Public Consultations

This week started with a Planning meeting that included a public consultation about a proposed development near a wetland. Before, during, and after this meeting there has been significant public interest: councillors have been receiving emails, addressing comments on social media, and getting phone calls about the development, and through all of this communication we’ve seen a huge variety of concerns. In this post I’ll look at the types of concerns we see, and outline the purpose and process to bring a bit more clarity to the matter. I won’t comment about the development proposal itself, as that is still in process.

NIMBYs and the Issues & Values Behind Opposition

The acronym NIMBY gets used a lot these days. It means Not In My Back Yard, and describes opposition to development from people whose neighbourhood will be directly affected by it, but who would not oppose that development if it were happening somewhere else. It’s associated with an expression of entitlement: I’m okay with this thing existing, I might support or even rely on it existing, but put it in someone else’s neighbourhood.

There are very legitimate criticisms of NIMBYism. Consider the fact that it’s common to see toxic industrial developments and garbage dumps located disproportionately around poor people, and especially People of Colour. In The Inconvenient Indian, Thomas King talks about the prevalence of heavy industry and waste facilities on or adjacent to Indian Reserves: Indigenous leaders are faced with the hard choice of approving the placement of toxic pollution adjacent to (or in!) their community for the sake of access to jobs, sometimes the only jobs available to their people; or for the revenue from their community literally being used as a garbage dump.

Required reading for Canadians, in my opinion.

NIMBYism often also shows up as opposition to emergency shelters and low-income housing, which are both often stigmatized and associated with crime and nuisance. Not many people are willing to say that we shouldn’t support people who are experiencing homelessness, but that doesn’t stop people from saying that they don’t want a shelter in their neighbourhood. Even renters are often discriminated against, on the assumption that they will degrade property values just by existing in a neighbourhood. I once witnessed someone stand up in a public meeting in Brighton, about a neighbourhood that would be a little more affordable than the one next door, and say “we moved here to get away from those people.” Who “those people” were, they didn’t say; I presume they meant people with lower incomes, based on the context. They supported affordable housing, just not in their neighbourhood.

While there are legitimate and serious problems with NIMBYism, labelling people as “NIMBYs” does nothing to change their minds, and so isn’t helpful. And unfortunately, the label seems to be applied to all opposition to development lately. The provincial government has started using the term to define almost anyone who challenges a development proposal, including their move to open the Green Belt for development. They’re even publicly using another acronym, BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything, to justify drastically reducing development regulation, timelines, and consultation. (Oddly, they weren’t critical of NIMBYism when it was behind opposition to wind power generation; they simply tore down the wind farms.)

Brent Toderian used to be Chief Planner for Vancouver. His thoughts on NIMBYism are much more constructive than those of the Ontario government these days.

The reality about NIMBYism is that it’s often rooted in anxiety that grows from very real and rational concerns; and that it’s facilitated by the social and economic power imbalances that allow some of us to keep problems out of sight and out of mind. We throw our garbage “away”, and feel like it’s just gone; but “away” is a real place, usually in the backyard (figuratively or literally) of someone who can’t afford to oppose it. Changing the narrative about NIMBYism, then, is critical to shift it from a moral issue about the entitlement of privileged people, and toward systemic issues of inequality, racism, pollution, environmental degradation, and other issues that are reflected in our built environment.

Local Concerns

I’m so pleased to see that the local concerns that have been expressed in the past week have been mostly about those larger issues. The crowd that filled the Owen Gibb Hall on Monday wasn’t just from the neighbourhood directly adjacent to the proposed development; there were folks from all over Brighton. The opposition included:

  • Environmental concerns, including habitat protection for threatened and endangered species, the ecosystem integrity of the neighbouring marsh, the environmental impact of vibrations from construction, and chemical, light, and noise pollution from the development;
  • Cultural concerns relating to the pottery shards found on site, dating back to the 6th century CE. There has been a lot of talk about the importance of engaging with First Nations about what to do with the site, and honouring the spirit of the Land Acknowledgement we read as we begin each Council meeting;
  • Even concerns that the development wouldn’t “fit” the neighbourhood in terms of size and density, which would normally come off as more typical NIMBYism, were expressed in connection to the very real and ongoing problem of gentrification and the loss of the character of the historic community there.

And while toxic NIMBYism is an exercise in offloading problems onto people who can’t afford to avoid them, there were repeated calls from the public for the municipality to do what they saw as the right thing for this property, regardless of the cost. There were suggestions for alternative use of the land, and public ownership of it, turning what might have been a NIMBY response about the proposed development into a YIMBY for environmental protection and cultural heritage. Some have argued that this is where the flipside of NIMBYism comes into play: people elsewhere in the municipality may not want to pay for a public park outside their own neighbourhood (or pay for the often symbolic gesture of Council saying no to a development proposal on principle).

