In the slow motion overhaul of zoning rules that helped break Canada’s housing market, Edmonton is a beacon of what’s possible – and a warning of how long change can take.
Planners in Alberta’s capital have proposed ditching the old rules that reserve most of the city for detached homes. Edmonton calls it the “philosophy of the new zoning bylaw,” to get rid of “outdated regulations” that led to an “overly complex and restrictive” system. Across North America these same strictures forced cities to mostly grow out, not up.
Edmonton’s draft zoning plan would allow, in most residential areas, the building of row houses or small apartments, without need for any special approval, where single-family homes now dominate. Other uses such as community services, child care and some small businesses would also be allowed. Edmonton plans to slash its current 46 different types of zoning by more than half.
But there is a “but.”
The process to get all this done is already four years old, and counting. In the interim, Edmonton did make some smart, Canada-leading, moves. A big one was ending the North America-wide practice of parking minimums – rules that force residential and commercial builders to include lots of expensive (and unnecessary) car parking.
Meanwhile, Edmonton’s zoning reforms inched along. The biggest step to date came last week, when planners outlined the new zones. A central idea of density anywhere takes on one core tenet of modern city building: who gets to live beside a park? Too often, it is the most expensive detached homes. But parks are public assets, and more people benefit when more of them can live close to one.
Edmonton has done a lot of consultation and plans more. The new rules are not set to take effect until 2024. Yet even at this slow crawl, Edmonton is ahead of Vancouver and Toronto, and ahead of the Ford government in Ontario or the Trudeau government in Ottawa.
In Vancouver, work on a new city plan finally nears a finish. It’s already taken more than three years, and actual zoning changes will take more time. One side idea is to allow density of up to six homes on 2,000 lots zoned for detached homes or duplexes. It’s a remarkably tentative scheme, given that there are 99,000 such lots in Vancouver.
The city of Victoria last week made an interesting move. To speed up building, affordable housing proposals will no longer require public hearings or rezoning if they fit in the city’s overall plan. That could cut development time by almost a year and save $2-million per project.
Toronto is also mulling a reworking of its restrictive zoning. And if city council has the courage to act, a template is at hand. Ontario put out a major report in February that included the call for cities to add density to existing neighbourhoods by allowing up to four homes where only one is currently permitted. The report had lot of good ideas, but Doug Ford’s government has mostly ignored it.
Widespread upzoning makes sense, research suggests. Forcing tall towers on small bits of land, while blocking new housing in most of the rest of a city, creates scarcity and drives up prices. Yet most of what is being debated in Canada falls short of allowing neighbourhoods to build up, even a little bit, through things like infill construction of small, four-storey apartment buildings, full of spacious two- and three-bedroom homes. That’s the missing middle density that could transform Canada’s cities, and get a lot of housing built. Apartments alongside row houses alongside duplexes alongside detached homes – in neighbourhoods dotted with shops and services, all close to transit.
Want to see the future? Look to the past. Many older parts of Toronto and especially Montreal, before rigid zoning, are perfect examples. Or check out Vancouver’s West End, between downtown and Stanley Park, developed after the Second World War. There are buildings of various heights, along with schools, shops and parks. It’s among the densest neighbourhoods in Canada but it’s also quiet and leafy.
Ottawa has talked of intervening in housing. But at the end of day, it is cities and provinces that are the deciders. Local zoning is the source of so much of our national housing crisis. And Edmonton is, however slowly, moving in the right direction. To borrow a line from a famous former Edmontonian, the city is skating to where the puck is going.
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