“It Starts With Us”

Confronting Edmonton’s past, for a more equitable future.

The Blatchford West District Community Hub envisions an open, inclusive, and accessible town square filled with amenities, services, restaurants and cafés—the kind of vibrancy that a revised zoning bylaw hopes to further encourage. Image courtesy Blatchford, City of Edmonton

This past year and a half, the pandemic revealed racial and social equity shortcomings in our cities. Anxieties and fears around virus transmission were expressed as racial stigmas, with negative perceptions of people of colour, and the avoidance of ethnic enclaves like Chinatowns. Public health orders to physically distance or isolate at home were difficult for many to follow—especially for those living in precarious housing conditions, working on the frontlines to stock our grocery shelves, or caring for our loved ones in hospitals and seniors’ homes. Already overcrowded homeless shelters quickly became more taxed, with many of their clients unable to safely space themselves. Depending on where they lived, many individuals found it challenging to access basic amenities like groceries and healthcare.

Insurgence seeped into our city streets, homes, hearts, and minds, with protests and social movements calling for rapid action and solidarity. In the AED and planning sphere, we saw new conversations emerge on the role of public policy in shaping cities. How do the practices of planners, engineers, architects, and other designers contribute to exacerbating—or reducing—inequality? How have the biases of designers led to uneven outcomes for marginalized and disadvantaged communities? The lived experiences of both the “haves” and “have nots” came into sharp focus across our civic landscape.

“It starts with us.”

Throughout this past year, conversations on these topics with City of Edmonton staffers led us to reflect on how we might hear and heed the voices of underrepresented people in the planning of our city. How might our policies, programs, and services adapt and evolve to support greater equity outcomes? Colleagues across city departments shared a desire to place themselves in the “shoes of others”; to educate themselves; and to acknowledge how their work can unfairly impact others. One individual noted: “Equity is a fundamental part of our jobs. We can’t select out of this work.” They saw the path towards city-wide equity as long and winding—yet the destination within reach. The work would be challenging, though not impossible.

Towards inclusion and compassion

In the City’s Urban Planning and Economy department, our attention focused first on Edmonton’s City Plan, a municipal development plan that articulates land use, growth patterns, and transportation and mobility systems. We asked: “How will we create a healthy, urban, and climate-resilient city of two million people?” Municipal documents like Edmonton’s City Plan invite big-picture thinking on questions like: How do we welcome more homes and people into our neighbourhoods? How do we make our spaces and places accessible to people of all backgrounds, races, ages, and abilities?

Updating the document with an equity lens has resulted in a plan that envisions 50 percent of new housing added through infill city-wide; two million new urban trees; the elimination of chronic and episodic homelessness; walkable and, bikeable mixed-use communities, and more. We aspire to create an Edmonton that can serve those here today, and support and nurture those who come after us.

Edmonton’s City Plan imagines a greener, efficient, connected, competitive, coordinated city. Its overarching priorities are to improve equity, end poverty, eliminate racism, and make clear progress towards Truth and Reconciliation. Throughout its pages, the City Plan makes the case for equity.

Considering equity can help to ensure that spaces and places are accessible and open for everyone; to provide housing that is diverse and affordable; to connect people with meaningful services and amenities; to welcome and embrace multiple people and perspectives; and to foster a spirit of collaboration and co-creation. Considering equity can help to support those who are isolated or marginalized; to ensure everyone feels safe, secure, and welcome; to support movement and mobility; and to ensure we thoughtfully respond to the impacts of climate change.

The City also hopes to encourage adaptive reuse projects, such as Hodgson Schilf Evans Architects’ recent renovation of the historic Brighton Block into a mixed-use office and retail development. Photo Christophe Benard Photography

The City Plan and the Zoning Bylaw

Moving beyond the aspirational City Plan, there are multiple tools that need to be leveraged to confront inequity. One of the more impactful tools is our city’s Zoning Bylaw. This is because zoning is everywhere—from our parks and playgrounds, to garden suites and the downtown core. The purpose of zoning is to determine what can be built where. It sets the rules for where new buildings should go, what types of buildings they can be, and what types of businesses and activities can happen on a property.

