Local democracy can be a beautiful thing, especially for the citizens who participate in it and influence the vital decisions that impact their lives.
An instructive lesson in this kind of “people power” was taught by residents of a central Kitchener neighborhood who appeared before a city committee and blocked approval for a condominium development they did not want. Banding together, they managed to make the case this week that the four-story, 32-unit project planned for Frederick Street and Gordon Avenue was, as one put it, ‘an oversized monstrosity’ that was too large for the terrain and totally incompatible with the surrounding houses.
Similar victories by citizen activists have recently made headlines in Waterloo Region, first when residents of the village of Blair halted the construction of a giant warehouse, then when rural landowners in Wilmot Township convinced local politicians say no to a new gravel pit.
At this point, we can almost hear the cheers of many readers, applauding all the local Davids who challenge the formidable Goliaths of development and, for now at least, come away victorious.
While these cases remind us of how local democracy can work and why it matters, a radical redevelopment initiative that is gaining traction across Canada is making us rethink those assumptions. Canada is in the midst of a severe housing crisis. As a solution to this problem, many pundits and politicians want city governments to end exclusionary zoning that reserves large swathes of urban communities for single-family homes. Instead, they want to allow multi-unit buildings to be built on land currently zoned for these increasingly coveted single-family homes.
The result, according to proponents of the idea, would increase the supply of affordable housing, particularly the supply of the so-called “missing middle”. This term describes a range of multifamily or clustered housing types whose scale is compatible with traditional family neighborhoods.
In February, the Task Force on Housing Affordability in Ontario released a report that championed widespread building of the “missing middle” as a way to help more Ontarians buy homes while creating denser, more more suitable for walking.
But there was a fly in the ointment – and a very big one. From now on, the province would have the power to impose standards relating to zoning, density and urban design. This would mean that the inhabitants of the neighborhoods to be redeveloped and their local politicians would have little or no say in the major decisions that would transform their place of life.
Given how unpopular such a change would be for many, it’s no surprise that Premier Doug Ford refused to act on the “missing middle” task force’s recommendation.
Many city planners and environmentalists were appalled. A dramatic situation demanded drastic action, they said. And, of course, paving the way for that “missing middle” in the province’s urban and suburban communities could help achieve the task force’s goal of building 1.5 million homes over the next decade. In fact, this may be the path Ontario should take.
But at what cost ?
It would be wise to consider all the implications of this plan before setting it in legal stone. Many of the task force’s recommendations would take powers away from municipalities and hand them over to Queen’s Park. In addition to allowing the province to increase neighborhood density, the task force would cede the power to repeal municipal policies focused on preserving neighborhood character, limiting time spent on public consultation on housing developments and establish uniform provincial standards for urban design. design, including building shadows and setbacks. The result? More centralized power; less local authority.
The implications for local democracy in all of this are huge and need to be sorted out. On the one hand, there is strong public support for the citizens of a community to have a voice in decisions that affect not only their homes, which are often people’s most prized possession, but their very lives. At the same time, the public may be quick to condemn NIMBYism — that seemingly selfish, out-of-my-back response to any proposed change.
While we offer no definitive answers, we ask three questions of people in Waterloo Region and across Ontario:
When is the voice of the people a legitimate force to be heard and respected?
When is it something that should be ignored as an unreasonable expression of self-interest contrary to collective need?
And how do we decide what changes to make in a province that will add two million people over the next decade?