Roland Tanner: the election was a referendum on the future of urban intensification.

opinionred 100x100By Roland Tanner

January 15th, 2019


Originally published on January 9th in Raise the Hammer.

Burlington’s and Hamilton’s municipal elections had one thing in common: they were both, unusually for municipal politics, heated and divisive affairs that pitched mayoral and concil candidates against each other with fundamentally different points of view.

In Hamilton it was a referendum on light rail transit (LRT), convincingly won by incumbent Fred Eisenberger.

In Burlington it was a referendum on the future of urban intensification ordered since the Places to Grow Act in 2005. The result was an overwhelming victory for Marianne Meed Ward, formerly the Councillor for downtown Ward 2, who has campaigned for ten years against downtown and citywide ‘over-intensification’, especially with regard to high-rise buildings.


Marianne Meed Ward: She was often a lone voice pleading for better municipal government.

Until the election, she was a lone voice on council, and one whose council colleagues viewed her with often vitriolic animosity. With almost a complete sweep of Councillors, with the exception of one re-elected incumbent, the new council is one seemingly aligned with Marianne Meed Ward’s agenda to control intensification.

In both cases, therefore, the elections have been portrayed as a battle between progressive urbanists – pro-transit, pro-intensification, pro-walkable communities – against regressive and entitled suburban interests fundamentally opposed to healthy modern cities. Both elections can be painted as NIMBY referendums.

Burlington aerial

‘Residents treasure downtown as a special area characterized by unique stores and a low to medium-rise character with a high proportion of historic buildings. They like the already walkable streets which are narrow and ‘car unfriendly’ by North American standards.’

In Hamilton, the story goes, the urbanists won, while in Burlington a reactionary, car-centric and selfish aging population elected a populist leader promising the impossible – to stop Burlington’s urban intensification contrary to provincial law, meanwhile denying pro-urbanist Millennials an affordable place to live.

So is this perception correct? Did the bad guys win in Burlington, or is the truth more complex?

Progressive New Council


Lawn sign opposing tall buildings in downtown Burlington (RTH file photo)

I was one of the candidates in the election, coming second to Lisa Kearns in Burlington’s downtown Ward 2. I would certainly call myself an urbanist – pro-transit, pro-walkable communities, pro-intensification, anti-car-centric planning and anti-urban sprawl. It was therefore surprising to find myself cast on the ‘wrong’ side of the urbanist debate and accused of selling out to NIMBYs.

Both Lisa Kearns and I campaigned in favour of controlling intensification, and especially controlling height in Burlington’s downtown, protecting an area that residents from across the city perceive as both special and fragile.

It was testament to the extent to which voters shared that perspective that we came first and second respectively, without any risk of splitting the vote and allowing a candidate aligned with incumbent mayor Rick Goldring to win.

Consider the following. Most of the incumbents in Burlington who were just voted out or retired had consistently voted against transit funding, some for decades, and in fact voted for a disastrous cut to transit funding eight years ago, which caused a dramatic fall in ridership.


Paul Sharman – made it back to city council where he is now a lone voice for a different way of governing.

Paul Sharman, the one incumbent to keep his job, first became involved in municipal activism because of his opposition to a bus route outside his home.

All the incumbents were highly conservative, and mostly also Conservative. In contrast, every single one of the new Councillors, and Marianne Meed Ward, is on the record favouring better transit in Burlington. Burlington may finally have a council that believes in, and is willing to fund, the transit system it needs.

Goldring Advocating Sprawl

Meanwhile, Rick Goldring, the supposed defender of urbanism, intensification, and the Greenbelt, suddenly suggested mid-campaign that Burlington should annex Waterdown from Hamilton, a suggestion which Mayor Eisenberger countered with some panache.

Goldring’s logic was the ludicrous position that annexing Waterdown would take pressure off downtown development by allowing Burlington to develop greenfield sites. All of a sudden, Burlington’s supposedly urbanist mayor, who had invited Brent Toderian to speak and employed a former high-ranking Vancouver City Planner as his city manager, was advocating sprawl.

It was a suggestion as counterproductive as it was confusing. Furthermore, Goldring sought to throw the previous provincial government, and his former provincial counterpart, under the bus at every opportunity. It was suddenly all the Liberals’ fault – forcing intensification on him against his better judgement.

A new PC government and PC MPP, according to Goldring, opened up the opportunity for working with the province to ‘fix’ Places to Grow. We can all guess what that ‘fix’ would look like.

Marianne Meed Ward, as far as I am aware, has never criticized Places to Grow, or intensification, which she campaigned for as an Ontario Liberal candidate in the 2007 provincial election. She is on the record as consistently supporting better transit.

She stated in her inaugural speech that she would never support any development of Greenbelt land, a particularly welcome statement given the provincial government announced it would allow cities to build new businesses on the Greenbelt the same week.

Don’t get me wrong: I have had disagreements with Marianne Meed Ward over the years, and there are policy areas about which I wish she were more enthusiastic. But I do not see the evidence that she, or most of the new council, is opposed to a modern, healthy city. The facts simply do not support the position that anti-urbanist candidates won.

