Crossing the line into NIMBYism

Author Margaret Atwood is opposed to an eight story residential building that would back up to her home in pricey Toronto. In some exchanges on social media, Atwood was accused of a NIMBY attitude. This raises an interesting question: when does one’s actions move from normal concerns about a home or neighborhood and into NIMBYism? Here is a description of Atwood’s concerns:

As the debate escalated, Atwood threw shade at a prominent local urbanist, accusing him of being in the pocket of developers, and went toe-to-toe with the architecture critic of a major Canadian newspaper.

The exchanges were confusing because, historically, Atwood has championed urban issues. She fought cuts to the Toronto Public Library under Mayor Rob Ford and opposed a plan by the University of Toronto to cover one of its historic green spaces in artificial turf.

In actuality, the opposition Atwood officially registered with the city was muted compared to those of others, particularly her husband, author Graeme Gibson.

“[The condo] hover[s] close to a brutal and arrogant assault on a community that has been here since the 19th Century,” he wrote in an email to the local city councillor.

In her email, Atwood focused on potential damage to several trees with roots in the development area, and later insisted on Twitter she would prefer affordable housing and a community center in the building.

In really expensive markets, perhaps anyone opposed to new housing units could be accused of NIMBYism. In many cities, there is a shortage of affordable housing and, as the article notes, it seems like wealthier residents do not want to live near cheaper housing and they have the clout to contest development. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine how sufficient housing units could be provided without making major changes to neighborhoods and cities as a whole.

But, is there also a way that NIMBYism is particularly expressed? This particular article hints at three possible distinctions. First, her husband used particular language. Perhaps taking a haughty or dismissive tone does not help. Second, Atwood has fought for the people regarding other city issues so perhaps she is not the average, out-of-touch wealthy resident. Third, Atwood may be trying to make a more nuanced argument – not opposed to the building but opposed to its uses – but this is difficult to relay through social media and it may not matter in a city like Toronto where housing is a controversial issue.

For better or worse, NIMBY is in the eye of the beholder. When arguments about land use and personal property arise, they are often heated. Accusing an opponent of NIMBY and the related idea that they are trying to keep people away from what they already have is a common tactic. Whether this application of a label helps the process in the long run is another matter to consider.

Fighting the “McMansion Wars” in Toronto

The fourth-largest city in North America has its own issues with McMansions. Here is the latest cover of Toronto Life:

That’s quite the house on the cover. Watch a video here with the writer behind the cover story. It sounds like a lot of the same issues with McMansions teardowns as found in many wealthier American neighborhoods: disagreements about taste; new residents wanting new things; existing residents not liking the change in character; desirable neighborhoods close to downtown; lots of money being thrown around in an expensive market.

One strategy against McMansions as explained in the video: if you have lots of money, you can just buy up the homes around you and demolish the houses to make sure you have a sizable yard around you.

Addressing social change in Toronto’s inner-ring suburbs

North America’s fourth-largest city has a number of changed suburbs that have more lower-class residents and immigrants:

David Hulchanski’s seminal 2006 study, The Three Cities within Toronto, documents the shift of poverty from the inner-city to the inner-suburbs of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The University of Toronto sociologist also made it clear that the poor increasingly tend to be immigrants. The rich, meanwhile, have moved downtown. Only they can afford the cost of housing there.

The third of Hulchanski’s three cities, which encompasses Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, has experienced the largest increase in immigrants, rising from 31 per cent of the population in 1970 to more than 60 per cent today. During the same time, incomes in those same areas declined almost 40 per cent, more than any other part of Toronto.

Though Toronto is the more tolerant and inclusive city of the two, the social mobility that historically took immigrants from the places they arrived to the places they finally settled has slowed or even disappeared. Low wages, high youth unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure don’t inspire confidence, let alone optimism.

That’s why Toronto’s future lies in its suburbs. That’s why their needs are the needs of all. It’s also why failure to deal with them will hurt the entire city.

