New podcast episode: Edmonton Zoning Bylaw with Trevor Illingworth


What's the deal with Edmonton's Zoning bylaw renewal? Join ALI's Aysha Wu and City of Edmonton City Planner Trevor Illingworth to learn all about zoning, the bylaw renewal and what's next for zoning in Edmonton.

For more information on the zoning bylaw renewal check out these resources from the City of Edmonton

A huge thank you to Trevor Illingworth and the City of Edmonton zoning bylaw team for making this episode possible.



Host: Hi there and welcome to the Land Use Podcast, the first episode in nearly 5 years. My name is Aysha Wu with the Alberta Land Institute and today we’re chatting about zoning.

I’d like to start out with a land acknowledgement: The Alberta Land Institute is a research institute based out of the University of Alberta's North Campus. The North Campus is on Treaty 6 territory which is a traditional gathering place for diverse Indigenous peoples including the Cree, Blackfoot, Métis, Nakota Sioux, Iroquois, Dene, Ojibway/Saulteaux/Anishinaabe, Inuit, and many others whose histories, languages, and cultures continue to influence our vibrant community.

Last month here in Edmonton, locals were getting fired up about land use. In you’re an Edmontonian and you’ve been paying attention to the news, you might have heard something about the zoning bylaw renewal. 

On Oct. 23, Edmonton City Council passed a new zoning bylaw after a long and involved public hearing during which hundreds of Edmontonians expressed their support, and for some, concerns. 

The bylaw is a major overhaul of Edmonton’s zoning laws that will reduce the number of zones in Edmonton and allow more types of housing to be built all over the city.

Here with us today is Trevor Illingworth from the City of Edmonton. Trevor, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?

Trevor: My name’s Trevor Illingworth. I’m a Senior Planner with the City of Edmonton’s zoning bylaw team. That generally means that I look after the ongoing amendment and maintenance of the zoning bylaw.

For myself over the past 4 plus years it’s meant being part of the leadership of the renewal of the new zoning bylaw. So the zoning bylaw renewal itself was broken up into four different projects — it’s part of a larger city initiative. Those projects are: renewing the bylaw, that’s really just looking after the content itself and that’s what my responsibility has been; in addition, it’s been a city-wide rezoning to implement the new zones; an implementation project, which is really taking off now, to implement the new bylaw; and then a, we’ll call it a technology project I guess to implement a new content management system — so an online interface for hosting the zoning bylaw. So all of that together is within the scope of the zoning bylaw renewal initiative.

Host: So let’s start with the basics here, what is zoning?

Trevor: Yeah so zoning is a system of organizing land. It’s a tool for how we use land, where development can go, what types of development can it be, how big can it be and what’s allowed to happen on the land.

So a zoning bylaw, or land use bylaw, is required by the Municipal Government Act. It’s a tool that all cities have to have, and it’s a tool of organizing land uses and the extent to which those land uses can occur on a piece of land.

Host: Are there certain things that the zoning bylaw is better equipped to handle and others that it’s not?

Trevor: So just in that intro I talked a lot about land use. Zoning is really well equipped to deal with the bigger picture in a way of how a property gets developed. So things like the setbacks of a building or the height of a building, the types of uses and activities that can occur on a piece of land, those are the types of things that when an applicant comes in with a development application, they have a site plan.

The site plan can show things like the footprint of the building, the height of that building and the design features of that building. Those are some of the things that when a development planner or a development officer takes in the application, they can view those things. Stuff that involves precisely how the building is constructed, like what are the walls comprised of, for example, that’s not the role of zoning in the first place. That’s the role of the building code or the safety code. But also, the type of information that’s available during a development review isn’t conducive to that level of detail.

So we are often asked to incorporate certain things that might be, at a technical level, not really feasible for zoning. That’s partially an operational thing just because we have the staff in place that are trained to review a certain thing and partially, its practical.

For example, we’ve been asked to incorporate certain constraints on a light source, or certain ways in which lighting should be calibrated. So when that development application comes in and it might say on the site plan, “here’s where the lighting will be,” or even in terms of a design elevation of a building, it might show you generally, in a design form, which way the light is going to be pointed, for example. But it won’t tell you, like, how many lumens is that light going to be. Even if it did, the enforcement of something like that through a development permit is just not practical; it’s not feasible. So when we start to get to that level of detail, it can start to pull outside of the realm of zoning.

Host: Sounds like it’s kind of better for broad strokes.

Trevor: Yeah, it works best for the broad strokes for sure.

Host: Ok that makes sense. So what is so significant about this particular bylaw amendment?

