagetown, in North Toronto, and of course on the Ossington strip. (Disclosure: I live just a block off Ossington, and I’ve been involved in the neighbourhood meetings and consultation process.) While I can’t speak from the basis of a comprehensive understanding of every local land-use dispute, I doubt that any of them are reducible to this kind of simplistic binary representation — and suggesting that they are isn’t just inaccurate. It plays into the hands of those who want to reduce every conversation to simplistic soundbites and shouting matches.
There’s no question about growth and intensification imposing new pressures upon Toronto’s infrastructure and neighbourhoods (a recent piece by John Lorinc in that regard is particularly instructive). How we manage those pressures has profound implications for the kind of city we want to live in and the kind of people we want to be. In fact, the impacts can be beneficial: increasing foot traffic, reducing dependency on cars, ensuring a population density that makes transit economically viable, enhancing a streetscape’s visual appeal, and ramping up neighbourhoods’ economic pulse and social mix are all desirable goals. Properly managed, they can have a positive impact, both locally and cumulatively.
It’s in that context that thoughtful discussions of streetscape, built form, design and planning principles need to play out. There are no rules that say condos are bad or single-family dwellings are good. Nor, obviously, is there a one-size-fits-all formula applicable across the city. Nor is there a clearcut way of balancing the official plan, zoning by-laws, land-use regulations, and design guidelines, but that’s what makes reasoned dialogue so important.
But that doesn’t mean those administrative frameworks can be overlooked or ignored, nor does it mean they should be ritually or rhetorically dismissed as antiquated. Toronto’s new chief planner says that
if the city focuses on building midrise buildings along the avenues — streets planners have designated as ripe for growth — Toronto can meet the province’s growth targets without 80 storey buildings, and with “significant amount of room to spare.” (source)
We needn’t resolve, at this point, questions about avenues versus main streets, or low-rise versus mid-rise, or mixed-use versus neighbourhood, in order to acknowledge their far-reaching implications for our quality of life. But it’s important to remind ourselves that those questions are best addressed in an atmosphere of civility, mutual respect, and appreciation for nuance. If growth targets and positive impacts can be met within existing guidelines, then it’s legitimate to wonder why those guidelines should be exceeded in any particular instance, and it’s unfair and inaccurate to reduce it all to NIMBYism. It’s no better than demonizing developers as carpetbagging money-grubbers out to make a quick buck. Name-calling and accusations aren’t going to help us build a liveable community.
That cities evolve is a given. If that evolution is to happen in a manageable and positive way, then it’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that it happens in an atmosphere conducive to mature, rational and civil discussion. Avoiding caricatures would be a good start.