Urbanism Axis & IMBY Allies

Last post I talked about how Vancouver’s election provided possible insights into the relationship between Urbanism (or IMBY-ism) as a political axis running perpendicular to more traditional Left-Right axes. Now we have results!

But first: a clarification. Initially I drew from the Cambie Report‘s clever crowd-sourcing of placements for political parties and prominent independents in Vancouver along both a municipal urbanism axis and social and economic left-right axes (ultimately combined), as follows.


Positions were allocated (and defined) by the wisdom of crowds. Not surprisingly, I received some pushback for accepting this wisdom – not everyone agrees with crowds! And that’s fair. Many policy positions and histories, especially within my area of housing, were actually more nuanced. Here I’ll provide a – still very rough – breakdown of how I see the axes providing important information about different positions and histories, which may be of use both for interpreting Vancouver and thinking through IMBY coalitions more broadly.


Starting with the Urbanist Right in the upper-right quadrant, we have a relatively familiar market urbanism: anti-zoning and libertarian inspired. Pro-housing everywhere “the market” wants it. Market urbanists tend to extol the virtues of density and disruption. YIMBY everywhere.

Moving clockwise, below we have the Preservationist Right. To add a bit of nuance, this is a position that I’ve argued actually much better characterizes the North American tradition: Rigid zoning for exclusive single-family neighbourhoods and more flexible market allocation of housing within a constrained urban core. Right leaning municipal coalitions offer a grand bargain between middle-class detached homeowners’ relatively conservative desires to be left alone and developers’ interests in making money downtown. The mantra goes something like: “Strong protections for me and the market for thee.” Or NIMBY in the Great House Reserve, YIMBY in the Urban Core.

Continuing around the clock to the Preservationist Left, we move toward the left-leaning reaction against the North American tradition. Anti-poverty alliances frequently identify developers as villains. This makes sense insofar as many alliances have borne repeated witness to the displacement that can result from unleashing market development upon the marginalized neighbourhoods of the urban core. Anti-developer politics can seem like a progressive end in their own right and can sometimes also win over middle-class voters (think “All neighbourhoods matter”). For a farther left subset, the socialization of housing seems the best bet for protecting those marginalized by the market. Lots more social housing is in order – but often concentrated in and meant to preserve neighbourhoods viewed as under development pressure. The orientation runs from NIMBY everywhere to PHIMBY (Public Housing in My Back Yard).

Moving up to the Urbanist Left, we find alliances that often view urban growth as good, both in terms of promoting diversity and in terms of reducing environmental impacts. Many accept that disruption is part of living in a city. But it shouldn’t be imposed unequally and policies should work to avoid displacement. Those I’ve also termed Inclusive Urbanists set their sights on returning exclusionary neighbourhoods to the urban fabric by reforming single-family zoning. They look to introduce social housing and diverse rental options to every neighbourhood. The tendency is YIMBY, but reform-oriented, with an egalitarian emphasis directed at diversifying single-family exclusionary hoods and large helpings of PHIMBY.

Ok, now let’s get back to what happened in Vancouver, where we had parties occupying each of these quadrants. Who won? And what does it tell us about IMBY-coalitions?

Let’s start with mayor.


The mayoral race ended up a showdown between two strong Urbanist Left candidates (Kennedy Stewart and Shauna Sylvester) and the strongest of the Preservationist Right (Ken Sim from the NPA – historically the epitome of the grand bargain party: NIMBY for detached home-owners, YIMBY in the urban core). Stewart beat Sim by less than a thousand votes (half a percentage point) in a real squeaker of a race.

Broadly speaking, both the Urbanist Left and the Preservationist Right fielded strong candidates. But what happened to the Urbanist Right and the Preservationist Left? The Urbanist Right candidate was clearly Hector Bremner, and at 5.7% of the vote, his Yes Vancouver party failed to attract much support beyond its passionate young base of market YIMBYs. The Preservationist Left initially had a party-supported candidate in COPE’s Patrick Condon (who early on made clear he wouldn’t run if the Green Party’s Adriane Carr had decided to try for the mayorship). But Condon dropped out after experiencing a stroke. Late in the race he endorsed independent candidate Sean Cassidy, who failed to attract much other support. Even adding in support for the fringe candidacy of IDEA Vancouver’s Connie Fogal (widow of progressive hero Harry Rankin), the Preservationist Left failed to crack 2% in the mayoral race.