Trevor: Taking it back to the City Plan, the City Plan is the City of Edmonton’s municipal development plan that’s intended to guide our development through to a population horizon of 2 million over the course of decades. And the zoning bylaw that we currently still have in place until the end of this year it had its origins — well I don’t want to go too far back but, basically the last time it underwent a comprehensive overhaul was in the 1960s.

Edmonton was a much smaller city then and over time—and it has been renewed in some form; there was a consolidation of multiple different bylaws that occurred around 2000/2001 as well — But basically it’s maintained the same structure and the same bones as the bylaw from the 60s. And so, it’s been built upon over time; It’s evolved over time through amendments to it. Basically, the structure of it has become very challenging to navigate because it’s sort of been pieced together.

So, over the course of a few years from about 2014/15 to 2018 or so, the city bylaw team was undergoing a lot of amendments. Basically, every couple weeks we were back at council amending something to remove barriers to “x,” and “x” might have been — in recent past, it’s been — a lot on supporting new forms of infill, helping to remove barriers to different forms of housing in different ways, and it became apparent that if were always removing barriers to these things, why are so many barriers there in the first place? The bylaw was proving to be a bit unwieldy and not very resilient to even the smallest changes in, say, housing trends or changing business models and so on.

So, that’s really kind of the context in which we were sitting just before the City Plan got put into place. Then the City Plan came in and it’s like ok, now we’ve got a new municipal development plan that charts a new path for Edmonton; that really speaks to supporting a variety of housing forms in all neighbourhoods and speaks to supporting new business models — some of the very things that we were sort of constantly removing barriers to achieve.

 So, when that came into place, it really started the wheels turning on this project of let’s renew the zoning bylaw so that it can more easily align with the City Plan. It can implement this plan and those long-term planning ideas, and it can do so in a way that, hopefully, we’re not constantly going back to council every two weeks to remove those barriers. That’s really kind of the impetus for it and the opportunity to, as well, look at some of the trends that a lot of cities are grappling with around housing supply and to do what zoning can do to help to address that. That was a big piece of this as well: looking to see how we can support a more diverse supply of housing in all neighbourhoods.

Host: Yeah, and it’s really gotten a lot of attention locally. Why do you think so many Edmontonians are invested?

Trevor: Yeah people have been invested in this work for a variety of reasons, and sometimes the same reason that people feel passionately about the bylaw, they arrive at two different conclusions about whether or not they’re supportive of the idea. But basically, when we talk about a change to people’s neighbourhoods, they can feel generally one of two ways. Either you might feel excited about that idea: you feel that it offers opportunity for more neighbours, more variety of different housing choices and opportunities for people to potentially age in place. If a single detached house doesn’t meet your long term needs or short term needs then the idea of potentially seeing new housing forms coming up in the neighbourhood can be exciting for some people. Increased density in general is an opportunity that can be supportive of more local business, can be supportive of schools reaching their thresholds to remain open and thriving—things like that are some of the reasons why we hear that people are excited about this idea.

On the flip side, people get invested in a project like this because it has an impact on — again, for those same reasons — has an impact on the neighbourhood and what people can expect to see and many people may not be supportive of that. People might not want to see a change to what might be a predominantly single detached house form in their neighbourhood. So the uncertainty of that, some people may find alarming; some people may not want to see that change at all; some people might feel that the scope of change is maybe too much too fast. So you know I don't want to sort of paint everyone with a broad brush here and say that the comments are uniform, they're certainly not. We've definitely seen a lot of shades of grey in the way that people view this project.

To sum it up in a more concise way, I guess I'd say that anytime you have a project that's going to sooner or later — and it's not all going to happen at once — but that has the potential to change one's neighbourhood, you're going to get people's interest.

Host: Yeah absolutely. I thought we could go over some of the concerns raised during the hearing.

Trevor: Yep.

Host: So there seemed to be a bit of concern that developers had too much freedom and would continue to build in ways that maximize their profits and that that wouldn't necessarily increase affordable housing.

Trevor: I see a couple points built into that. First is: will the developers try to maximize their profits? I think the answer is, yes. I think that that is the intent of a lot of the development industry is to generate profit. What we have to be considerate of here as the city's zoning bylaw team, or really as a planner for the city in general, is what's the outcome that's being achieved by, you know — I'm not interested in helping a developer to maximize their profits. That's not my goal. It's not in the public interest, and that's how we have to operate here as professional planners. We have to operate in the public interest and that can mean multiple publics, and that can mean varying different timelines.

