WHY Saying "no" is more powerful than "please" in Edmonton / by Tim Querengesser

"Please in my backyard."

It's not a term you often hear in Edmonton, and that might be because it too often gets ignored.

True, "please" groups like QA Crossroads in the Queen Alexandra community, or the group I helped start, which successfully pushed for more logical and walk-oriented pedestrian wayfinding in downtown Edmonton, both scream, "Please in My Backyard!" and both have created change. 

 Sidewalk at far left, sod moat at middle, back end of buildings at far right. Walkability is about making places that are nice to walk along. This is a good example of how not to achieve that. 

Sidewalk at far left, sod moat at middle, back end of buildings at far right. Walkability is about making places that are nice to walk along. This is a good example of how not to achieve that. 

But the PIMBYs are way less powerful than the NIMBYs when it comes to what happens in the backyards of Edmonton. Politicians in this city listen to negativity, it seems, far quicker than to better ideas, proposed solutions or the best practices that other cities use.

We're all lesser for it. 

To illustrate my point, let's compare a PIMBY exercise to a NIMBY one.

As early as 2013, the Oliver Community League made it very public that it was not happy with the proposed Molson Crosstown development that became the Brewery District, roughly located at 121 Street and 104 Avenue. (For a full recap of the league's work to encourage a better development, click here.)

I live in Oliver and found the league's efforts to engage with the developer inspiring. Our community held several events where we brainstormed what a development that spoke to our community's love of walking and cycling, and the fact we have seniors, kids and all sorts of other diverse needs, would look like.

The league then told the developer and city administrators that it wanted the development, yes, but also wanted some tweaks to make it better. It was pure PIMBY. 

But despite all that good work and honest PIMBY diplomacy, Oliver got little of what it suggested.

Result? I routinely jump for my life from motorists, who fly through the arterial roads that surround the Brewery District, when I walk to buy groceries at what became my neighbourhood grocery store. I shudder to think what happens to the seniors, who live a block away in a dedicated retirement facility, when they dare to walk there to buy a meal.

Let's compare this, then, to the NIMBYs.

As I've written, and as Louis Pereira with INFILL Edmonton so brilliantly illustrated with a graphic, Edmonton is dense at its core and the modern suburbs at its fringes while being comparatively empty in its middle.

 Courtesy Twitter/Louis Pereira

Courtesy Twitter/Louis Pereira

It's a donut city. 

Now, as with any donut city, most planners and urbanists see the inner suburbs of Edmonton as badly in need of densification. Yet Edmonton's decision makers have routinely responded to NIMBY activism from many of these inner-city communities, who often oppose denser developments within them using all manner of reasoning, by creating a Mature Neighbourhoods Overlay. 

What is it? In the simplest of terms, the overlay — created in 2001 — is a policy approach that locks these mature neighbourhoods in time, hamstringing infill developers and effectivley forcing other 'hoods, like downtown, Oliver and the new suburbs on our outer fringes, to absorb the boat-load of Edmonton's desperately needed density in the form of ever-taller towers or multi-unit developments.

Thankfully, this overlay policy is currently under review. But a quick read of the proposed changes seems to suggest the NIMBY side of the discussion is still winning rather than the PIMBY side. One community is even taking the opposition to density so far that it's proposing a restrictive covenant there that could make it impossible to split lots — something that's often required for density.

I'm not a politician and I'm not a genius, but it's clear to me the conversation needs to swing toward those saying please rather than those just saying no. Please, allow something different in my backyard but please just add the following things to it to make it better. 

Over to you, Edmonton.