High-density cities built without resident input and careful engagement, and which overwhelm already successful urban environments with buildings residents hate, will repeat the mistakes of urban planners from the urban renewal era.
By Roland Tanner
Published January 09, 2019
Burlington's and Hamilton's municipal elections had one thing in common: they were both, unusually for municipal politics, heated and divisive affairs that pitched mayoral and conciliar candidates against each other with fundamentally different points of view.
In Hamilton it was a referendum on light rail transit (LRT), convincingly won by incumbent Fred Eisenberger.
In Burlington it was a referendum on the future of urban intensification ordered since the Places to Grow Act in 2005. The result was an overwhelming victory for Marianne Meed Ward, formerly the councillor for downtown Ward 2, who has campaigned for ten years against downtown and citywide 'over-intensification', especially with regard to high-rise buildings.
Until the election, she was a lone voice on council, and one whose council colleagues viewed her with often vitriolic animosity. With almost a complete sweep of councillors, with the exception of one re-elected incumbent, the new council is one seemingly aligned with Marianne Meed Ward's agenda to control intensification.
In both cases, therefore, the elections have been portrayed as a battle between progressive urbanists - pro-transit, pro-intensification, pro-walkable communities - against regressive and entitled suburban interests fundamentally opposed to healthy modern cities. Both elections can be painted as NIMBY referendums.
In Hamilton, the story goes, the urbanists won, while in Burlington a reactionary, car-centric and selfish aging population elected a populist leader promising the impossible - to stop Burlington's urban intensification contrary to provincial law, meanwhile denying pro-urbanist Millennials an affordable place to live.
So is this perception correct? Did the bad guys win in Burlington, or is the truth more complex?
Lawn sign opposing tall buildings in downtown Burlington (RTH file photo)
I was one of the candidates in the election, coming second to Lisa Kearns in Burlington's downtown Ward 2. I would certainly call myself an urbanist - pro-transit, pro-walkable communities, pro-intensification, anti-car-centric planning and anti-urban sprawl. It was therefore surprising to find myself cast on the 'wrong' side of the urbanist debate and accused of selling out to NIMBYs.
Both Lisa Kearns and I campaigned in favour of controlling intensification, and especially controlling height in Burlington's downtown, protecting an area that residents from across the city perceive as both special and fragile.
It was testament to the extent to which voters shared that perspective that we came first and second respectively, without any risk of splitting the vote and allowing a candidate aligned with incumbent mayor Rick Goldring to win.
Consider the following. Most of the incumbents in Burlington who were just voted out or retired had consistently voted against transit funding, some for decades, and in fact voted for a disastrous cut to transit funding eight years ago, which caused a dramatic fall in ridership.
Paul Sharman, the one incumbent to keep his job, first became involved in municipal activism because of his opposition to a bus route outside his home.
All the incumbents were highly conservative, and mostly also Conservative. In contrast, every single one of the new councillors, and Marianne Meed Ward, is on the record favouring better transit in Burlington. Burlington may finally have a council that believes in, and is willing to fund, the transit system it needs.
Meanwhile, Rick Goldring, the supposed defender of urbanism, intensification, and the Greenbelt, suddenly suggested mid-campaign that Burlington should annex Waterdown from Hamilton, a suggestion which Mayor Eisenberger countered with some panache.
Goldring's logic was the ludicrous position that annexing Waterdown would take pressure off downtown development by allowing Burlington to develop greenfield sites. All of a sudden, Burlington's supposedly urbanist mayor, who had invited Brent Toderian to speak and employed a former high-ranking Vancouver City Planner as his city manager, was advocating sprawl.
It was a suggestion as counterproductive as it was confusing. Furthermore, Goldring sought to throw the previous provincial government, and his former provincial counterpart, under the bus at every opportunity. It was suddenly all the Liberals' fault - forcing intensification on him against his better judgement.
A new PC government and PC MPP, according to Goldring, opened up the opportunity for working with the province to 'fix' Places to Grow. We can all guess what that 'fix' would look like.
Marianne Meed Ward, as far as I am aware, has never criticized Places to Grow, or intensification, which she campaigned for as an Ontario Liberal candidate in the 2007 provincial election. She is on the record as consistently supporting better transit.
She stated in her inaugural speech that she would never support any development of Greenbelt land, a particularly welcome statement given the provincial government announced it would allow cities to build new businesses on the Greenbelt the same week.