So can we collapse the field, calling YIMBYism a left-wing phenomenon and NIMBYism mostly driven by more conservative impulses? Not quite so fast… let’s turn to Council! Here I note the average % of total council votes accorded to candidates in each party, highlighting the parties that actually won council seats (no independents won seats, despite overall respectable showings). I also provide the range of averages for major parties in each quadrant.


While the mayor’s race seemed to reduce relatively neatly to a singularly important Urbanist Left – Preservationist Right axis, the council race sees a real and strong split between the Preservationist Left (COPE and the Greens) and the Urbanist Left (OneCity and Vision), with the Preservationist Centre-Left ultimately receiving the most support. Indeed, the new council will be made up of five members from the Preservationist Right (NPA), four members from the Preservationist Centre-Left (three Greens and one COPE), and one member from the Urbanist Left (OneCity).

So what does this all this tell us about IMBY coalitions?

First: it’s important to distinguish those BYs: the backyards of Single-Family House neighbourhoods are treated differently from the backyards of the Urban Core.

Second: Right-leaning coalitions tend to do well in cities only when they leave the back yards of Single-Family House neighbourhoods alone. So far there’s little evidence that a right-leaning YIMBY coalition can win, though this could change in the future, as single-family neighbourhoods continue to lose population.

Third: Most YIMBYs lean left by quite a large margin, and left-leaning YIMBY coalitions can win. A Lefty Urbanist won the mayoral race in 2018, despite the competition from an exceptionally strong contender in the same quadrant. Moreover, Vision Vancouver’s coalition held power for the last ten years until their organizational implosion in 2018, and still placed well ahead of most other parties even if they won no seats.

Fourth: There’s a real and consequential split between Lefty Urbanists and Lefty Preservationists. I think this is often about perspective. From the point of view of anti-poverty activists working in the urban core, developers almost always look like villains (non-profit developers MAY be exceptions). From the point of view of people feeling excluded from cities’ vast tracts of single-family neighbourhoods, developers look like potential allies. On the flip side, the path to political success often runs through middle-class homeowners, and it’s easier to get them on your side by promising it won’t inconvenience them much than by suggesting they might need to sacrifice some parking or sunlight on their gardens. Vancouver’s Green Party, in particular, has walked this line to great success.

Theoretically, this election should put to rest the notion that all or even most YIMBYs are mostly market-oriented. After all, if they were they would’ve come out in mass for Yes Vancouver. Instead YIMBYs seemed to support Urbanist Left candidates in numbers easily surpassing support for the Urbanist Right. But to be fair, this was also a really messy election, witnessing the organizational implosion of the reigning party (Vision) and a confusing profusion of new parties. This likely benefitted those older organizations that managed to avoid imploding (Greens, COPE, and above all the NPA, who recovered strong from a shaky start), above and beyond informed platform comparisons.

Final Question: Can those Urbanist Leftys who made it into office this year work with their Preservationist Left or Preservationist Right colleagues? I’m guessing efforts to Make Room in single-family neighbourhoods are going to slow down again after Vision’s successful last-minute drive to introduce duplexes (with suites!), opening up all nearly all lots to four potential dwelling units (2x owned, 2x rented) across the City. Given housing plans put forward by the NPA and Greens, maybe we’ll eventually get matching legalization of an additional main unit rental suite (1x owned, 2x rented, 1x laneway rented), legalizing what’s already happening on the ground in many places. It’s less clear what will happen in the urban core, where alliances may shift project by project (remember, NPA councillors look pretty market YIMBY outside of single-family zones).

Let’s animate that GIF:



Addendum: (preliminary) vote tallies from the City of Vancouver obtained here! Looking forward to the voting location breakdown we got from the 2014 election.



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