‘Cascade Zoning’ is an Alternative System Worth Considering for Edmonton

The current Edmonton Zoning Bylaw is hundreds of pages long. If you haven’t read it, you are not alone. Most municipalities have similarly large codified regulations. Regulations are good as they allow things to be built in a predictable manner, but the problem is that we are currently over-regulating, and the situation is only getting worse. While zoning is the most important non-emergency services tool that a municipal council has to ensure a good quality life for their residents, many of the existing rules are petty or meaningless.

I speak with the authority of a person who has worked professionally as an urban planner for over a decade, after having acquired a master’s degree in the same field. I am also the Treasurer for the Alberta Profession Planners Institute, the regulating body for all planners in Alberta. I have been to many planning conferences and have kept up to date with emerging planning theories.

A zone is applied to every piece of land in Edmonton, and the regulations within dictate what can be built on each property. Zones end at property lines, but are sometimes contiguous with neighbouring properties. Currently in Edmonton, there are 15 standard zones for residential development, each one providing a different scale of possible residential form, from a detached house to a high-rise. In addition to the standard zones, there are many ‘special areas’ and overlays that contain an additional gambit of regulations. Despite all, the largest offenders are the omnipresent “direct control” zones, which are site-specific. Currently, there are over 1000 of these in the Zoning Bylaw.

In addition to proposing changes to zones, I present a whole new planning framework. My exercise, however, is, by admission, a simplified draft; a draft that will never be finalized by myself, as that is not what I am trying to get out of this. I attempt to show what could occur when the regulations are tamed, and if we think outside of the box.

Cascade Zoning (using Edmonton as an example)

In Edmonton, I propose that there should be only four residential zones, and everything that is allowed in the first zone should be permitted in the other zones. Everything allowed in the second zone should be allowed in the third and fourth zone, but not in the first zone. This is a major component of the alternative zoning system that I call Cascade Zoning.

Below, I first present a laundry list of what the new zones would permit, and then I discuss the underlining concepts and assumptions of this new system.

Residential Uses

R1: Single Detached Zone: only single detached houses are permitted for residential uses. Elementary schools, daycares, and convenience stores (on corners) are allowed.

R2: Duplex / Townhouse Zone: duplexes and townhouses are permitted, including everything permitted in the R1 zone, and junior high and high schools, places of worship, and small grocery stores.

R3: Low-Mid Rise Apartment Zone: walk-up and low-rise apartments are permitted, in addition to medium-sized grocery stores, B&Bs, dry cleaners, bakeries, banks, butchers, florists, coffee shops, small restaurants, and everything else permitted in the R1 and R2 zones. As one can see, plenty of complementary commercial uses are allowed in residential areas. It only makes sense for basic amenities to be near where people live.

R4: High Rise Apartment Zone: high-rise apartments are permitted, as well as small offices (such as for accountants and lawyers), sundry stores (hardware, computer repair), hotels, and restaurants/pubs. In the R4 zone, commercial uses would be encouraged to occupy the first level of apartment buildings in order to create better street life and to ensure adequate amenities in these neighbourhoods.

Given land economics and the desire for developers to make the ‘best use of land,’ it is unlikely that small houses would occur in the R4 zone, for example, but they would still be permitted.

As for the size of a development (height), it should be a function of the size of the parcel of land on which it is situated. The higher the building, the larger the setback and outdoor amenity space required. For example, if you are building a large structure, the developer should appropriately landscape the front, put in benches, and provide wider sidewalks. There is no reason for this to be overly complicated. Height should also be a function of the zone and roadway, with higher buildings closer to busier roads.

To prevent a high-rise from overshadowing a detached house, the various zones would have to touch each other in sequence (orders of magnitude). This means that an R1 zone could never be adjacent to a R4 zone. The transition between R2 and R3 would have to occur first.

Currently, zones often change at property lines, and many many zones can be represented within a single neighbourhood. This creates a confusing situation with no underlying consistency. When a neighbour already has a zoning mismatch, there is no precedent to deny rezoning applications, even if a proposal is not right for the community.

A principle of Cascade Zoning (especially for the residential zones) is that each zone will cover a large area of land, not individual properties. This allows for a diversity of land uses within a generally consistent area. Cascade Zones should cover whole blocks, or all of the area between arterial roads.

