By: Jesse Darling, Evergreen CityWorks, Urban Project Designer
Canadians cities have been shaped by numerous influences. Natural assets such as waterfronts, canals and mountain ranges have always, and will continue, to play a role in molding the urban fabric. Infrastructure such as ports and railways opened up the door to economic development. But above all, zoning and land development has shaped the built form and morphology of Canadian cities.
While the patterns of land development vary throughout Canada, one unifying theme exists: planning has always been altruistic. Planning is an endless pursuit to preserve public good. The desire to improve economic prosperity, the health and quality of life of all city residents are the pillars of city building.
Planning emerged as a profession to combat urban challenges such as the quality of housing, congestion, urban design and zoning. Almost a hundred years later, these issues still resonate in city building conversations. Affordable housing, congestion and public space are the forefront of debate in municipalities across Canada.
Despite its profound role in shaping not only the physicality of a city, but also its character, zoning evades public interest. Zoning is an omnipresent force that holds political, economic, environmental and design-related implications. It is important for city residents to understand the power and influence zoning has on a wide range of municipal issues.
In the 19th century, zoning was predominately used as a tool to protect the economic interests of landowners. Consequently, comprehensive zoning was enforced to ensure neighbourhood stability and to protect land value from the threat of undesirable development. This resulted in entire parcels of land, whether vacant or pursuing development, to become pre-zoned. Cities remain constrained by these zones today. But, why does this matter?
While the intention of zoning is to take public safety, environmental preservation, community aesthetics and economic development into consideration, most of the time, zoning limits the potential of a place. One of the best examples of this is within Toronto's inner suburbs. Despite being neighbourhoods with high density and diversity, zoning bylaws have prohibited tower block apartment buildings from having farmer's markets, public health services or day care on site. These archaic laws have stunted the growth and potential of these communities.
Mixed-use development is an integral part to building sustainable, vibrant neighborhoods. Having healthy food options, public transit, parks and community centres within walking distance of residential areas are essential for the economic, environmental and social longevity of Canadian cities. While some cities have taken prudent steps to reform restrictive zoning, there is more work to be done.
By allowing different types of zoning to work simultaneously, it encourages strong development around transit routes, reduces reliance on the personal automobile and maintains the vibrancy and safety of communities. Strategic zoning can act as a source of municipal innovation and serve as a mechanism to introduce novel planning ideas to the city landscape. The challenges of our urban regions are interrelated and complex. Creating flexibility in the laws that determine their built form and character will create more creative, interesting and meaningful places.
By Mark Anto
Recent statistics confirm that most Canadian cities need to find sustainable solutions to cope with decreasing participation rates in municipal elections, overdependence on property taxes as their main source of revenue, increasing demands due to population growth and crumbling infrastructure. These conditions leave property developers with a free reign on urban development while citizen grow increasingly disconnected from the political and economic decisions that impact their daily lives.
Faced with this realisation, policy makers and citizens have been proposing a series of alternative initiatives to empower municipalities and citizens. New funding models have been proposed to provide cities with supplementary diversified revenue streams. Organisations such as Open North, Better Budget Toronto and Montréal pour tous have been working to ensure that municipalities produce transparent and comprehensible budgets that engage, rather than disorient, citizens.
Another way to counter civic apathy is to put people in direct control of a part of their city’s budget. This process, known as participatory budgeting, gives citizens the right to propose, deliberate and vote on projects that will get funded by their city. Participatory budgeting creates a space for citizens to debate about the particular needs of their communities, receive information concerning different municipal budgeting processes and costs, as well as create a platform for dialogue and engagement to keep citizens active and involved between election campaigns.
Started in Porto Alegre in 1989, participatory budgeting has now been used in over 1500 cities around the world. Canada has also seen several examples of participatory budgeting processes, such as in Toronto’s community housing sector, in District 7 in Halifax and in the borough of Plateau Mont-Royal in Montreal. The Montreal Urban Ecology Center (MUEC) is accompanying the town of St-Basile-le-Grand in its participatory budgeting process, one of the first such processes in Quebec. This summer and fall, the MUEC, in collaboration with the Participatory Budgeting Project, a leading organisation based in New York City, will be hosting a series of trainings and forums to help develop participatory budgeting knowledge and awareness in Canada.
Although participatory budgeting can present particular challenges in the first years of the process, as the community and elected officials learn how to negotiate new power dynamics, it allows both citizens and the municipality to identity key areas of intervention and develop sustainable solutions for the future. Its success is achieved when citizens are involved and engaged in every step of the way and when political will is present and committed to see the process developed over several years. Participatory budgeting then becomes part of a communities’ landscape and represents an excellent way to ensure that our cities respond to the needs of its citizens.
With more than 80 percent of Canadians living in cities, the need for resilient and livable cities has never been greater. Our economic, social and environmental success depends on the quality of life provided by cities.
And yet, our cities face unprecedented challenges- from aging infrastructure and increased traffic congestion to inefficient energy systems to urban sprawl. Our cities need to work better.
Innovation is a key driver of our prosperity, but our urban centres seem to struggle to find ways of encouraging and adopting innovation. Nowhere is this more evident than in our built and natural environments- our parks, public transit, energy and housing.
Smart planning, innovation, experimentation and investment will be a determining factor in the resiliency of our urban centres. We cannot build the next 100 years of infrastructure using the concepts and methods of the past 100 years.
CityScapes will be a platform for driving innovation that tackles our critical infrastructure issues and advances our economic, social and environmental prosperity. It will bring together the public, innovators and decision makers to accelerate the shift to more livable and resilient infrastructure in cities across Canada and beyond.
Transformative change can happen when Canadians are engaged with new ideas, in ways that are relevant to them.
What if hundreds of people united, each putting in place the changes they wish to see in their city, all on the same day?
100in1Day is a citizen-driven festival that unites people across the city by engaging them in a common city-wide project to transform their community—raising awareness of urban and social issues, inspiring new ideas and solutions, and motivating leaders to consider new approaches to old problems.
100in1Day began as an idea and quickly became a global movement. Launching in 2012 in Bogota, Colombia with 250 urban interventions and over 3000 participants, it has since inspired citizen-driven transformative change in 15 cities around the world. On June 7, residents in Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax will join the movement and re-imagine how they live, work and play in their city.
What is an intervention?
An urban intervention is a one-day community-based project, led by an individual, group of like-minded residents and neighbours, or an organization. These projects, be they whimsical and fun or advocating for social justice and change, are a simple, low-cost way for people to showcase their ideas for a better city. Not only do they transform the city, they inspire and engage participants and onlookers alike—fostering a strong sense of community and positive change.
How do I get involved?