Don't get me wrong: I have had disagreements with Marianne Meed Ward over the years, and there are policy areas about which I wish she were more enthusiastic. But I do not see the evidence that she, or most of the new council, is opposed to a modern, healthy city. The facts simply do not support the position that anti-urbanist candidates won.
And what of the voters, the supposedly selfish NIMBYs who want Burlington not to change and to force young Burlingtonians away?
I'm biased, but I believe I and my team knocked on more doors in Ward 2 than any other candidate. What I found at the doors was people who, yes, were overwhelmingly concerned about the scale of downtown development, particularly in a small area around south Brant Street and Lakeshore Road.
That was as true of young and old residents, the wealthy and those on lower incomes, private home owners and those in apartments and housing co-ops. There was no Boomer/Millennial split.
And when I say 'overwhelmingly' I mean 'overwhelmingly'. When asked for their concerns, between 80 to 90 percent of people mentioned downtown development unprompted.
But literally 100 percent of the people I met loved their city - what an amazing statistic! They loved it but feared that the things that made it special were under threat.
They accepted that Burlington had to grow and that more people were going to move here. They were willing to see change. Most were even willing to see some more high-rises if they were done in appropriate areas - namely mobility hubs connected to Go Transit. In other words, they were willing to accept exactly what the province has been encouraging cities to do for over a decade.
Residents treasure downtown as a special area characterized by unique stores and a low to medium-rise character with a high proportion of historic buildings. They like the already walkable streets which are narrow and 'car unfriendly' by North American standards.
They appreciate too, that downtown can be better. There is too much space wasted on surface level parking which could become residential or commercial. There are many buildings which are neither historic nor attractive, where nobody would oppose good development - just not high-rise.
They want better transit - strongly - and appreciate that better transit is in everybody's interest. Almost as strongly, they want more affordable housing, and dispute that high-rise condo development is doing anything for affordability. At $700,000 for a new studio condo downtown, I tend to agree.
Does this sound like a NIMBY revolution to you? The only distinction between residents and Burlington's planning department is that the residents I spoke to want a human scale in development, especially when building in established and loved neighbourhoods. They want the city that exists post intensification still to be recognizably the city that existed before - just bigger, and better.
Change is fine, they kept telling me, but it shouldn't overwhelm the existing built environment. That is a position entirely consistent with the best urbanist principles. Urbanism has never been about 'high-rise or bust'. It is about complete communities, with high density at a human scale.
Brent Toderian, the high priest of Canadian urbanism, makes the point constantly - it is the 'missing middle' we should be seeking most of all. Mid-rise development makes European cities what they are, and some of the most successful models of what urbanism seeks are famous for their lack of high rise development - Edinburgh, Copenhagen, central Paris, or a thousand other European cities.
The 'missing middle' is entirely appropriate as a means to allow more people to live in downtown Burlington. The mistake in Burlington has been the wish by developers, which was welcomed and endorsed by the council and then further reinforced by the OMB, to treat downtown like a greenfield site where residents interests don't count and only maximizing height makes sense.
It wouldn't happen in those European cities, and it shouldn't happen here.
Mid-rise building on Plains Road in Burlington (RTH file photo)
This refusal to take residents' reasonable opinions into account built up a decade's-worth of resentment which almost swept the field on October 22. Seldom can a municipal election have stirred such strong feelings - strong enough that a council inaugural meeting had to be held in a sold out Burlington Performing Arts Centre, and some ward debates attracted over 400 people.
Other cities, and the provincial parties, would do well to learn from Burlington's lesson. But they need to take the right message. Contrary to myth, the message is a good one for urbanists if we listen carefully to what is being said.
High-density cities built without resident input and careful engagement, and which overwhelm already successful urban environments with buildings residents hate, will repeat the mistakes of urban planners from the urban renewal era. We need to be careful to avoid adopting the same 'we know best' arrogance as those who drove highways through downtowns and advocated for suburban sprawl and car-centric planning.
The failure of urban planning, again and again, has been to ignore the people who actually live in the place being planned, and to claim residents don't know what's good for them. It's these sweeping generalizations that allow us to use slurs like 'NIMBY', which are counterproductive, reductive and reflect a refusal to try to understand someone else's point of view.
The result has too-often been well-intentioned innovation implemented badly. But if cities like Burlington can truly learn to listen to residents' voices, and to work hand in hand with citizens in building a better city together, perhaps they can be a model for a better way forward.
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