So far, the response has been more focused on mollifying suburban discontent than transforming vast swaths of the postwar landscape into more urban configurations. Rather than squander billions on feel-good projects like the Scarborough subway, we need more programs like tower renewal. Transit is essential to move people and connect them; but in addition, many highrise suburban communities desperately need to be remade to 21st-century standards.

This mirrors the circumstances of a number of American inner-ring suburbs: as wealthier (and often whiter) residents have moved to more exclusive suburbs or gleaming high-rises downtown, more poor and non-white residents have moved to cheaper suburbs that often had more industrial and blue collar work. But, what works best to renew these communities? Continue to play up on their advantages in industry and manufacturing (cities and suburbs have been severely hurt in recent decades with the loss of manufacturing jobs)? Compete in new areas like suburban entertainment and culture (wealthier communities often an advantage here)? New housing is often needed in these inner-ring suburbs – their housing stock often dates to the decades before World War II – but it is hard to come up with money to undertake big changes.

One route is to play up their more urban aspects: they may offer a taste of suburban life but are still much closer to everything the city has to offer. Many suburban communities have pursued transit-oriented development built around subway, train, and bus lines that provide quick connections to amenities within that community as well as nearby.

Toronto park also serves as a dyke to protect surrounding neighborhood

One Toronto park goes beyond providing recreational space by providing protection against flooding:

Corktown Common Park is a beautiful urban oasis—the 18 acre park, situated in the West Don Lands district of Toronto, boasts a wildlife-filled marsh, athletic fields, playgrounds and plenty of place to sprawl out on grass or host a bbq. But the coolest of the park’s features is the one you can’t see. Built into the sprawling greenland is a plan to protect the surrounding neighborhoods from flood waters. The landscape architects from Michael van Valkenburgh Associates partnered with engineering firm Arup to build a park that looks like nature, but works like a dyke…

Because Corktown Common was developed on a flood plain, the team began by building up the area’s natural elevation. Nearly nine meters of land was added, creating a natural barrier to rising waters. “We had to make sure that the park and the infrastructure were well integrated so that in the end it didn’t feel like a piece of pure infrastructure but felt like a welcoming park that is connected to the urban fabric,” explains Mueller De Celis. This required MVVA to add an additional six meters of topography on top of the original infrastructure. It comes in the form of rolling hills, playgrounds and open green space.

The park is split into a wet and dry side. As water falls on the dry side—whether that be from rainfall, flood waters or from the water playground—it gets collected and directed through a series of underground pipes into a cistern. This water is then reused for irrigation. MVVA says it expects the water to be used anywhere from two to four times before it evaporates. Beyond sustainability, this system also has the added benefit of relieving pressure from the mouth of the Don River by slowing the water flow that dumps into Lake Ontario.

This infrastructure is masked by more than 700 trees, and more than 120 species of plants (95 percent of which are native to the area). Mueller De Celis says that as soon as the marsh was implemented, wildlife bloomed in what used to be a browned-out, post-industrialized area. She recalls one day when she was giving a tour of the park. There was construction happening in the neighborhood, as usual. “The people who were touring couldn’t hear me, not because of the construction but because of the frogs,” she recalls. In the process of building development-enabling infrastructure, Toronto has found itself with a real ecosystem in the middle of the city (no wildlife was reintroduced). As Mueller De Celis puts it: “It might be a constructed landscape, but the wildlife don’t know that.”

Building parks in floodplains is not a new idea – it can be a good use for that space and flooding then does not damage as much. But, this sounds more unique in protecting a surrounding urban area and providing space for development. And, it sounds like all of this is hidden out of sight from people in the park, making it yet another piece of important infrastructure that works best when no one notices it in the background.

