Seeing Development Through the Looking Glass
Originally Printed in Building Magazine, May/June 2018
These days it has become so common to see local politicians opposing real estate development in their ward that it no longer has that “through the looking glass” feel to it. In fact, today it would seem more unusual for a politician to grandstand in favour of a development project than against it. But it hasn’t always been that way.
Until fairly recently, local politicians were elected on their ability to attract private investment, spur growth and create new jobs.
However, the politics of real estate development has changed dramatically in recent years. Municipal politicians once fought for new jobs, development and private investment in their communities—that was the yardstick upon which they were judged when seeking re-election. Those days are gone.
Today’s politicians seem to have realized that the path to re-election no longer lies in supporting real estate development; it lies in opposing it.
At first, this appears counter-intuitive. Not only does real estate development bring jobs and economic growth, but poll after poll show the majority of Canadians strongly support intensification and sustainability.
Yet, as we see time after time in project after project across the country, politicians today are more likely to oppose these types of projects than support them. The question is why?
Why are local politicians putting narrow, short-term interests above the future needs of the city, the province and the country?
The answer lies in the old adage that “all politics is local.” In other words, a politician’s success is directly tied to their ability to understand and influence the issues of concern to the majority of their constituents. If they want to get re-elected, they have to vote accordingly.
But knowing exactly what the majority of constituents want has become increasingly difficult.
For more than a decade now, project opponents have successfully used online tools to distort the perception of what the majority truly wants. Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have made it easy for project opponents to enlist friends, family and neighbours to the cause. Do-it-yourself websites give small groups the veneer of size, money and professionalism. And online petitions allow opponents to send form letters to politicians with robotic efficiency.
Meanwhile, the silent majority who may support a project, don’t take the time or have the inclination to stand up and be counted. They remain just that: silent.
At the pointy end of the spear stands the municipal politician.
As their constituency offices are being bombarded with angry emails and petitions. As the media reports on the feisty heritage group battling a project that they say threatens the fabric of the community. As Open Houses feature one opponent after another, the political calculus changes for an elected official.
Supporting a project that once seemed like a good thing for the community begins to look a lot more like political suicide. Why would an elected official support a project and subject themselves to the outrage of angry opponents?
Instead, standing with opponents is the politically convenient path. Dramatically announcing your opposition to a controversial development is the right posture for an elected official seeking to maintain office and grab headlines. Who can blame them?
In the end, deciding what gets built is a political process that is now dominated by opponents.
When supporters are not motivated to attend public hearings or to speak up, their position will remain unrepresented and opponents will continue to shape the skyline, for better or worse.
Without a more balanced view of community sentiment, politicians will be forced to vote against the best interests of their constituencies. As a result, projects that would otherwise bring economic growth and other benefits will encounter costly delays or outright cancellation.
With no remedy in sight, project developers need to update their playbook. How many times will local voices kill projects before developers realize local voices can save projects as well?
Developers today need to think about engaging people who might support their projects before the inevitable backlash begins. They need to help these supporters better organize. They need them to sign online petitions. They need them to write their politicians and show up at meetings. They need them to show that there is another, more positive side to the development story.
They need the public to counter the inevitable cries of “No” with calls for “Yes.”
Until then, Canada will continue to exist through the looking glass, where the minority is the majority and the best development is no development at all.