Confronting our past

Since the early 20th century, communities have used zoning to organize land use and minimize conflicts between different activities, in order to protect public health, safety, and the welfare of citizens and the environment. But zoning has sometimes been used to separate more than just land uses—it has also been used to segregate people and disconnect them from places, practices, and production. Whether intentionally or not, zoning rules have led to disproportionate impacts for some segments of the population. For this reason, zoning has a dual legacy: of both promoting the public good and of causing exclusion.

Edmonton’s first set of land use regulations were introduced in 1933. Premised on a western view of land management, Zoning Bylaw 26 resulted in the displacement of many First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people, including the Enoch and the Papaschase. The most recognizable content from Zoning Bylaw 26 that is still present today is the city’s “Zone A” Metropolitan Recreation Zone, which encompasses the North Saskatchewan River valley and tributaries. Retaining “Zone A” is symbolic of what was—and still is—important to the city, to its identity, and to its people. But there remain many other relic regulations that do not reflect the Edmonton of today or tomorrow.

The City is seeking to prompt discussion and reflection on Indigenous peoples through projects such as (ÎNÎW) River Lot 11∞ Edmonton’s Indigenous Art Park, which features permanent artworks by Canadian Indigenous artists. Photo courtesy City of Edmonton

Adapting our present

Since 2016, Edmonton has been undertaking a comprehensive reappraisal of its Zoning Bylaw, focusing on whether regulations were creating avoidable, but disproportionate negative impacts. A series of amendments were undertaken. Sometimes these were shaped by precedents in other cities, but in several cases, Edmonton was shaping practice too. Many of our changes are firsts in Canada.

For example, in 2018, an amendment to the bylaw made semi-detached and duplex housing permissible in Single Detached Residential Zones (RF1), as well as allowing basement and garden suites to coexist as additional dwellings in the same lot. Across North America, restrictive Single Detached Residential Zones have acted as deterrents to housing diversity, choice, and affordability, by only allowing stand-alone homes in large sections of cities. This has meant that low- to medium-density housing forms—which often fit in well in these neighbourhoods and allow for people of different social-economic groups to share amenities—have been uncommon in these zones. This has led to a concentration of affordable and supportive housing in other sections of the city—resulting, over time, in a spatial segregation of people based on income, age, gender, race, and ability.

Through a simple yet powerful zoning change, many types of housing are now an as-of right in Edmonton. The importance of diverse housing to welcome a diverse demographic of people was emphasized by this change—which was unanimously approved by Edmonton’s City Council.

In 2020, Edmonton removed parking minimums city-wide. The requirement that all buildings come with a certain number of parking spaces was introduced decades ago, when car ownership was considered a norm. But parking supply had often become a financial constraint for developers, inadvertently leading to unaffordable housing for the end user. An overabundance of parking can also lead to an unwalkable built environment.

The new change allows homeowners, businesses and the development industry to decide how much on-site parking to provide on their properties, based on the particular lifestyle of residents, their activities, and the building’s operations.

That same year, the City of Edmonton’s administration brought forward an amendment to increase Edmonton’s current supply of supportive housing options, in order to allow for more supportive living across the city. Previously, shelter operations and supportive housing were permitted in very few zones across the city, preventing entire segments of the population from accessing housing in more established neighbourhoods. Introducing a new definition of “supportive housing” in the Bylaw creates the opportunity to locate supportive housing more widely across the city.

The urgency and rationale for these changes was strengthened through the contributions of architects, politicians, residents, builders, and community organizations, who enlivened the debate and called for change. Their inspired ideas have given us a preview of how the city will be improved with medium-density housing, carbon-neutral design, culturally sensitive supportive housing, the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, and mixed-use developments. Edmontonians have stretched our imaginations of what is possible, demonstrating what can be done to make our cities more vibrant, healthy, connected, and inclusive.

Designed by Patkau Architects with Group2 Architecture, the Capilano Library exemplifies the City’s active support of award-winning architecture that contributes to community life. Photo by James Dow

Imagining our future

Renewing Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw provides an opportunity to re-draft the substance of regulations. But it also presents an opportunity to draft regulations in ways that are easier to understand and interpret, enabling more people to engage with zoning and use it to the benefit of their communities.