Commercial Uses

Edmonton currently has seven standard commercial zones. I propose three Cascade Zones to replace them. Before reviewing the following, it is important to remember that the residential zones already allow for small-scale commercial development, which is in the spirit of ‘mixed-use’ developments. Mixed-use developments allow for more walkable communities, as one does not always need to drive to get staples such as milk. This can increase quality of life for many, especially for those without cars.

C1: Plaza Zone This zone allows for small strip malls off arterial roadways. Strip malls, which include restaurants and banks, are important convenience land uses. Theses developments can bring more intensive commercial uses (and employment) in close proximity to residential areas. While many of these commercial uses may also be allowed in residential zones, businesses often like to cluster for economic reasons, and so these small plazas will remain important community hubs.

C2: Corridor Commercial This zone, while allowing for everything in the C1 zone, would also permit larger format retail, such as furniture and hardware stores, small hotels, and automotive uses. This zone would likely be applied along strips such as 97 Street, St. Albert or Calgary Trails.

C3: Campus Commercial Zone This zone allows for business parks and big-box retail, such as is located around Manning Drive and South Edmonton Common. The C3 zone is where you would find your Costcos and Walmarts.

Office Uses

This category is small, as plenty of small office space is already permitted in the residential and commercial zones.

O1: Medium-rise Office Zone This zone allows mid-rise office towers, such as are found around Jasper and 109 Street. Basic commercial uses, restaurants, and pubs are allowed at ground level.

O2: High-rise Mixed-Use Office Zone This zone allows for the large towers currently downtown, in addition to allowing high-rise residential towers (the same as the ones found in the R4 zone), and large hotels.

With note to the residential component in this category: if people want to live in the thick of things, and there is a market for downtown condos, those should be permitted as of right. Currently, lengthy rezoning applications encumber downtown residential development, and this is a problem. High-rise condos next to high-rise office towers are compatible, and allow those who want to live and work in the same fast-paced environment to do so.

Industrial Uses

Industrial zones pose the greatest harm and nuisance to residential areas, yet they are the lifeblood of Edmonton. We are a hardworking town, and industrial work is important to our economy. There should be a simple Light Industrial Zone, Medium Industrial Zone, and Heavy Industrial Zone. Some business-industrial uses (warehouses) could be found in the C3 Campus Commercial Zone, if the Neighbourhood Vision Plan (NVP) supports it. More on NVPs below.

Parks and Schools Uses (and discussion on Neighbourhood Vision Plans)

There should be one zone for school sites and community league buildings.

The whole realm of park zoning could be much simpler than it currently is, as parkland is generally owned by the City. It should be up to the programming of the site (instead of the zoning of the land) to determine land use. For example, the determination to have a manicured park or a forested area should not be a product of zoning, but the decision of the community, through a master-plan process.

We currently have elected school boards, and I think we should accept their jurisdiction on these matters. I support the autonomy of school boards, but schools should be built under the philosophy of 21st Century Learning, which allows for adaptable internal spaces. When the school is no longer needed as a school building, it could be easily converted into another civic space.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the surplus school sites that are currently quite controversial in Edmonton. The main problem here is that people bought homes near the future site of a school (and the school was never built), and so the space looked as though it was parkland. The residents should have been informed that something could be built on the building envelope, but there was no one to tell them.

The residents, for the most part, were failed by the refusal of the government to overtly inform them of all possible outcomes. Such misinformation would cease with Neighbourhood Vision Plans, which would be only a few pages long, mailed to every residence, and updated frequently by the community.

While meeting the statutory requirements of the Municipal Government Act, NVPs could be much more user-friendly than the current plans known as NSPs and ASPs.  All of the current plans in Edmonton should be expunged. Every area of Edmonton should be subjected to a new Neighbourhood Vision Plan outlining the development intent for the area. The new plans would reflect current values and opinions.

In interpreting the NVP, one would have a clear understanding of the appetite of a neighbourhood for change. If no change is requested in a community, developers would not poke the bear, and would let the residents maintain the status quo. This would channel lot splitting into only the neighbourhood that supports infill. This safe-guard is further reinforced with the concept of the Pre-Purchase Feedback form, which is presented in further detail below.