Residents Accept Growth, Cherish Downtown

And what of the voters, the supposedly selfish NIMBYs who want Burlington not to change and to force young Burlingtonians away?

I’m biased, but I believe I and my team knocked on more doors in Ward 2 than any other candidate. What I found at the doors was people who, yes, were overwhelmingly concerned about the scale of downtown development, particularly in a small area around south Brant Street and Lakeshore Road.

That was as true of young and old residents, the wealthy and those on lower incomes, private home owners and those in apartments and housing co-ops. There was no Boomer/Millennial split.

And when I say ‘overwhelmingly’ I mean ‘overwhelmingly’. When asked for their concerns, between 80 to 90 percent of people mentioned downtown development unprompted.

But literally 100 percent of the people I met loved their city – what an amazing statistic! They loved it but feared that the things that made it special were under threat.

They accepted that Burlington had to grow and that more people were going to move here. They were willing to see change. Most were even willing to see some more high-rises if they were done in appropriate areas – namely mobility hubs connected to Go Transit. In other words, they were willing to accept exactly what the province has been encouraging cities to do for over a decade.

Residents treasure downtown as a special area characterized by unique stores and a low to medium-rise character with a high proportion of historic buildings. They like the already walkable streets which are narrow and ‘car unfriendly’ by North American standards.

They appreciate too, that downtown can be better. There is too much space wasted on surface level parking which could become residential or commercial. There are many buildings which are neither historic nor attractive, where nobody would oppose good development – just not high-rise.

They want better transit – strongly – and appreciate that better transit is in everybody’s interest. Almost as strongly, they want more affordable housing, and dispute that high-rise condo development is doing anything for affordability. At $700,000 for a new studio condo downtown, I tend to agree.

Missing Middle

Does this sound like a NIMBY revolution to you? The only distinction between residents and Burlington’s planning department is that the residents I spoke to want a human scale in development, especially when building in established and loved neighbourhoods. They want the city that exists post intensification still to be recognizably the city that existed before – just bigger, and better.

Change is fine, they kept telling me, but it shouldn’t overwhelm the existing built environment. That is a position entirely consistent with the best urbanist principles. Urbanism has never been about ‘high-rise or bust’. It is about complete communities, with high density at a human scale.

Brent Toderian, the high priest of Canadian urbanism, makes the point constantly – it is the ‘missing middle’ we should be seeking most of all. Mid-rise development makes European cities what they are, and some of the most successful models of what urbanism seeks are famous for their lack of high rise development – Edinburgh, Copenhagen, central Paris, or a thousand other European cities.

The ‘missing middle’ is entirely appropriate as a means to allow more people to live in downtown Burlington. The mistake in Burlington has been the wish by developers, which was welcomed and endorsed by the council and then further reinforced by the OMB, to treat downtown like a greenfield site where residents interests don’t count and only maximizing height makes sense.

It wouldn’t happen in those European cities, and it shouldn’t happen here.

Decade’s Worth of Resentment

burlington_public_library_building_plains_road_and_kingsway_aldershotThis refusal to take residents’ reasonable opinions into account built up a decade’s-worth of resentment which almost swept the field on October 22. Seldom can a municipal election have stirred such strong feelings – strong enough that a council inaugural meeting had to be held in a sold out Burlington Performing Arts Centre, and some ward debates attracted over 400 people.

Other cities, and the provincial parties, would do well to learn from Burlington’s lesson. But they need to take the right message. Contrary to myth, the message is a good one for urbanists if we listen carefully to what is being said.

High-density cities built without resident input and careful engagement, and which overwhelm already successful urban environments with buildings residents hate, will repeat the mistakes of urban planners from the urban renewal era. We need to be careful to avoid adopting the same ‘we know best’ arrogance as those who drove highways through downtowns and advocated for suburban sprawl and car-centric planning.

The failure of urban planning, again and again, has been to ignore the people who actually live in the place being planned, and to claim residents don’t know what’s good for them. It’s these sweeping generalizations that allow us to use slurs like ‘NIMBY’, which are counterproductive, reductive and reflect a refusal to try to understand someone else’s point of view.

Tanner standing

Roland Tanner

The result has too-often been well-intentioned innovation implemented badly. But if cities like Burlington can truly learn to listen to residents’ voices, and to work hand in hand with citizens in building a better city together, perhaps they can be a model for a better way forward.

Roland Tanner lives and works in Burlington, where he has been a community volunteer for municipal and provincial causes for over a decade. You can visit his website.

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10 comments to Roland Tanner: the election was a referendum on the future of urban intensification.

  • Lindsay James

    Europe doesn’t have the Province of Ontario dictating development. We have to accept that any development application to amend the OP and Zoning Bylaw will have no limit on density or height. We have lost this battle but not the war. The best we can do is to demand parking for visitors wanting to enjoy restaurants and shopping at the reduction of parking for building residents. Add in car share and bicycle racks for them. We have to up the compensation for parkland and tree canopy so that new parks can be readily accessible and full of trees. And plant trees in parking lots with bio swales. Take adequate compensation for affordable housing and get creative with innovative construction techniques coupled with 21st century financing models. Partner with City, school and religious property owners to create mixed use developments where the cost of land will keep purchase and rents affordable. Pass a private tree bylaw that stops clear cutting and watch the redevelopment become affordable instead of high end townhouses. This Council can do it.