So looking at this over kind of a longer timeline, I'm interested to see how does the development industry build the stuff that is going to help us achieve our long-term goals? If they make profit along the way, fine that's good for them and that's their business. That's not my business. I'm interested in what's that final built form that gets achieved and if what has been built by a developer is a small apartment building, if it's a new commercial building, if it's a building that's nicely designed that can contribute to the public realm in that way, then those are the things that, as a city planner, that I'm interested in. The idea that we're expecting for-profit developers to provide affordable housing has never been something that we have said. That idea's kind of been injected into the public narrative and has been kind of picked up on and put out there as, I don't know, as a way to illustrate how naive we are or something like that. What that narrative misses is that there are for-profit developers, there are also not-for-profit developers, there are housing providers. The same rules that are used by the for-profit developers like around the height of the building and the setbacks of a building and what dwelling types are allowed, those same rules are also the rules that govern a housing provider or a not-for-profit developer.

So what some of the changes do that open up more opportunity for housing is give opportunities for those non-market housing providers to find more locations that they can develop affordable housing project or supportive housing projects — that sort of thing. Those are the things that we're going to see some more benefit, in terms of affordable housing because, in those cases, if they don't have to go through the rezoning process or they don't have to get, say, a variance to their project, those are the things that can mean the difference between success and failure of a project that might be living on very thin margins. They can't afford, often, to spend the extra months in the rezoning, or the extra tens of thousands of dollars that that's going to cost, or they can't afford the risk of that project being possibly appealed or to go through the public hearing process and have people come out against a supportive housing project.

Again, I'm not painting people with too broad a brush here. Sometimes through that rezoning process, there can be very valid concerns from a land use perspective, but I think what you often see with affordable housing or supportive housing projects, you do tend to see people come out, sometimes, in opposition because of who will be living there. That’s the type of inequitable approach to the planning process that we're trying to avoid through taking a more permissive view of what could be built in really any neighbourhood across Edmonton.

Host: Right, of course, because you were talking about how as a planner for the city you have to act in the people's best interest.

Trevor: That's right. It's looking at what populations might currently not have great representation in the planning process and making sure that the path to achieving whatever outcomes need to be achieved is, at least, not hindered by zoning. Now that's a big part of this, too, is knowing that zoning is one tool, but it's not everything. So as we're working on this from a zoning perspective, we're looking at have we removed whatever barriers might be fostering those inequities? It doesn't mean we've removed all the barriers, but it means that we've done what we can as a zoning project to help.

Host: Absolutely. Moving on, loss of green space was another concern that came up a few times. Are you able to speak to that?

Trevor: Sure I mean loss of green space — I think that when people talk about this, again I just I'm not 100% sure what people might have in mind. What we said in the zoning bylaw is, if we're talking about, like, an individual lot, setbacks and sight coverage are kind of the two main tools in the smaller scale context that deal with how much potential green space or yard space is available on a yard.

Those are minimums. So if somebody wants — if they're building a new development and they want to provide a larger yard because they value that or because the market is there for bigger backyards, they can do that. Nobody's asking you to remove any yard space. Similarly with an existing property, you don't have to redevelop your property. You keep your yard. The other thing is site coverage is a big part of this. So site coverage is not proposed to change meaningfully from what's currently allowed in a lot of neighbourhoods. There's a bit of a simplification that we've proposed here that will increase the building pocket slightly through site coverage in some neighbourhoods. Still we're talking about sort of single-digit percentage points here, just a few percent higher and that's, again, to provide a bit more flexibility about different housing types.

One of the things, though, that we are proposing alongside that is a minimum soft landscaping requirement that basically ensures that a certain percentage of the lot can support plant life. On an individual site basis, those are the types of tools that we use to ensure that there is still adequate green space on any given property. That's really not going to change that much from what is currently allowed today.

There was a bit of concern that was shared about loss of green space at the neighbourhood level, or even like district level that, to me, was just a bit of a misunderstanding of this project. We aren't rezoning land as something different than what's in place today, so the closest equivalent zone to what exists today is what they would get in the future. That means that if the neighbourhood is currently zoned, like if there's a park for instance that's currently zoned with a park zone, it will get a park zone with the implementation of the new zoning bylaw. So that's not changing.

When we're talking about, you know, the loss of green space at that level, I don't know where that idea really comes from except to say that there's other planning processes in place: there's a district planning process, there's a green space strategy that Edmonton has in place called Breathe. Those are the types of tools that the city uses in the bigger picture and in the longer term to guide Edmonton's green spaces and to ultimately inform if the city needs to look at land acquisition or something like that to support the green space and parks needs of a growing population.

Host: So obviously it's not quite a one and done kind of thing. Are there any subsequent motions that you want to discuss?

Trevor: Sure. So there were a number of subsequent motions that came out of the adoption of the new zoning bylaw. Council put forward, I think, 27 or 28 motions and 19 of them were successful. A number of them were not necessarily zoning related and I think Council, in my mind, as a whole generally did a good job of identifying those things that they heard from constituents, that they heard from Edmontonians and ensuring that in some cases [they], I would say, sent a signal to Edmontonians that, yes, these things matter, these concerns are legitimate concerns and we want to make sure that these things get addressed too, things about affordable housing for instance, things about what is the city doing from a from a climate perspective.