Institutional Uses

There should be a single Medical/Educational Zone, which would, depending on circumstances, be either for hospitals, universities, colleges, or other similar large campus developments, with the intention of promoting health or research pursuits.

We do not require a separate zone for each type of development, as the built form and function of each of these are similar, and the Neighbourhood Vision Plan for the area will denote the intended land uses.

Urban Design and Regulating Individual Developments (what goes where, and what controls appearance?)

A proposed development should comply with the NVP. An incompatible proposal should be denied and stopped in its tracks. An example of this would be a proposal for a drive-through restaurant. If the NVP does envision it, or if appropriate mitigating factors are not encompassed in the development agreement, then the proposal should be denied.

Architectural controls (design) should be applied to any development that is at least one story higher than adjacent properties, or that is otherwise significantly different than the surrounding properties (at the discretion of the development officer).

The most significant stakeholders will be identified as the immediate neighbours, followed by an outer ring of neighbours. The more significant the stakeholder, the more weight their testimony brings in the decision to grant a building permit or not, if discretion is sought. If you want to build something that is out of character in your neighbourhood, you should, at the least, have a buy-in from the immediate neighbours. Commercial developments will have more latitude to be different from their competitors than residential developments would.

Two-story developments should be the maximum height permitted next to local roads, with larger developments allowed adjacent to higher orders of road (collector, arterial, freeways).

Larger developments should be encouraged near transit stations, in compliance with Transit Oriented Development principles, but—again—this is not for the Zoning Bylaw, as this would be covered in the Neighbourhood Vision Plan.

Every zone should have a range of permitted heights without being overly prescriptive. Justification for a high building will have to be based on several factors, including the NVP. This could result in a six-story building being approved in a R3 zone in one area of the city, but the same proposal being denied in another area of the city with the same zoning. This concept will become more clear as more principles of Cascade Zoning are presented.

The Precedent Principle

As soon a proposed development is a single story higher than neighbouring developments, a more elaborate approval process is triggered: this is part of the Precedent Principle. Buy-in from neighbours is paramount.

The Precedent Principle allows subsequent developments in the vicinity of the initial development to become similar, without much opposition. If everyone starts building larger, over time an organically created cluster of large developments will form (based on precedent).

The first developer to ‘break the precedent’ by proposing something higher or otherwise more distinctive has to apply to ‘set the precedent’ in order to receive their initial building permit. Setting the precedent is a more difficult process than following the precedent (see “101% Servicing Return” to understand built-in incentives).

Pre-Purchase Feedback

Prior to buying a piece of property, a speculator can approach the existing neighbours to solicit an opinion on the proposed development. The City should have a standardized form that neighbours can fill out stating their support or opposition to a development, and land transactions could be contingent on support for proposed developments from existing neighbours. If they have no concerns, they can state this with a witness present and then mail in the standardized form.

If one wants to actively support or oppose the development, they would have to come to the planning department (and be reimbursed for their transportation costs) and swear their testimony with regard to the proposal in front of a development officer, who would be trained to see that they are not under duress or influence of bribery. They would not have to make an emotional appeal in front of City Council during a set scheduled time.

Depending on the development agreement required, this approach would prevent an overload of proposals going before City Council at once, as is currently the case. The decision would be made locally. This would make developments less political, time consuming, or cumbersome. Decisions would be made in the communities, not for the community.

Organic Clusters and Rezoning

Many ‘downtowns’ and built-up areas will occur organically as a city matures. In an R2 zone, for example, if landowners keep pushing heights on their developments, and the neighbours do not mind (and do the same thing themselves), there will come a point at which it is logical to rezone the whole area from R2 to R3.

When a neighbourhood is flagged for rezoning, but not quite there, it can be denoted in an updated Neighbourhood Vision Plan as such, and a plus sign (+) can be placed next to the zone, as a symbol of the intent to intensify this area in the future (e.g. R2+ would indicate that this area is getting ready to become an R3 zone, and it would therefore become easier for a developer to ‘break the precedent’).

Servicing and Due Diligence

I propose a concept called ‘101% Servicing Return.’ The first developer to build municipal infrastructure that would benefit future developers will get all of their money reimbursed, if they attract other developers to the area. Such infrastructure includes gas, water, sewer, and road upgrades.