  • Adam

    Good article Roland. I agree with a lot of what was written however I don’t beleive we can simply say we want “mid-rise” development and it will happen, and it definitely won’t improve affordability. This is similar to saying that we want all new subdivisions in north Burlington to look like Roseland, Aldershot, Tyandega etc. with 70ft+ wide lots and lots of trees. It won’t happen becasue it is simply unaffordable. Land is too expensive, costs are too high. Same goes for a “mid-rise” condo development and the “missing middle”. These types of projects require large fixed costs of land, planning, design, underground parking etc. and the only way they make economic sense is to spread that cost over 100+ units. If the city says you can only build 30 units, those projects won’t happen. This is even more true in an area like downtown Burlington where develepers have to purchase properties with existing uses – retail, office space etc. where the land cost is even more expensive. I don’t love the tall buildings on the lake (bridgewater) either, but I don’t think most of the buildings are as bad as people say. For example, whats wrong with the project on Caroline behind Starbucks? Is that really such an atrocity? It’s right next to other apartments buildings of similar size and it looks quite nice. I think we have a luxury in Burlington that people want to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our city and increase the property tax that the city takes in. I’m pretty sure Brantford, Hamilton, St. Catharines etc. would love to have our “problems”.

  • Jim Young

    Thank you Roland, like Gary Scobie, not 100% in accord but in the days of 180 Character Tweeting as Policy, and Fordian back of the napkin planning, nice to see some depth and thought. Civic planning is complicated; requiring realism, foresight and honesty; qualities too often lacking in politics.

  • Gary Scobie

    I agree with most of your points, Roland. A progressive Council should mean that they advocate progress in well-placed intensification that is sympathetic to current neighbourhoods and current residents. In general that should translate to mid-rise buildings in the downtown and other smaller growth centres and high-rise buildings in the higher intensification zones around the three GO stations.

    Who’s opinions should we value more? Current residents who live here now and voted to manage and control intensification or future residents from elsewhere who didn’t vote at all in Burlington? I think the answer to that question is clear.

    It’s always easy and convenient to label current residents as NIMBY anti-development regressives, but I know many residents who are smart, thoughtful and engaged who want to help guide the City in kinder and gentler intensification that will satisfy both current and future residents.

    The transit problems have been neglected for so long that a quick fix is not in the cards. But a thoughtful plan to better serve the public over the term of this Council is possible. We have a good number of capable people on staff who can translate Council directions into actions that will make Burlington a better city. I’m hoping that the new Council will provide the vision for the planners and the transit staff to see this happen.

  • Susie

    Well written Roland. Thank you. My concern at this time is, are we now too late on the developers “rush of applications” presented to the City over the last year and a half for heights that far exceed the low to mid-rise developments requested by the people? If the drastic height changes are only for “new” applications as of a certain date, then we may be literally “up a creek without a paddle” in reaching “our” height goals, for a quoted number of 27 developments presently sitting in the hands of the planning department.

  • Steve

    “against regressive and entitled ” LOL no bias there.

  • steven craig gardner

    Roland can you remind me of what percentage of eligible voters actually voted for any mayoralty candidate and then of those hwo did what percentage of the total voted for Marianne. As I recall it was hardly overwhelming and had it been a 2 person race we would have had a real nail biter I am told. Marianne did very well in getting her supporters out tpo vote but I dont think we can elaborate on that to say it i what all or an overwhelming majority of Burlington wants. That would be a stretch.

    • Stephen White

      BTW…great article Roland! You really captured the essence of the election and voter sentiment across the city. Pity some readers are fixated on minor, insignificant detail rather than comprehending the essence of your argument.

      In answer to your questions: (a) The municipal turnout was 39.79%, of whom (b) 50,733 voted for a Mayoralty candidate, and (c) 23,360 of whom voted for Marianne Meed Ward (i.e. 46.04%). And whether there were one, two, three, four or a hundred persons running for Mayor is really incidental because, in the end, the incumbent was defeated. Had it been a two person race I would venture that a number of persons who voted for Mike Wallace or Greg Woodruff would probably have voted for Marianne as a second choice because many of them shared the same anger, frustrations and disappointment with the performance of the previous incumbent. As to Burlington’s election turnout, well, it has always been traditionally low, so no revelation there.

  • Rob Allan

    Couldn’t agree more … “Mid-rise development makes European cities what they are, and some of the most successful models of what urbanism seeks are famous for their lack of high rise development – Edinburgh, Copenhagen, central Paris, or a thousand other European cities.”

  • Hans

    Roland, Your comment “The mistake in Burlington has been the wish by developers, which was welcomed and endorsed by the council and then further reinforced by the OMB, to treat downtown like a greenfield site where residents’ interests don’t count and only maximizing height makes sense.” was dead on, IMO.
    I suppose greater height= greater profit, which is all that matters to a CEO whose bonus is based on his company’s financial success.