New podcast episode: Equity in zoning with Sandeep Agrawal

EPISODE 4- Equity in Zoning

Curious about what kind of research went into Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw Renewal? Dr. Sandeep Agrawal talks about how his research informed the new bylaw’s equitable approach to zoning.

For more information on the Zoning Bylaw Renewal check out these resources:

Thank you, Sandeep Agrawal, for making this episode possible.



Host: Hello, and welcome back to the Land Use Podcast. My name is Aysha Wu with the Alberta Land Institute and this is our second episode on Edmonton's Zoning Bylaw Renewal. 

As we continue to discuss zoning in the City of Edmonton, it's important to acknowledge that Edmonton resides on Treaty 6 territory and Region 4 of the Métis Nation: the traditional lands of First Nations and Métis peoples whose cultures, knowledge and perspectives are invaluable in discussing and planning an equitable future for Edmonton.

This episode is a follow up to last month when we chatted with senior city planner Trevor Illingworth, who was part of the zoning bylaw renewal team. So, if you haven't already, go and give that a listen and make sure to subscribe so you don't miss out on future episodes. 

To recap, on Oct. 23, Edmonton City Council passed a zoning bylaw renewal to take effect on Jan. 1 of 2024. The bylaw renewal is part of the City Plan, available on the City of Edmonton's website, and was designed to address several issues in the city including population growth, urban sprawl, affordable housing and, as we're going to discuss today, equity. 

I just want to highlight part of my conversation with Trevor where we talked about the city’s duty to act in the best interest of the people who call Edmonton home. We're here to talk a little bit about the “how” of that today. 

Dr. Sandeep Agrawal worked on some of the research behind the bylaw renewal, and he's here with me today to talk about it. Dr. Agrawal has a background in urban and regional planning and is a professor here at the University. Welcome, Sandeep. Do you want to introduce yourself and give us some background on what you do?

Sandeep: Sure. So first of all hello, Aysha. I’m Sandeep Agrawal. I’m the director of the Alberta Land Institute, also a professor in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Alberta and I was part of the team that worked on the equity portion of the new zoning bylaw.

Host: Oh, that was kind of my next question right there. So that's kind of the extent of what you were involved in in the bylaw renewal?

Sandeep: It was yeah. It was the equity part of it but we had to go through the entire zoning bylaw to make sure where the gaps are, where the inequities might be so, essentially, eliciting inequities and then finding ways to alleviate them in the new zoning bylaw.

Host: That sounds like quite the process. How did you get involved in the project? 

Sandeep: The process started with the City of Edmonton approaching me and asking me whether I wanted to take on this project and they explained what the problem was with the old zoning bylaw and then we decided to apply for a grant from one of the federal research councils. We were successful in getting it which is, you know, a feat in itself– It's only 10% that gets approved. And then some funds came from the City of Edmonton as well and then we just got on to this work. it was all completed in a record amount of time – I can say, as an academic, it was a record time: six months. 

Host: Wow, yeah, that's a pretty short window. Could you tell me a little bit more about what the research process looks like for a project like this?

Sandeep: Sure, yeah. So the research basically involved a number of things. So, for instance, we wanted to make sure that we have all the previous data from the City of Edmonton in regards to types of development permits that were approved. So we had access to this data of the last 20 years. It also included variances that were made on each property and we went through all of that. We were able to get hold of all the policy documents from the city and, in addition to that, we spoke with the city staff and we also spoke with the key stakeholders in Edmonton. So, all in all, we had about 45 or so interviewees plus a ton of data and documents to work with. 

Host: Right and you were saying that the focus of all of that was equity right? So could you tell me a little bit more about what it means to take an equitable approach?

Sandeep: Yeah, so equitable approach is where equity is the key; not so much equality per se. But, essentially, equity is about guaranteeing every individual to reach equality based on their own potential and needs, which is different from just thinking of everyone as equal – but we know that everyone is not equal, that everyone would need different resources, education and what not to become equal. So equity thinks about what the needs are and how we can fulfill those needs. 

Host: And how does that play into zoning, then?

Sandeep: Yeah, so this was quite interesting and challenging in many ways and that's the reason I took it upon myself. And I would say that City of Edmonton may be the very first city in the entire North America that took on this charge of looking at equity and how to translate equity in its zoning bylaw. 