What they did though, I think wisely and with I think full awareness of the role of zoning versus the role of maybe other planning tools is to, through those motions, to identify where there might be existing work already occurring, or where maybe the work wasn't occurring but needs to be initiated or even just enhanced or sped up I guess in certain ways, and so made motions to ensure that that happens. So one of the things — affordable housing — there is a body of work going forward already looking at our affordable housing policies and a report going ahead to council fairly soon looking at, sort of, what are the policy tools that we have in place or that are possible for us to use to support our affordable housing goals.  So there was a motion that kind of concerned that and, you know, I think in some cases with these motions it's a bit of a signal to the public that, yes, we heard you but this is happening and we want to make sure that it occurs.

Another one is on climate. There's so much work that needs to be done and the zoning bylaw may play a part in some aspects of that. What we have under development right now is a climate change planning and development framework and what that project is intended to do is to kind of look at the whole development spectrum and look at the range of different implementation tools that's available. It could be zoning, it could be safety codes, it could be a green standard which would be like a separate bylaw some — cities have chosen to do it that way, it could be something else, could be plans, strategies education, who knows? The point is to look at the whole spectrum and look at the problems that we're facing and go, okay, this tool is going to be used to address this issue, this other tool is going to be used to address this other issue, and then map out what are some of the implementation mechanisms that need to occur to make that happen.

It's easy for us, I'm going to say in a lot of cases, to just write a rule into the zoning bylaw to say, like, this has to happen. As a regulatory tool, you can come up with a rule that's quantitative and that looks good on paper, but there's a whole lot behind that rule that is kind of invisible to a lot of people. That being, you know, how does it get implemented? I used the example earlier about the light source: You could have a rule about, like, every light must be this many lumens as a maximum or something like that, but if you don't have the people in place to review and ensure that that actually gets executed the way it's meant to, and if you don't have the infrastructure systems in place, like Epcor has the appropriate power supply to make sure that that occurs —those are the things that actually have to happen for any regulation to be successful and to actually be implementable.

So a project like this planning and development framework needs to look at that whole development spectrum, and look at the ways in which different barriers — again I'm talking a lot about barriers being removed— look at the ways in which the barriers can be removed, to ensuring that those outcomes can be achieved and that they're going to be successful. At the end of that analysis — and I'm not sure, like I'm really interested to see how this work goes, because I think we need to do it quickly and the city is taking this, I think, pretty seriously — we need to look and see what this work reveals about the changes that need to be made. Where changes to zoning are part of the solution we will be there and we'll be ready to implement that.

One of the things that came up throughout the course of this work was this idea that the zoning bylaw renewal had to do all of the things all at once. What, I think, that sometimes people might have missed through this process is the fact that a zoning bylaw is a living document. It can be updated over time. We can make changes as early 2024 if we need to update it and make sure that it's reflecting our current needs. As that applies to something like this climate change planning and development framework, yeah, like we can we can make those changes as soon as we've got the implementation side of it sorted out.

Host: Thanks, Trevor. I won't take up too much more of your time, but is there anything else you wanted to mention before we finish up here?

Trevor: I'll just say the level of participation of the public throughout the whole past several years that we've been working on this and culminating in quite a long public hearing that 293 people signed up — I don't know if all of them ended up speaking, unfortunately, because of the length of the hearing some people did sort of drop out — but by numbers I think it was something like 134 people there in support and 159 or 58 or something in opposition. The fact that it's even close is pretty remarkable for a long-term planning document.

A lot of times, and really for public participation in really any aspect of city management is generally skewed towards people coming in in opposition. We see that in almost everything, when people are concerned about a thing, they tend to show up more than when they are unconcerned about a thing or even supportive of a thing. So the fact that we had 134 people come out, and either come out or at least sign up to speak or show their support for this work, I thought was amazing — an amazing indication of an appetite for change in the city and an appetite for the idea that we could do better; that we don't have to just accept neighbourhoods filled with single detached houses forever; that there's other ways that people can envision their city growing. That, to me, is really inspiring.

I might be accused of cherry-picking for just highlighting those that are there in support. I also appreciate those who have concerns, especially for those folks who came out and had really specific items that indicate that they were well informed; they had taken the time to exercise their civic duty and their voice. You have to appreciate that, as well, even if they are there in opposition.

Host: That is it for this episode of the Land Use Podcast. Thank you so much, Trevor, for your time make sure to check back in next month for our next episode and follow us on social media on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Linkedin for updates. Thank you so much! See you next time.