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.