Margaret Atwood: Public Enemy - Keith Roulston Editorial
Novelist Margaret Atwood, usually the darling of Canadian (as in Toronto) media, found herself on the wrong side of a heated debate in the past couple of weeks. She even found herself called the one insulting name that’s perfectly permissible to throw around these days: a NIMBY.
The term NIMBY, for not in my backyard, literally applies to Atwood because she was protesting the possible construction of an eight storey condominium on a busy Toronto street that would back onto Atwood’s backyard on a quieter street in one of the tonier parts of the city. (Another protester was Galen Weston Jr., head of Loblaws.) Despite the fact that other neighbours also didn’t want the apartment building in their backyards, it was Atwood who bore the brunt of sniping in the conventional and social media, perhaps because she’s usually in the forefront of liberal causes and on this issue, she’s a conservative – as in wanting to conserve what’s there.
Atwood committed the sin of going against the new religion of forward-looking Torontonians: densification. These are people who have embraced the 80 storey condo tower. According to them, all good things flow from stacking more people into a smaller area. More people on the streets leads to more shops and restaurants and theatres and nightspots, all the good things about the city.
The densifying condo crowd also claims virtue, since people living in downtown Toronto can walk or take the subway instead of driving their cars. In fact the densified city makes it almost impossible to own a car. You’ll need to buy a space to park your car in that condo tower at a price that could buy you a fixer-upper home in Huron County. Unless you’re driving out of downtown there are fewer and fewer places to park your car when you get somewhere because every decent-sized parking lot is being turned into a sky-scraping condo tower.
While car lovers might see this as a form of hell, they are really just showing their moral frailty as far as the densifiers are concerned. To these downtowners, suburbanites who insist on their own patch of lawn but need a car to buy groceries, are morally flawed (and probably secret Trump supporters). They are destroying the planet that those living in a 49th floor condo are working valiantly to save. Lord knows what these people think about rural Ontarians.
So anyway, when Margaret Atwood spoke out against losing the privacy of her backyard, she instantly went from a hero to a villain in the eyes of many. Not only was she speaking out against densification, but she was being selfish because she wanted to protect an outdated sense of privacy. She was a NIMBY!
Now the thing I’ve noticed about the accusation of NIMBYism, is that it’s usually made by those whose backyards are not endangered against those who actually have their backyards threatened. Most often those who are protesting against a development that’s going to affect their quality of living are blasted for standing in the way of something that’s for the benefit of the many, so they’re supposed to quietly accept their lives being upset or they are that horrid creature: a NIMBY.
So rural Ontarians who protested that they didn’t want hundreds of wind turbines churning in their neighbourhoods became NIMBYs to self-righteous environmentalists living in downtown Toronto, a hundred miles from a wind farm. Their concerns could be easily dismissed as those of backwards, self-serving NIMBYs.
If somebody proposes a new landfill or airport in a rural area that will serve millions of people in a city far away, the locals who become upset are NIMBYs to city-dwellers.
There’s some truth in this charge, of course. People who are comfortable seldom want to change what gives them comfort. I recall going to a planning meeting, years ago, over a development proposal by a landowner in the Bayfield area who wanted to turn his farm into a centre for horse lovers who would build estate-type houses to live in and keep their horses in communal stables. The loudest opponent was a woman who had moved to Bayfield a decade earlier and wanted to prevent any changes that might undermine the pleasure she’d found in the quiet village. The proposal didn’t go ahead.
Probably Atwood’s protest against the apartments in her backyard is doomed, particularly given the vicious public backlash which is, in another way, a vote of support for the project. For sure Toronto does need to grow up, not out, if it’s going to keep getting bigger (though being creative enough to share the growth with smaller communities might solve multiple problems). Condemning as NIMBYs those who stand up for their own rights against the perceived societal benefit, however, is self-serving of those who want others to sacrifice for what they want.