“4 Hard Truths About [mass] Transit”

A new report from a Toronto-area panel argues there are key points that need to be understood about mass transit:

1. “Subways are not the only good form of transit.” There’s a tendency to see subways as the optimal form of urban transportation. For sure, an efficient subway system, with the power of moving thousands of people quickly through crowded corridors, can make a great city even greater. At the same time, heavy rail is extremely expensive and only appropriate when levels of existing density demand it…

2. “Transit does not automatically drive development.” Hard truth number two picks up where hard truth number one left off. It’s become increasingly fashionable to suggest that transit alone can boost the local economy by attracting businesses and retail development. Again, to be sure, public transportation that increases access to a dense area can produce so-called “agglomeration economies” — in other words, they can be worth way more than their cost to a city…

3. The cost of transit is more than construction. Canadian governments, like those in the United States, separate capital costs of constructing public transportation from the operational costs of running it. The Ontario panel argues that this practice can obscure the total investment needed to pay for a new line or system throughout its functional life. As this chart shows, capital costs are in many cases just a fraction (though a sizeable one) of 50-year costs for a mode..

4. Transit users aren’t the only ones who benefit from transit. This point is perhaps the panel’s most important. The discussion about public transportation often dissolves into an emotional debate about whether or not all city residents should pay for a system used by only some. It’s an odd contention, really, since few people also argue that paying for police, hospitals, schools are worthwhile — although not everyone uses these public services, either.

It is good to take a sober look at large-scale infrastructure projects. But, I wonder if a mass transit proponent wouldn’t look at this list and think that the first three are fairly negative: a good mass transit system offers multiple options, transit doesn’t guarantee development, and the costs are long-term.

If these are good principles, perhaps the next question to ask is then how to build a good system in a city. If there is not much there to start, which might be the case in denser or larger suburbs or newer big cities, how does one overcome the high initial start-up costs? Additionally, how do you move more Americans out of cars as it seems that when they have the choice to drive or not, they will choose driving?

Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s problems include living in a “American-style suburban McMansion”?

The mayor of Toronto is getting all kinds of attention – and at least one person thinks one of his problems is “American-style suburban McMansion”:

Also from the Gawkerverse: this Ken Layne piece about Rob Ford’s essential un-Canadianness, which wrongly asserts that “when he sits around his American-style suburban McMansion, he literally sits around his American-style suburban McMansion.” Rob Ford’s house is suburban, but it’s actually a pretty modest place.

Americans are known for their big houses. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this is something Canadians pick up on since most Canadians live quite close to the U.S.-Canada border. Indeed, there are plenty of stories regarding McMansions in the Chicago metropolitan region and Chicago and Toronto are often compared to each other. But, which part of the insinuation is worse:

1. That a Canadian acts like an American?

2. That owning a McMansion is a bad thing anyway (whether one lives in Canada, the United States, Australia, and other places with McMansions)?

3. That sprawl/suburbs are bad?

This also reminds me of the documentary Radiant City that involves Canadian suburbanites outside of Calgary but utilizes a number of American opponents to McMansions and seems to be most interested in tackling American-style sprawl. A side note: it is a film that includes a mock musical about mowing lawns.

Census Bureau official: Chicago now 5th biggest city in North America

Following on new from a little while back, the US Census Bureau has officially confirmed that Toronto is now larger than Chicago:

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our city is home to 2.71 million people to Toronto’s 2.79 million in 2012.

Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles top the list.

Chicago is still one of the top 10 largest cities in North America, and the population did increase by more than 11,000 residents between 2010 and 2011. And we lead the nation in the category of cities that have experienced population growth downtown over the last decade, with an increase of more than 37,000 residents within 2 miles of City Hall, according to Chicago magazine.

Not a big difference at this point but Chicago is unlikely to get much closer in population compared to Los Angeles anytime soon, Toronto may continue to grow, Washington D.C. is growing in influence, and Houston is a ways behind Chicago but has been growing at a rapid pace in recent decades. Maybe this means Chicagoans should be a little worried about their status as a global city?

One area where Chicago does not have to worry: it is still securely ahead of Toronto in terms of its metropolitan area population. The Chicago metro area has over 9 million people while the Toronto metro area has over 5.5 million (2011 figures). Additionally, Chicago has over 2.5 million more than the next biggest US MSA, Dallas.