To support this work, the City has created a Gender-based Analysis Plus (GBA+) and Equity Toolkit. This has been helping the Zoning Bylaw team in considering the social impacts of policies and regulations, and in taking thoughtful action to create inclusive, welcoming urban spaces and places. The barriers and inequities connected to zoning are cumulative and wide-sweeping, and the team recognizes that institutional change takes time. The GBA+ and Equity Toolkit provides a place to start, in beginning to identify how individual actions can have an impact.

As University of Alberta planning professor Dr. Sandeep Agrawal notes, “humanely developing inclusive cities depends on legal guarantees and on their judicial enforcement, and [on] planners’ commitment to incorporating them into their practice.” This work has begun to reshape our thinking, and has enhanced our ability to write regulations that support more equitable outcomes. It  is also being embraced throughout many other areas within the City of Edmonton.

The City is also advancing equity through District Planning, a multi-year project to establish communities throughout the city that can access their daily needs locally. Edmontonians are expressing a strong desire for a greater mix of local housing options, schools, recreation opportunities, amenities and transportation options. District Planning envisions communities that are as diverse as the people who live in them, and which foster a sense of belonging for all those who call Edmonton home.

“Advancing equity will be challenging, but not impossible.”

Shaping an inclusive, compassionate and equitable city is a collaborative effort. Yet, some voices in city-building processes have traditionally been heard more loudly than others. Many individuals have felt excluded from these discussions; participating in them has felt like a privilege afforded to those with more resources, time, ability, and income.

Inspired by the phrase “nothing about us, without us,” we actively sought the voices of community members throughout 2020. They shared their lived experiences, their aspirations for their communities, and their perspectives on how to address equity in our natural and built environments. Explicit attention was given to ensuring that people from Black, Indigenous, racialized, underrepresented, and marginalized communities were invited to participate—those who have been historically left out of zoning considerations, and are disproportionately impacted by them.

These residents emphasized how our built environments, our planning processes, and our communication and engagement methods must be inclusive, diverse, and support belonging. They identified how vulnerable and marginalized people are negatively impacted by a lack of accessibility; a limited supply of affordable and diverse housing; and few resources for community economic development. They spoke about how greater priority needed to be placed on safety, amenities, and services. They shared how they wanted their communities to be walkable, bikeable, and have better transit, along with wider sidewalks and lower traffic speeds. Here are some of the comments and questions they shared with us:

“There is a perception that poor people live in duplexes, and that they will bring down property values. This works against intergenerational or multigenerational families.”

“If a newcomer was looking to start a small business, what should the Zoning Bylaw tell them?”

“Communities shouldn’t be allowed to voice who they don’t want in their community.”

“Why do we have to prove that we’re good neighbours?”

“How can you accomplish your daily needs if they are far from where you live?”

So how do we move forward—together?

As Kamala Todd, a Métis-Cree mother, community planner, and the City of Vancouver’s first Indigenous Arts and Culture Planner, eloquently wrote in Plan Canada:

Who gets to be the author of the city?
Dreaming the city, upholding the charter, inscribing the stories.
Who claims to be the founder, builder, caretaker?

We need to help people see themselves in our city—throughout the pages of our plans, policies, and programs. We need to hear their stories, we need to amplify their voices, and we need to make our planning efforts more accessible and approachable. This work will be challenging, uncomfortable, and ambiguous—all the more important for us to be relentless in the pursuit of equity.

Kim Petrin is the Branch Manager for Development Services at the City of Edmonton, which steers strategic growth and private sector investment through zoning, subdivision, servicing agreements, permitting, licensing, inspections and compliance.

Livia Balone is the Director of the Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative. Livia joined the City of Edmonton in 2008, previously working for the City of Saskatoon, planning consultants and various non-profit organizations, such as Community Futures, which provides small-business services to people living in rural communities.

Lyla Peter is the Director of Development and Zoning Services at the City of Edmonton. She is fascinated by how people, geographies, politics and culture shape our communities, which has led her to work in small and big cities across Canada, the United States, and the UK.