YIMBY Musings

March 28th, 2019 by Emma Durand-Wood

Given the choice, what kind of person would willingly spend 17 hours of their Friday at City Hall?

A recent Appeal Committee meeting lasted from 9:30am until well after midnight, with many folks there to speak to multiple agenda items. As I learned, the answer to that question is “people who care a lot about where they live”.

Also, to some extent, a person like me, who for some strange reason tuned into the livestream off and on all day and then once the kids were in bed, made popcorn and drank homebrew and watched the meeting as it stretched on into the wee hours, until Friday was actually Saturday.

Partly I was keen to see self-proclaimed urbanist Coun. Matt Allard in action, and to see what Coun. Browaty would do with a proposed lot split on Kildonan Drive facing huge opposition, and to see whether Coun. Santos would bring some fresh new Point Douglas perspective to the table.

But given that the agenda was packed with infill-related issues and multi-family developments and there looked to be a huge number of delegations, I was also on a mission to hear, straight from people’s mouths, their objections to these projects. I was hoping that by better listening and understanding the common objections, I might be better placed to counter them.

Yep: I’m in camp YIMBY. And it’s easy to think of folks who turn out against development as NIMBYs, but I think that kind of dehumanizes them–turns them into “the other”, which isn’t going to get us anywhere. So lately I’ve been trying to remind myself to think of behaviours and attitudes, not people, as NIMBY.

As I mentioned earlier, it quickly became apparent that the kind of people who are willing to give up an entire day, or more than a day, to have their 10 minutes to voice their opposition, are the kind of people who care a lot about where they live. Even if I can’t for the life of me understand what the big problem is, or what they are really afraid of, I have no doubt they care a lot about their neighbourhoods. I found a perfect summation of this paradox here (emphasis mine):

“even though hypervigilant neighbours can too often overreact and be toxically afraid of change and difference, they are also very often an indicator species of a great community. Because many of the same impulses that lead someone to (wrong-headedly) kick up a fuss about a homeless shelter or a set of stacked townhouses will also lead them to organize community meetings or set up swap meets and farmer’s markets in their local parks, or lobby politicians for better amenities in their area.

Obviously, some perceived threats are toxic, some are silly and some are real. But what those calling the newspapers and going to the mattresses about those perceived threats have in common is a sense of ownership over their community, and an impulse to vigilantly stand up to try to make it a better place to live. And a big population of people like that is actually among the most valuable resources a neighbourhood can have.”

That’s why I feel so personally…conflicted isn’t the right word, but tending towards empathetic, maybe? Because even though I don’t agree with the things they are fighting, I can sort of understand where they are coming from. They love their neighbourhood and see infill or new developments as a threat to what they love about it.

During the course of the delegations against the various proposed developments, there were lots of different arguments. Sometimes they were things I really can appreciate–like how hard it would be to lose your sunlight, or the prospect of losing healthy, mature elms that have survived DED thus far.

Many people talked about how parking would be impacted, which I think is an understandable worry in the context of Winnipeg, where few neighbourhoods have functional transit service or comfortable, convenient, low-stress AT infrastructure. (Don’t get me wrong: foregoing density-increasing development because of parking is the wrong move. That’s treating the symptom, not the disease.)

But I often found myself losing my willingness to be empathetic and look for common ground when so many of the arguments sounded suspiciously like “some of my best friends are gay!”

There was lots along the lines of  “I do support infill. I’m not against density. Just not here.”

Folks were often quick to point to other areas in their neighbourhood or beyond that would be more suitable. One person even said something along the lines of, “I understand that Winnipeg needs infill, and I support it. But I mean, this is a nice neighbourhood.” Ouch.

So that’s where I really struggle. How can we find common ground and begin to convince these folks that a) this has to happen, b) every neighbourhood will have its turn, and c) I promise you, the world won’t end.

What’s extra aggravating is that people think they should have final say over every aspect of an infill house, while seemingly overlooking the fact that they’d have zero say over someone who bought the same lot, didn’t split it, tore down the existing house and built something new, which would be undoubtedly bigger and less in keeping with the other houses. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but should neighbours get a say in how some dwellings look, but not others?

And don’t get me started on the assumption that everyone wants a backyard, and the conflation of reduced grass on private property with a loss of public greenspace.

It’s hard to be empathetic, when the outcry is so sensational. I’ve read lots of letters submitted to the city clerk in opposition to these projects, and some of them leave me shaking my head. I know folks love their area just the way it is and hate the idea of it changing in any way. But the idea that adding one additional single family house on a vacant lot will somehow erode the fabric of their community? It just doesn’t compute. I don’t know what could convince them otherwise.

What also smarts is something personal. My own neighbourhood of Glenelm (not to be confused with Glenwood, where much of the opposition to infill is taking place) was built over several decades and is basically a hodgepodge of styles, sizes, and ages of housing. We’re all on small lots, most 30ft, with little room between houses –side yard? What’s a side yard? I know this look and feel is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love it.

What I love more than the aesthetic, though, is the mix of neighbours it allows for, because there’s something for everyone here, all stages of life. Neighbours in their 20s, neighbours in their 80s. Families with little kids and not-quite-retired empty-nesters. Homeowners and tenants, singles and couples, young and old alike. I know folks whose kids grew up, moved out, then moved back to buy their first home here. And I know folks who love it so much they convinced their parents to buy their last home here, so they could be close to their children and grandchildren. That’s what kind of neighbourhood is possible when you have diverse housing options.

Glenelm is, as I mentioned on Twitter, marvelously eclectic, and my life is so much richer for it. So when I see people talking about how infill will destroy the character of their neighbourhood, it feels like they are horrified at the prospect of theirs becoming like mine.

I want to tell them that a neighbourhood is so much more than its houses. It’s the people that live there that make it a place worth living, at least in my experience.

All neighbourhoods are going to have to change if we want our city not to go bankrupt (more about that on my husband’s new blog, Dear Winnipeg) and our planet to stand a chance against climate change. In my neighbourhood, where lot splits aren’t on the table, “change” will probably look like single-family houses adding one or more extra suites, adding laneway housing, and maybe combining lots to build small apartment buildings. I welcome it all. I think it’s exciting.

To me, “Yes in my backyard” means more that just increasing density and productivity and making better use of our infrastructure. It means more neighbours to get to know, more front-yard pancake parties and porch-to-porch greetings, more impromptu back-lane chats, more people watching out for and helping each other out.

It would be a shame to let “less parking” get in the way of all that.

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