Earlier this fall, signs went up in the window of a former Sleep Country store in the affluent community of Leaside indicating that the “Jefferson Homeless Shelter” would open soon. What happened next was the least surprising thing you can imagine.
People flipped out. Local community news blogger Ted Stuebing told the Star at the time that he and local politicians were inundated with concerned calls. “People were very upset, people were crying,” he said.
Many called the posted number to complain. “How did you possibly, possibly get the permission to ruin the neighbourhood by putting a homeless shelter around here?” one asked.
It turned out to be an awareness-raising hoax: the anti-homelessness organization Raising the Roof made a video of the reactions to drum up support for long-term solutions to homelessness, so no one would need a shelter in their neighbourhood. Meanwhile, in newspapers, on social media, on talk radio, we all had a good laugh at the wealthy residents of Leaside, heartlessly insisting the “drug addicts and drunks” belong somewhere — “down south, or up north” — anywhere else.
Hahahahaha! What a bunch of small minds! Right?
“I’m a very tolerant person but this, just, really, is going over the edge,” one self-parodying woman says in the video, summing up both the precious self-regard and devastating lack of self-awareness common to such neighbourhood complaints.
There’s a word for this, of course: NIMBYism, from the phrase not in my backyard.
Everyone loves to make fun of NIMBYs, dismiss them, look down on them. The thing of it is, while the spotlight here was on Leaside residents, next time it could be you, or me, or virtually any of us. Indeed, the whole hoax depended on the complete predictability of the NIMBY reaction.
Pretty much across Toronto, whether we’re talking about homeless shelters or highrise condos or new umbrellas in children’s parks, a NIMBY reaction has become the most predictable thing in the world. Everyone, it seems, likes their own backyard just the way it is. No one, it seems, wants their own neighbourhood to change.
Right now in Toronto, there are reportedly residents in Long Branch “up in arms” about a rumoured methadone clinic on Lake Shore Blvd.; Cliffside homeowners fighting the scourge of sidewalks; Agincourt neighbours angry about a new bus garage; citizen groups from Ossington to Eglinton fighting the construction of duplexes and lowrises.
And in my experience, if you talk to the people involved, each of them will loudly claim that theirs is not a case of NIMBYism.
You don’t understand! In my case, they want to put this new thing in my backyard! And I’m saying, my backyard is special, it’s a terrible place for this proposed thing, they should put it somewhere else. I’m saying, NOT IN MY BACKYARD! You see? That is very different from NIMBYism.
I paraphrase slightly.
And the thing of it is, sometimes they have a point. I say that as someone who has sometimes made a cottage industry of making fun of NIMBY whining. In some instances, this kind of resident fighting is necessary, and winds up making the city a better place. I’ll explore that concept in a bit more depth in the next instalment of this series.
Right now, the observation I want to make is that if virtually everyone who engages with proposed changes to their neighbourhood is a NIMBY by someone’s definition (and they are), then the term ceases to be useful. I think we need a useful way to identify bad NIMBYism, a framework for assessing the kinds of complaints that are not worth taking seriously, precisely because politicians and decision-makers do not often make such distinctions.
To the ears of a politician, a group of residents whining loudly is the sound of a squeaky wheel on the re-election-mobile. By that metric, the volume of complaints is far more important than their legitimacy.
But gauging their legitimacy is actually necessary, because opposition to change and growth can, in the aggregate, make cities less affordable (see San Francisco’s anti-housing policies), less able to handle growth (see Toronto’s own transit fiascos), and more unequal (see generations of policy hiving off low-income people and services for the vulnerable into ghettos).
Next in the series: Why sometimes NIMBYs are needed.