Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw is going through its first comprehensive overhaul in over 60 years as part of a process called Zoning Bylaw Renewal.
Zoning Bylaw Renewal is about modernizing our rulebook for what we can build and where across the city, in alignment with the City’s priorities, values, and direction as outlined by the City Plan.
Let's Talk About Zoning
Zoning determines what can be built where. It sets the rules for where new buildings should go, what types of buildings they can be and what types of businesses and activities can happen on a property. Zoning is intended to guide growth in an orderly way to minimize conflicts between different activities and can improve the safety, public health and welfare of its citizens, and the environment.
Zoning is not about regulating groups of people or behaviours, how buildings are built, or exactly what a building looks like. There are other tools, such as community standards bylaws, and building codes that address these items. Zoning is a powerful tool for shaping the built environment and is a critical lever that municipalities have to pull on as they endeavour to create great places to live, work, and play.
Part of the idea behind Edmonton's Zoning Bylaw Renewal is to reduce the sheer number of zones, simplify the bylaw, allow for greater housing choice, and enable greater density along nodes and corridors. I have been hearing from Edmontonians who want to see concrete action on affordability, climate, efficient city building and service delivery, and liveability. While not a silver bullet, zoning reform can help us deliver real change on these issues.
Zoning and Climate Action
One of the most significant contributors to emissions is low density land use and resulting auto-centric transportation systems. Unlocking opportunities for more density within existing areas and along nodes and corridors, as opposed to sprawling outwards, is one of the most important steps cities can take to fight climate change.
Edmonton's current zoning rules are outdated, and have resulted in a low density, high emissions city, by design. Modernizing our zoning bylaw helps lay the foundation for a more sustainable future by focusing density along nodes and corridors, allowing for more mixed-use development, and enabling walkable, 15-minute communities.
The lowest emissions modern communities in the world are not pastoral scenes in far flung rural townships, but rather, communities where lifestyles that enable low energy consumption are possible. Being able to access goods and services by walking, biking, or taking transit has an enormous impact on emission reduction; similarly, sharing walls and ceilings dramatically reduces the energy demand for heating and cooling.
In an analysis of over 700 cities, the University of California Berkeley’s Cool Climate Network showed that the single most powerful local policy to reduce emissions is urban infill.
Fixing our policies to enable urban infill is absolutely essential if we are serious about preserving our environment and taking action on climate change.
Efficient Development & Delivery of City Services
There is a direct relationship between the way we grow and our ability to deliver basic services to Edmontonians, like public transit, snow clearing, and infrastructure maintenance.
The Zoning Bylaw Renewal will also open the door to more dense development, and in turn moves us towards a more efficient urban form that enables efficient service delivery. For decades, Edmonton has grown in an unsustainable manner. Low-density sprawl is very costly and has contributed to the challenging budgetary pressures we face today.
You may be familiar with the following diagram that illustrates the relationship between density, service delivery and taxes.
Infrastructure, roads, utility lines, and amenities like fire halls and recreation centres have to be built out to service these new areas. As a city, we have stretched ourselves far too thin. Increasing density allows us to use existing infrastructure and spread the load more evenly for Edmontonians, without mature neighbourhoods being forced to subsidize new.
One of the topics frequently raised is the lack of housing choice in mature neighbourhoods, and the need to drive to acquire the basic necessities of life. Our current zoning makes it difficult to build housing and amenities that accommodate different walks of life.
Edmontonians deserve housing choice. Seniors want options for downsizing in the communities they love. Families want affordable, well located places to call home. Entrepreneurs looking to set up shop in our city need zoning that helps stand them up, rather than standing in their way. The new zoning bylaw can help unlock opportunities to build the kind of city Edmontonians have been asking for.
Achieving the kind of livability embodied in the concept of 15-minute communities requires that we allow new commercial and housing opportunities within reasonable proximity to housing that already exists. When we create opportunities for people to access goods and services close to home, they can make use of them more often, and they can travel to them with means other than a car.
The health and economic benefits of 15-minute communities should not be understated. Active transportation, access to healthy food, reduced pollution, and a sense of community are all well understood to be determinants of health. Our current zoning bylaw has not been conducive to these outcomes - businesses fail due to lack of local demand, schools close because there aren’t enough children, and people are driving just to get a jug of milk or a loaf of bread. Modernizing our approach to zoning will help us do better.
