From NIMBY to YIMBY: Embracing community-driven politics in Ottawa

From NIMBY to YIMBY: Embracing community-driven politics in Ottawa
Posted on February 16, 2013 | David Chernushenko | Written on October 30, 2010
Letter type:


Ottawa Citizen

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

This Op-Ed first appeared in the Ottawa Citizen in late October 2010 after the municipal election, even though it was submitted a couple months earlier as part of my election campaign. Community engagement and participation in the intensification of our City must improve if we are to truly build a sustainable city that reflects the interests and needs of our residents.

NIMBY. Not In My Back Yard. It’s a potent label, convenient for dismissing local residents’ concerns and marginalizing people who want what’s best for their communities.

Over and over in municipal politics, opponents to new projects are portrayed as obstructionists who hate change and certainly don’t want any in their neighbourhood. They form annoying groups with names like Friends of the Pond, or Citizens for the Way It’s Always Been. They raise “concerns,” object to “the process,” cite studies, and even propose alternatives. But all this takes time and slows progress. Decisions need to be made, and quickly, because time is money and we don’t want to miss this opportunity. So stop complaining, you NIMBYs, and let’s get on with it!
This cynical, divisive approach is useful for forcing through changes. But playing the NIMBY card is ultimately counterproductive, because it escalates disputes and entrenches a lack of trust. It contributes to polarized politics and a rancorous, dysfunctional civic atmosphere. Just look at the anger surrounding the Lansdowne development.
If we instead encourage and respect neighbourhood involvement in the ongoing evolution of communities, we might be pleasantly surprised by a very different, positive reaction: YIMBY, or Yes In My Back Yard.
To avoid fighting over what people don’t want in their back yards, I suggest we start finding out what they do want in their back yards.
Residents’ concerns are typically based on personal knowledge and legitimate worries. They know their neighbourhood better than anyone, and they have a vested interest in keeping their community vibrant. They intend to stay there. It does nobody justice to dismiss them as mere NIMBYs.
Instead, we need to focus on the things we can agree on. We need to develop mechanisms for local residents to declare and constructively contribute to what they would like to see in their back yards, and move forward from there.
By defining what people want and need, and why, and by using this information throughout the planning process, we are more likely to get everyone on the same page and willing to endorse the final results. By reducing conflict, we can save time, effort and money.
Here are some specific suggestions to shift from NIMBY to YIMBY:
  • Respect the City’s Official Plan. This document exists for a reason, and we can avoid conflict by actually applying its guiding principles.
  • Encourage and apply Community Development Plans (CDPs) and Neighbourhood Plans to flesh out the Official Plan in ways that respect unique community characteristics, as determined by the residents.
  • Give planners and developers advance information so they can understand what’s important to the community. For example, create a map-based tool that lets individuals and community groups identify favourite features and places, and share their insight into transportation issues, business and social dynamics, cultural and ecological attributes and other local factors.
  • Seek creative input on land-use options for neighbourhoods and specific properties. Create an open-source registry of unique ideas, and provide copyright-type protection for sufficiently detailed proposals.
  • Require a public meeting before site plan applications are submitted. This will help move us away from after-the-fact “public consultations” that devolve into shouting matches and only reinforce NIMBY attitudes.
  • Hold smaller meetings between councillors, developers, community associations, concerned residents and local experts who have both a stake and a credible reputation to help bring sides together.
  • Develop community councils empowered to make decisions on local issues, for example minor zoning variances. This decentralization would free the Committee of Adjustment and Council to focus on issues of larger relevance.
One advantage of this YIMBY approach is its versatility. These principles can be applied to large-scale developments like Lansdowne Park, the Soeurs de la Visitation site in Westboro, or the Oblate lands in Old Ottawa East. They apply equally well to transit and transportation, landfills, small-scale urban infill developments, women’s shelters and halfway houses, wind turbines, or energy-from-waste projects.
It’s time to move away from endless and divisive debate over what should not happen, and to start exploring what should happen. It won’t come easily. We have generations of habits to shift. But we can get there, especially if we drop that nasty NIMBY label.
David Chernushenko is a candidate for Ottawa city council in Capital Ward.

About The Author

David Chernushenko's picture

David Chernushenko is an educator, public speaker, film producer and since December 2010, an Ottawa City Councillor. He works to promote prosperous communities and healthy livelihoods. From 2006-2009 he served on... More