Calgary's brash brand of NIMBYism and why we pay so much attention to it

Some fear immigrants. Some fear poor people. Some fear trees. They're known, pejoratively, as NIMBYs (an acronym for not-in-my-backyard!) and they've been on full display in Calgary lately.

Not-in-my-backyard sentiment may not be on the rise, but its lack of pretense keeps attracting eyeballs

Search Google images for 'NIMBY Calgary' and the first picture that pops up is this shot of an older man berating a city employee about how people in his neighbourhood don't want rapid transit because they drive Mercedes Benz. (CBC)

Some fear immigrants. Some fear poor people. Some fear trees.

They're known, pejoratively, as NIMBYs (an acronym for not-in-my-backyard!) and they've been on full display in Calgary lately.

Local headlines have routinely reflected a relatively small number of residents' unabashed opposition to projects in their neighbourhoods.

Their views are often proclaimed loudly and publicly, no matter how self-serving the opinions may appear to outsiders.

NIMBYism is by no means unique to Calgary but there's a particular "brashness" to the sentiment in this city, says Jessica Barrett, a journalist who's covered urban issues while living both here and in Vancouver.

"The thing that strikes me in Calgary is how there's no shame in people being just straight-up classist," she said.

"In Vancouver, maybe it's our west-coast liberal guilt, but people like to dress up NIMBYism as like, 'We're protecting neighbourhood character and heritage.' ... It's dressed up as more of a social-justice thing, in a weird way."

But in Calgary, it seems the desire to halt change outweighs any fear of public ridicule.

And there's been plenty of ridicule.

Sarcasm, mockery, condemnation

Calgary is a rapidly changing city, and change can be difficult.

But these days, if you have concerns about something that's about to shake up your neighbourhood, it takes some daring to speak out.

Those who oppose a project can expect to run into strong opposition, themselves.

Rightly or wrongly, Calgarians have been mercilessly mocked for trying to block a long and growing list of recent projects, including a special-needs schoolbus rapid transitsecondary suites owned by immigrantsaffordable housing units and additional trees in a park.

One of many social media posts making fun of Calgarians who opposed the city planting trees in their local park. (@thatSilvaLining/Twitter)

The outrage over alleged NIMBYism boils hottest on social media, but has bubbled up through more traditional means, too.

The city's transportation manager, in a CBC Radio interview, sarcastically compared safety concerns surrounding a dedicated bus lane to worries about meteor strikes or Godzilla attacks.

City councillors variously described constituents' class-based comments in opposition to a small subsidized housing project as "insane bigotry" and "soul-destroying."

The mayor even took the unusual step of cancelling public engagement sessions in response to what he described as threats against city staff from citizens opposed to a transit-expansion plan.

But is NIMBYism any more prevalent in Calgary than in other major centres? And is it getting worse?

University of Calgary professor Francisco Uribe doesn't think so.

Fewer NIMBYs, but louder voices

Uribe helps run the university's Urban Lab, which works directly with community associations on design, planning and development issues.

That work includes organizing public engagement events and hearing directly from citizens who are upset by particular proposals, but Uribe says after 12 years he's seen no growth in the number of people who are staunchly opposed to change, regardless of the bigger picture.

"There has pretty much always been a few citizens out there that have had that position," he said.

A packed house at a redevelopment proposal in the northwest Calgary community of Brentwood. University of Calgary professor Francisco Uribe says citizens are actually more open to change in their community than they were in the past, but the anti-development voices seem to get the most attention. (CBC)

If he had to ballpark a number, Uribe figures it's about five per cent of city residents who are the truest NIMBYs, opposed to virtually everything and unwilling to listen to other points of view.

But he said Calgarians, as a whole, actually seem increasingly well informed and willing to compromise when it comes to proposed projects in their communities that they may not like, initially.

It's something he credits, in part, to a growing number of young people and new arrivals who are well aware that living in a city of more than a million people will come with some degree conflict, but believe it's nothing that can't be sorted out with reasonable discussion.

'Echo chamber'

If there's been any change in NIMBY ranks, Uribe thinks they're actually slightly smaller, proportionally, than they were in the past.

But one big difference he's noticed is in the coverage they get.

"It appears that the media is paying closer attention or giving a louder voice to the same amount of people," he said.

"So I'm not so sure we're seeing more NIMBYism or we're just paying it too much attention."

As a journalist, Barrett sees truth in that assessment.

She noted stories about NIMBYism tend to generate strong reactions, which drives reporters and editors to cover the topic more often.

"It becomes an echo chamber," she said.

