This blog post contains content that I trimmed from my larger entry on Cascade Zoning. Inevitably, I am going to have people from all walks of life reading my thoughts, not just my urban planning colleagues. I found it difficult to maintain an appropriate balance between context and content without being overwhelming. This blog post is a collection of thoughts, and so please bear with the flow-of- consciousness approach.
Believe it or not, there is no consensus on the definition of ‘planning’ in the urban planning context. I have sat in boardrooms debating how we can define what we do. I mean this seriously. It is a unique concern for a profession to have, and to me, it is odd. I have put forward simple definitions based on land use, but others often want to expand the scope to be all-encompassing, to include environmental and social engineering. To me, ‘planning’ is simply the balance of placing competing and complementary land uses in an efficient manner with regard to community will and vision. There is no need to be as complicated as your average planner will suggest. Urban planning should be simple.
I can’t help but wonder if sometimes my dear profession of urban planning has made planning regulations intentionally confusing for the purpose of job security. Urban planning concepts are not overly complicated, but navigating development in Edmonton is not for the faint of heart. When opening the behemoth Zoning Bylaw, brace yourself for jargon overload and redundant regulations that are sometimes so vague they are meaningless and inconsistently enforced. This is one reason why I decided to present my concept of Cascade Zoning. Cascade Zoning removes the bad from traditional zoning and builds in incentives for our city to blossom from grass-roots initiatives and be mostly funded by the private sector, saving our tax dollars for other purposes.
The Existing System is Confusing
Zones, by their nature, are meant to be applied more than once, but this is not the case with the 1000+ non-repeatable direct control zones currently in the bylaw. Each of these zones adds several pages. This makes one scratch one’s head in confusion. We are digging a hole without removing the dirt. For example, this is the reason that the City has developed a special indexed user-friendly website for the Zoning Bylaw because if it were a single PDF, people would barf when they opened it.
Almost all of the high-rise developments in Edmonton are ‘direct controls’, and so are many other one-off developments. Most of the direct control zones have multi-page development agreements (detailed legal documents) embedded in them, which means these agreements have become actual parts of the municipal bylaw. I suggest that a zone is not the proper depository for such agreements, and this is one example of the mess that is our current bylaw. It appears that no one on our current council really understands the issues.
There are many concerns with our current system. When a developer is confronted with a contradiction in regulation, the astute consulting planner can find a policy in another municipal document or bylaw to build a case one way or another. For this reason, there are plenty of planning consultants in Edmonton. These private sector hawks know the ins and outs of the regulatory spaghetti and can build a convincing case to build whatever they want, despite what the bylaws say. It is only the average citizen, unable to afford consultants, who gets the short end of the stick. It is the average citizen who will be told to tear down their newly constructed deck because it is 0.1m too close to their fence.
Cascade Zoning (My Proposal)
And then there is the alternative system that I have proposed. My inspiration for developing a new system is a result of my frustration with the current system. Cascade Zoning addresses the issues and shortcomings with the way we have been doing business. The 10 Principles of Cascade Zoning are:
- Generally, everything allowed in lower-order zones is allowed in higher-order zones.
- Residential zones should transition through orders of magnitude (i.e. R1 and R4 will not be adjacent).
- Residential zones should be large, covering whole neighbourhoods (or most parts thereof), with appropriate mixed-use commercial developments permitted within.
- Every neighbourhood will have an adaptable Neighbourhood Vision Plan, which is updated often and of consistent format across the city.
- 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.
- 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.
- Its simplicity is one of its main strengths.
- 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 something prescribed.
- It is market-driven and choice oriented.
- 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.
Although discussed in my initial writings on Cascade Zoning, the following concepts will be elaborated in future posts:
- Neighbourhood Vision Plan
- Pre-Purchase Feedback
- Precedent Principle
- 101% Servicing Return
For more information on this alternative system, please click here.