Image borrowed from a report from Huron College on NIMBYism:

On the whole, I have been incredibly proud of my community these past few weeks. The conversation we’re having about a development goes so much deeper than the shallow NIMBYism the provincial government keeps attacking.

The Consultation Process

The point of the consultation is to get at these values issues. Unfortunately, because these values are often difficult to express and are tied to specific and technical issues, it’s hard to have the values discussion we need.

The development process itself is oriented almost entirely to the technical and policy considerations behind a development proposal: will the proposed project meet all of the requirements of the law and regulations? Those matters are addressed by Planning department staff, who receive professional reports from the developer and their consultants, and pass them off to the Conservation Authority for a professional peer review. That is to say, it’s up to the professionals to decide if a project is technically sound. They do so before Council has to make any decisions about the project, so that by the time Council receives a final report, all of the technical issues are settled.

Councillors know that we need to make a values judgment on the proposal as part of our decision. But there usually isn’t an official consultant report that shows us the values of the community and how they relate to a particular project. If there was, we wouldn’t really need Councillors at all – it would be an entirely bureaucratic process, making sure all of the boxes are checked. Our job is to be in touch with the community, to keep the long-term, big-picture perspective that doesn’t fit into simple boxes, and then apply that to a completed proposal. And one of the ways that we can keep that big picture, values-oriented perspective is to bring the community together for a consultation.

I’ve been torn about the order of this process. One of the issues we’ve had this week is that several members of the public spent dozens of hours each going through technical reports and finding all of the errors and inconsistencies that the professional peer review is supposed to catch. The public shouldn’t have to do that technical work, and it’s questionable as to whether it’s even appropriate to have non-experts fact-check technical reports. (In this case, they did a great job of saying “this doesn’t look; I’m not an expert, but please look into this, because it doesn’t make sense to me.” That’s great! But in many other cases, climate science being the obvious example, non-experts dismiss experts all the time, degrading the social value of expertise.) Councillors have received messages accusing us of failing to do our due diligence by not having fact-checked the reports ourselves, which is really not appropriate nor what the meeting was for.

Image source:

My thought was that if we had the technical reports vetted by the peer review process before the public consultation, then there would be no concern about technical issues and we could focus more on the values conversation. Part of the problem with that is that the process and its timelines are prescribed by the province, so we can’t control the process or change it too much.

But the other part of the problem is that the difficult-to-define values discussion, while being critically important to residents and the quality of our community, is a qualitative matter (how things seem, feel, and are valued); while the technical criteria that a development must meet are quantitative (things that can be counted and measured, boxes that can be checked). If Council were to say no to a development that has fulfilled the provincially-mandated, quantitative requirements, on the basis of subjective, vague, qualitative values, we need to be able to make a very compelling argument for doing so. It’s hard to argue facts vs feelings, and that’s how many see the difference between technical requirements and community values. So while these two types of criteria are both important, they can’t be weighed against each other easily, if at all.

This leads to the public feeling as though their feedback at a consultation session is an afterthought that doesn’t carry much weight. Putting the public consultation closer to the end of the process, after all of the technical considerations have been approved, would make that worse. Also, if we want the developer to take the public feedback into account, it might (hopefully!) result in them changing their proposal, which would mean they need to redo some of their technical reports. So earlier is better in many ways.

On that basis, I think it’s best that we stick with the current timelines, which involve several rounds of public consultation before the technical considerations are finalized. That does mean that the public will be presented with technical reports that have not been peer reviewed, and may have errors or deficiencies. This means that we (the municipality, and councillors) need to get better at communicating the purpose of the consultation, drawing out and contextualizing the values conversation that informs our ultimate decision. That might mean changing the format of our meetings: right now they feel like a tribunal of public opinion, both woodenly formal and somehow adversarial. I think we can do better.

Thankfully, our Planning department is already changing the public consultation process. I have volunteered to help create new processes and strategies, so if you have any feedback on the process, please let me know!

2 thoughts on “Public Consultations

  1. Don’t forget Jeff the proof of consultation is the number of changes to the initial drafts made by the public. In most consultation reviews the consultants/planners/politicians/ draft writers will load up the final results will reams of comments made by the public but very few of them make it into the final report.

    This has two effects, one is the reinforcement of the initial drafters opinions and positions and the other is the public’s reaction to the rejection of many considered valid comments which leads to more public cynicism about the process.

    1. Good points! It’s really important that we maintain confidence in the process; that means both ensuring that the process is actually worthy of confidence, but also managing the expectations of residents so that they’re not expecting more than is possible or reasonable. If people are frustrated with the process, I want to make sure it’s for the right reasons, not just because we communicated it poorly.

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