Secondary-suite opponents, wearing green armbands and pocket squares to show their solidarity, stand in wait for their turn to speak to Calgary city council in May 2015. (Robson Fletcher/Twitter)

It also makes for an easy story when vocal opponents hold a rally or patiently wait at city council for hours — days, sometimes — to voice their opposition.

"For journalists, sometimes, it's a bit of the low-hanging fruit," Barrett said.

"We have conflict, so we have the story, and maybe we do focus on it a bit more. And it's harder for us, as journalists, to source out the people who disagree because they're not as organized, they're not sitting there at council."

Why so angry?

For many Calgarians, one of the more confusing aspects of the local NIMBY flavour is why some people get so upset over what seem, on the surface, like relatively benign changes in their communities.

But securities analyst Hilliard Macbeth says there's a simple answer — money.

Given how all-in many homeowners are on real estate, Macbeth said it's understandable how highly sensitive some are to the slightest perceived threat to their property values, particularly baby boomers on the verge of retirement.

"It really is a big part of most people's investment portfolios," he said.

"People really have very little savings outside of their homes."

Many Calgarians say they're relying on selling their homes to fund their retirements. (Robson Fletcher/CBC)

Indeed, recent opponents to the city's plan to build 16 affordable housing units in the relatively well off community of Rosedale specifically cited fears that the introduction of lower-cost housing would crack their nest eggs.

"We realise that you may think that we have a 'Not in my backyard' point of view, but that is not the case," one couple wrote to city officials in an email, as part of the public-engagement process.

"We are extremely open-minded and welcoming people, but we are close to retirement and the potential impact on our investment at this stage in our lives is most concerning … we are most sympathetic to those in need, but this sympathy should not preclude us from protecting our investment."

Another resident wrote: "Affordable housing in this community will lower property values. Big impact to my retirement."

And yet another: "We are in our mid-fifties and heading towards retirement in a couple of years. If this effects (sic) the value of our home, that drastically changes our retirement plans."

While he's careful not to paint all NIMBYs as baby boomers or vice-versa, Uribe said it can be difficult for older people who bought their homes in 1970s or 1980s Calgary to reconcile just how different the city is in the 2010s.

"Many in the older generations, I think, they see this and understand this and have come around," he said.

"But there are some that are still entrenched in the old ideals that nobody parks in front of my house … and I can drive anywhere and I don't want to see any higher densities around me."

Misapplication of the NIMBY label

Janice Paskey, a professor of journalism at Calgary's Mount Royal University, said it's tough to find hard data showing any growth in the coverage of NIMBYism, but she believes the term is overused, as it is.

"I just am really cautious to label people in that way, when really I think we should be listening to what they have to say," she said.

Calling opponents NIMBYs has become a shorthand way to dismiss them, she said, whether or not they have legitimate concerns that have a valid place in the public discourse.

Ian and Ellen Burgess have been publicly criticized for opposing additional trees in the park outside their home due to the impact on sight-lines. Less mentioned is the fact that their concerns over crime are backed up by police data showing a big spike in car prowlings in their community. (Natasha Frakes/CBC)

Most homeowners are "deeply attached to their homes and their neighbourhoods," Paskey added, and the fact that people are passionate about issues affecting their own communities shouldn't come as a surprise, nor should it be trivialized when they are facing financial loss.

"When people are going to take a hit to their home … or a perceived hit to their home, that's a legitimate concern,"she said.

"Do we beat up on people because they actually might be losing money?"

'It's not actually rational'

Barrett agreed property values are a "real concern" but said city planning decisions can't be made to protect the undiversified portfolios of certain citizens.

"It's problematic when individual investments start driving the show, when we're catering to those people who are concerned about their retirement," she said.

"It's unfortunate but … that's not what the municipal government is there to do. That's more of a social policy from a national standpoint issue that's playing out — like so many things do — in our cities."

All that said, Barrett believes the often-articulated concerns over house prices and retirement plans mask a more fundamental driver of NIMBY behaviour.

"It's an emotional thing for people. It's not actually rational," she said.

"People dress it up in terms of investments and property values, but what it comes down to is: 'I like my life. I'm happy here. I'm comfy here. I've always lived here. I've always lived this way. And what you're threatening is my way of life and my identity.' And that is a sure-fire way to get people's backs up."

Raised hackles don't help, Uribe said, in resolving conflicts that inevitably arise when a million or more people try to live side-by-side, nor do they help build a great city. If there's to be detente, there must be dialogue — and that means not blindly slapping the NIMBY label on anyone who disagrees with you.

"We have to be very careful not to put everybody into that bucket, just because they oppose a project," Uribe said.

"They might have very good reasons. The project could be terrible, and then everybody should be opposing it."

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

Robson Fletcher

Reporter / Editor

Robson Fletcher joined the CBC Calgary digital team in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.


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