Canadian Architect

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Edmonton’s unprecedented design competition seeks to turn ideas into action

January 28, 2019
by Christian Lee and Jason Syvixay

In the past decade, Edmonton has undergone significant population growth that has outpaced most of the country. This phenomenon has acted as the catalyst for the conversation around the need for residential infill and to efficiently and sustainably make use of existing infrastructure. Mature neighbourhoods have been positively impacted through redevelopment, introducing more housing choice for residents at all income levels and stages of life.

This increase in infill development over the past few years has sparked significant discussion around the look of new housing and how it fits within a neighbourhood. In 2015, a review of the City’s Mature Neighbourhood Overlay (MNO) resulted in regulatory changes to height, setbacks, privacy and amenity areas. The goal of the review was to ensure that infill is developed in a manner that is sensitive to the current context of the neighbourhood – to maintain the pedestrian-oriented flavour of existing streetscapes. There has been a lot of progress, not only in our built environment and in the cultivation of great spaces, but also in the spirit of residents, politicians, business owners and public institutions coming together to foster a sense of community and work towards realizing game-changing visions for city regeneration.

The City of Edmonton is hosting an Infill Design Competition. Photo by WinterE229 via Wikimedia Commons.

The City of Edmonton is hosting an Infill Design Competition. Photo by WinterE229 via Wikimedia Commons.

Despite positive changes made, the conversation around what constitutes good design for infill remains. Questions that seek to define“character” and “contextually appropriate” designs continue to be front and centre. Does “contextually appropriate” mean we should be emulating the existing vernacular of our post war neighbourhoods? Do contemporary designs in fact celebrate the old, by providing stark contrast of what is seen today and what was built yesterday? Or perhaps there is even further conversation that needs to be stoked around the future design language of our residential built forms as homes approach the end of their life expectancy?

Launched in 2016, the Edmonton Infill Design Competition provides an opportunity to encourage productive conversations about infill, help the public and development community envision what’s possible for infill design, and inspire builders and architects to create out of the box designs that enrich our city. The competition’s overarching goal is to showcase improved aesthetics of the community and how good designs can bring neighbours together. The 2016 competition sought ideas for low-density residential infill on a hypothetical site, showing how infill could add to the character of our mature and established neighbourhoods.

The term 'missing middle' was coined by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. in 2010 to define a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. Image via missingmiddlehousing.com

The term ‘missing middle’ was coined by Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design, Inc. in 2010 to define a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. Image via missingmiddlehousing.com

This year, the Infill Design Competition turns its gaze on demonstrating how medium-density housing can be both economically-feasible and well designed to work in Edmonton. This type of medium scale housing, which falls between single family homes and highrises, is commonly referred to as the ‘missing middle’ because it has been largely absent from urban streetscapes across Canada, including Edmonton.

The competition represents an opportunity to increase our city’s housing choices, particularly how we can integrate infill housing in the ‘missing middle’ range. As the initiative advances, what will be most interesting is the relationships that form between builders, developers and architects, and the proposals they come up with together, pushing the envelope for design and building creativity.

Endorsed by The Alberta Association of Architects, the 2019 ‘Missing Middle’ Infill Design Competition features five City of Edmonton owned parcels of land up for redevelopment at the northeast corner of 112 Avenue and 106 Street in the Spruce Avenue neighbourhood. The City of Edmonton is soliciting proposals from multidisciplinary teams of architects and builders/developers from across Canada and abroad to design a multi-unit, medium-density, or ‘missing middle’, housing development on these lots. The challenge is to submit an innovative design that is not only thoughtful of neighbourhood context, but also economically feasible, responds to local market conditions and advances the design ethic for infill in Edmonton.

A view of the 2019 Edmonton Infill Design Competition site.

A view of the 2019 Edmonton Infill Design Competition site.

The winning team will be given the opportunity to purchase the site and build their winning design, conditional upon rezoning approval. The finished development will be used to inspire innovative ‘missing middle’ infill development in other parts of the city. Full rules and regulations can be found at edmontoninfilldesign.ca.

The submissions from across the country and the range of aesthetics and uses they propose will help support a city that looks to someday grow to a city of 2 million people. As new plans and policy initiatives begin to contemplate the types of urban spaces and places that are needed to help people live prosperous lives, design remains a fundamental pillar in the ways in which these spaces and places are used, enjoyed, and accessed. It will be one of the cornerstones on how Edmonton is marketed and perceived by city visionaries, builders, architects, and developers from around the world.

We firmly believe that the architect plays a critical role, not only in the design of our urban fabric, but even in the very policies that regulate our built forms. The architect understands that our built environments are physical manifestations of the metaphysical. Cultures. Religions. Societies. Ideologies. Traditions. The built form is a direct reflection of our independent and collective memories. How these values are translated into what we see today in our daily lives is part of the delight (and often, frustration and complication) of design. Edmonton is getting to the heart of these discussions.


Christian Lee is the Senior Planner for the Strategic Initiatives and Infill Liaison Team with the City of Edmonton and is a graduate of the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture. Christian worked in a private architecture firm in Toronto as well as the planning department for the City of Cambridge prior to moving to Edmonton in 2013.

Jason Syvixay is an award-winning urban planner and public relations professional, having worked as managing director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ and a community planner with HTFC Planning & Design. More recently, he has focused his planning work in the area of infill development with the City of Edmonton as principal planner with the Infill Liaison Team. Through various media platforms, Jason continues to shape and inform dialogue around pressing urban issues.



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