The concept of 101% Servicing Return would see that the developer who upgraded the streets and sewers be reimbursed by subsequent developers, to the point where they may make a small profit. The profit is more than 1% because the first developer is actually relieved of all costs of their initial infrastructure contributions (that is, the cost of serving their specific building will be paid by later developers).

Under the existing system, developers may be lucky if they ever get a fraction back from subsequent developments, and thus there is a disincentive to build in the first place. Municipal servicing is stupidly expensive.

In the carrot and stick equation, the 101% concept is a juicy carrot. This system would encourage high quality development, and it would get the developers to pay for costly municipal infrastructure instead of the City. This rewards the risk-taker while making the risk of development more palatable.

The first developer will only get their money fully back, plus some, if they build in the first place, and if others follow their precedent. The first developer will want to design their site in a manner that is appealing to subsequent developers, or else the subsequent developers might not play ball. The first developer will voluntarily go an extra step to make their project more appealing through good urban design and interfacing to attract other developers in effort to have their initial costs reimbursed.

The second developer would pay the first developer a high portion of initial servicing. The third developer would pay to both the first and second, etc. A development agreement would outline the specifics.

Other Considerations

Fire and police departments, and libraries, should be permitted in every zone. The various emergency services should determine their locations based on raw need, not via the few pockets of land zoned for their use, as in the current system.

Minimum spacing, such as 500 metres or more, should keep schools and daycares away from liquor stores and other adult uses. Heavy industry should be at least 1000 metres from residential uses.

Store hours and other limitations will be placed on commercial uses in residential zones.

I know that I will have to expand on many of these concepts in future posts. It is a lot of information to present all at once, and I wanted to err on being general versus being overly specific.

Although I have presented the information in a sequence, some of the latter concepts are required to understand some of the initial concepts. I did my best to tease out some concepts throughout the whole document, but if the reader is confused, it might be best to take a deep breath and start again from the top. It is a lot of information.

Basic principles of Cascade Zoning are:

  1. Generally, everything allowed in lower-order zones is allowed in higher-order zones.
  2. Residential zones should transition through orders of magnitude (i.e. R1 and R4 will not be adjacent).
  3. Residential zones should be large, covering whole neighbourhoods (or most parts thereof), with appropriate mixed-use commercial developments permitted within.
  4. Every neighbourhood will have an adaptable Neighbourhood Vision Plan, which is updated often and of consistent format across the city.
  5. The most immediate neighbours to a proposal will be treated as the greatest stakeholders and the Pre-Purchase Feedback form will give direction to speculative purchasers of property.
  6. Based on consent and the Precedent Principle, areas of the City will organically develop in accordance to the will on the ground rather than City-directed initiatives. It is grass-roots in nature.
  7. Its simplicity is one of its main strengths.
  8. It is less of a science, and more of an art. Humans are not robots, and so we should have a system of development that ‘feels right’ for citizens versus what a bureaucrat in a cubicle thinks is appropriate.
  9. It is market-driven and choice oriented.
  10. The built-in concept of ‘101% Servicing Return’ will incentivize good urban design and the use of private dollars to build municipal infrastructure in order to relive the taxpayer from cover much of the costs of development.

Final Thoughts

Cascade Zoning is a whole system overhaul, not just a simplification of the Zoning Bylaw. It is the equivalent of a ‘planning regime change.’

I recognize that no one person should decide how to repair such an entrenched municipal system as zoning. All such major decisions should be decided through extensive public consultations. Again, I present my ideas here as discussion points, and to show that we could change the current system if we chose to think outside of the box.

If I could implement this in Edmonton by snapping my fingers, I would not. As with many important political decisions, the people should decide. The people should speak up for what they want.

For those from other jurisdictions, I would be happy for you to use my ideas. Adapt the ideas as you see fit for your city. Change and improve them as you can. Critique them. Poke them. Keep the dialogue going. Contact me for further information.

In the meantime, I would be happy to clarify any of the points that I have made here. I also intend to deliver a public lecture on this topic.



For more on the issues plaguing Edmonton’s current planning framework, click HERE.