What, me NIMBY? A new way of looking at our back yards

Beg to Differ suggests we switch to “SIMBY” instead

As a huge fan of words that are packed with meaning, patient the Differ has always fascinated by the acronym “NIMBY” – a rhetorical sledgehammer if ever there was one, one word reducing vast swaths of people to selfish Neanderthals. But actually getting called NIMBY kind of changes a person’s perspective…

Huh? You’re calling me a NIMBY?

Yes it’s true. For the first time in my life, I’m actively involved in protesting a development in my neighbourhood. And for the first time ever, I’ve been accused of “narrow-minded NIMBYism”.

Now NIMBY of course stands for “Not In My Back Yard”, and as Wikipedia explains:

The term is usually applied to opponents of a development, implying that they have narrow, selfish, or myopic views. Its use is often pejorative.

So ouch already. That hurts.

It’s particularly galling since I am really passionately committed to local business development (I helped found the local Business Improvement Area), deeply involved in community planning (I’ve sat on multiple city committees addressing growth patterns in my neighbourhood), and love living in a growing, thriving neighbourhood with a healthy mix of old, young, rich, poor, families, singles, and recent immigrants.

I’m that guy at the party arguing for intensification, light rail transit, and the important role of private developers in building a great city.

So why did I join the NIMBYs?

For those not in Ottawa, I won’t bore you with all the details. But in brief, a historic convent in my neighbourhood, along with 5 acres of land, was recently sold to one of my city’s least respected developers. So it came as no surprise to anyone that they originally hoped to tear the beautiful old convent down.

And then, when that was blocked by a heritage designation, they came back with a proposal for 700+ condo units on a property that our Community Design Plan had limited to 300 units. And those units were going to be jammed wall-to-wall around the convent and up to 12 stories high – double the allowed height.

So I got angry, and my neighbours did too. And we started yelling as loudly as we could – including this Lego-enhanced presentation I prepared for a city council meeting last week.

The other side of NIMBY

But just because we were against a development in our collective back yard, does that automatically make us reactionary NIMBYs? In a literal sense: yes. We’re essentially saying “Not In My Back Yard”.

But there is an important distinction here. We’re not BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) or CAVE People (Citizens Against Virtually Everything). All 40+ people who showed up to council last week started by saying that we’re in favour of intensification. We get and approve of higher urban density targets, and want our city to grow.

And in this case, we really want this particular property to be developed, since it’s been hidden from the community for more than 50 years by 15-foot high cloister walls by the ascetic nuns – ironically named “Sisters of the Visitation” – who never interacted with their neighbourhood in any way.

Our argument is for controlled development, with the city playing its ideal role and applying appropriate limits to the grabby ambitions of this developer. So we could say we are YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) but that would sound we’re in favour of anything…

Which brings us to my new term

I’m proposing a new word for people like us – a term that’s not a divisive pejorative used to knock down opposition, but rather something that we can adopt, embrace, and rally around. And better yet, it’s a term we can share with developers and the city

I’m now proud to announce: I am a SIMBY (hear me roar).

The word means three things:

  1. SMART In My Back Yard: basically we’re cool with having our “back yards” developed, as long as we’re a meaningful part of the process and appropriate controls are enforced. We’re smart, responsible human beings who get that change is both inevitable and potentially very positive. So please, let’s talk human-to-human about how to make our back yards even better.
  2. SIMBY-osis: we think a healthy, happy community balances four positive forces in harmony. 1) Residents, 2) neighbourhood business, 3) government, and 4) developers. Sorry developers; you’re last in line. That’s because although you have property, money, and political clout (see money above), most of you aren’t actually part of the neighbourhood over the long haul, and don’t have to live with the results of your actions. We do. And the government works (or should work) for us, not for you – which brings us to point three…
  3. Don’t be a douchebag: so developers, here’s the deal. We’ll agree not to be narrow-minded obstructionists, as long as you agree not to be jerks about it. That means really listening to us and paying attention to our community design guidelines. It also means starting negotiations from within the rules of zoning. If you think you need another floor or another few units, great! Let’s talk about what you’re going to give up to the community in return – real community assets, not “cash-in-lieu”.

But if you don’t follow the spirit of SIMBY – if for example, you game the system and try to jam as much down our throats as you think you can get away with – consider yourself warned. We’re smart, articulate, wired, and ready to make your life miserable if we have to, attacking you where it really hurts: in your brand.

Who’s with me? Any other SIMBYs out there?

9 thoughts on “What, me NIMBY? A new way of looking at our back yards”

  1. There are smart people on all four sides. Even when they agree that intensification is important, they don’t agree on how.

    We need more dialogue on the way it should be done, and then apply it consistently.

    I live near Uptown Rideau, where new, larger pipes are about to be put in, unleashing the redevelopment genie (several sites are ready to go).

    Suggestion: get all the smart people in a neighbourhood to buy potential sites, plan them in detail, and then sell them to the builder who agreed to complete them. Lower profit for them, but lower risk, too. But the potential for neighbourhood profits will be a bracing feeling, too.

    1. I totally agree with your first statement about there being “smart people on all four sides”. Yes! And good people; ultimately all four sides have (or at least pay lip service to) the same main objective: a prosperous, well balanced, beautifully designed, and sensibly organized city.

      As for your suggestion about community groups banding together to buy and develop properties, it’s a nice thought, but a bit Utopian. My wife and I were part of such a collective – a co-housing group – where a number of really brilliant community and smart-growth oriented folks attempted to build our own housing development.

      But in order to live in the core – which all of us wanted to do – we had to compete with developers for any property we wanted. It was no contest, in addition to easy financing, the developers could rapidly deploy legal troops, political and construction industry connections, and a swarm of architects, engineers, and project managers who were eager to work with them (but took a lot of convincing to even speak with us).

      The hard truth: we need developers, for the simple reason that they are good at this stuff. The idea of SIMBY is to apply positive pressure from the other three parties to ensure developers use their massive powers for good not evil.

  2. Now you know how the people against the Lansdowne development feel. Fighting to “get it right” and being told we have no right to complain, that we want nothing there, when we really want something good and within the planning guidelines there, just not a Minto shopping centre, 20 storey condos and an ever-shrinking park that may never be built. When did it become wrong to care what development goes up in your neighbourhood? I love your new acronym, particularly #3, but I don’t see developers coming around any time soon – Ashcroft just appealed to the OMB (read developers’ rubber stamp). Good luck. I really hope you win.

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