Edmonton’s existing Zoning Bylaw purposely separated residential from commercial uses, making it difficult for walkable neighbourhoods to exist. The renewal is in many ways opening the door to bring back local grocery stores, bakeries and cafes to our communities.
Historically, Edmonton's zoning bylaw, like those of most North American cities, has favoured low-density single-family housing, over multi-unit housing, and mixed-use development.
The outcome of this policy has been a decrease in more affordable housing options like apartments, row houses, and other "missing middle" housing types, with a concurrent increase in higher-cost single detached homes.
We see this playing out with our current housing landscape - one of the problems with our existing zoning bylaw is that it has, for the most part, resulted in skinny homes being built at price points that are not affordable for many families. While this is an attractive and viable option for some Edmontonians, the reality is that most can not afford to purchase or rent one. The restrictive nature of the current bylaw has artificially suppressed housing supply and diversity. We have seen the results of this approach in cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and more recently Calgary, which have inflated land values due to restrictive zoning. Maintaining Edmonton’s relative affordability is paramount to maintaining our competitiveness and livability.
Currently, many households will either stretch their finances to afford a single-detached home in a neighbourhood they desire because other options are undersupplied, or look elsewhere. This effectively gates many communities based on economic status. Renewing the zoning bylaw is an important step in addressing this inequity to ensure we are building an Edmonton for all of us.
Under the new bylaw, more diverse types of infill will be allowed, resulting in more affordable options. In addition to diversifying the types of infill that get built, by gently boosting density city-wide we place downward pressure on the price of housing and the value of land.
Now, more housing won’t be built overnight, but by changing the regulatory conditions, over time, we’ll see a greater amount of housing built in desirable areas that is more affordable for the general population.
We had some excellent speakers at our latest committee meeting with expertise in this space share research and case studies of the affordability benefits that will come with modernizing our approach to zoning.
Zoning reform is not a panacea that will instantly deliver massive levels of affordability. It takes many years for significant quantities of new housing stock to be built under new regulations. It will however, reduce the housing costs which we all face over the long-term. That being said, it is important to recognize that in order to support affordability across the housing spectrum, governments will still need to invest in public housing, subsidizing housing, community housing, and other forms of support for folks who may never be able to afford market rents.
Even though the zoning rules are set to change, our neighbourhoods will evolve gradually. Redevelopment happens sporadically, and the vast majority of homes in a neighbourhood will not be redeveloped over the course of one or two decades.
Similarly, the changes proposed in the new zoning bylaw are incremental in nature. New homes that will be built to replace older single detached homes will only be marginally taller than what is being built today, but the number of homes within them could be greater. The small scale commercial development that we’ll see in neighbourhoods will closely resemble the kinds of corner stores and local nodes that we see in neighbourhoods throughout Ward Métis.
The models below show a comparison of height and setbacks between current low density residential zones and what is proposed under the new zoning bylaw for various housing types.
Single Detached House
Mid-Block 4-Unit Row House
Multi-Unit Housing (Small Apartment Building)
While the City has been engaging on Zoning Bylaw Renewal since 2018 and has held numerous open houses, advertised, and had a variety of engagement sessions in order to try to reach out to as many stakeholders as possible. You may also wish to provide feedback on the draft Zoning Bylaw in the following ways:
These channels will be available for feedback until July 30, 2023. After that, the team will continue to receive feedback until October 15. The public hearing for the Zoning Bylaw Renewal will be held on October 16, 2023.
An open online portal has also been created for Councillors to submit questions about the new zoning bylaw and to have the questions and answers posted publicly. I would encourage you to read these questions and answers when they are released by early August on the city’s website.
Beyond these opportunities it’s important to understand the context of zoning bylaws. The current bylaw has slowly had amendments made to it over the course of decades, eventually becoming cumbersome and in need of renewal.
You can expect that the new Zoning Bylaw will also see changes over time. The rules are not permanently fixed and we will have opportunities to adjust as needed.
If you are interested in learning more, the Zoning Bylaw Renewal team has created the Making Space Podcast. You may also want to check out these videos, specific to the Zoning Bylaw Renewal, Mobility, District Planning, and City Plan.