So, basically, what we had to do was, first, look at what inequities existed before, meaning what portions of the zoning bylaw were, quote unquote, discriminatory, overtly or covertly, to people of different ethnic groups, faith groups, sexual orientation and so on and so forth. So that was the first thing. But to do that, what I did was I came up with the framework of equity. So, basically, theorizing equity, then creating a methodology out of it, and then going about looking at how we can fulfill those gaps that existed. So I came up with the idea of four types of equity– some of it exists in the literature: so, for instance, distributional equity, then you have recognitional equity, procedural equity and, the last one, which I would say is my addition, that is about regulatory equity. 

Host: So what do those different types of equity mean, and how are they different?

Sandeep: So distributional equity is essentially that we distribute goods and services in such a way that it is equitable to everyone: so, for instance, housing, you know, education and things of that nature. Recognitional is recognizing the diversity of Edmontonians: people who live here. and procedural is the processes that go into making policies: city policies, city regulations, bylaws, things of that in nature. And regulatory is more to do with things like zoning regulations: that – what do we do? How do we translate equity – which is, you know, quote unquote, an abstract nebulous concept for some – but how do we take that and make it a bit more concrete in the zoning bylaw?

Host: Yeah, absolutely. And are you able to share with us some of the findings from your study?

Sandeep: Yeah, so there were a number of findings – and there is a report out there; It's in the public domain. But the findings were about zones that exist in the old zoning bylaw. For instance, RF1 and RF2 – and I would not go into the technicality of these – but some of these zones, essentially, were for single detached homes. So what that means is you have to have the means to afford that kind of house and most of these neighborhoods were pretty homogeneous in terms of their demography. 

So, as you can see, that the build form – the zone led to a build form that led to, you know, this kind of homogeneous environment where, essentially, the rest of the Edmontonians were excluded. So that was the first thing that we elicited from our research. And then there were others, like, for instance, many users were not included in some of the zones. So, as you know, many of these zones were completely residential, meanwhile, you know, on a day-to-day basis, we need bread, we need eggs– so there were no shops, as such, that could be established there. There was no room for childcare, for instance, and these are, sort of, day-to-day things that we rely on. So that is inequitable to women, people, you know, seniors, children and so on and so forth. 

So yeah, so those are a couple of examples, but I think our point was that– and it's I think it's a key point – that zoning should not be looked at as a panacea to solve all the equity issues that exist in our society. Zoning is just one tool that could help us alleviate this, but it's not a silver bullet. So that is the key. 

So what we wanted to make sure is that whatever issues are being caused by zoning, we plug that. But we want to make sure that equity as an approach should be used in the process as well, you know, decision making process, cities operations, cities practices, and so on and so forth. So our recommendations not only included what needed to go in the zoning bylaw but also looking at city wide services, operations, culture and things of that in nature.

Host: And do you think that the zoning bylaw renewal did a good job of addressing that to the extent that it could?

Sandeep: I would think so, yes. I think they were quite genuine in what they have done. And keep in mind that whenever a bylaw is created, or any planning regulation is created, it has to take into account a number of things – there are a number of stakeholders out there. We're talking about, you know, general Edmontonians, but we’re also talking about businesses; We're talking about so many things. We’re also talking about the environment; we’re talking about the economy and on and on and on. So I think it has done a very, very good job in addressing many of the aspects of equity, sustainability and things of that in nature. 

Host: In terms of equity, do you have any recommendations for future action from the city? 

Sandeep: For future actions, I would say that I think this is a job well done with respect to zoning bylaw, but I think it needs to operationalize equity in its practices, in its decision making process. 

Host: What would that look like? 

Sandeep: I would give an example here – and this is to do with the City of Montréal where the whole idea of engaging people, giving rights to the people, so to speak, is actually exactly enacted in legislation, was then translated into two offices that they have created: one is the Office of Ombudsman and the other is the Office of Engagement. So, essentially, Office of Engagement then makes sure that it reaches out to the entire City Of Montréal and engage, you know, different segments of the population for all the projects coming out of the City of Montréal. And the second one is that anyone in Montréal could make a complaint to the Office of Ombudsman: anything in regards to City Of Montréal services, you know, things that they didn't get and things that need to be done and things of that in nature. And then the Ombudsman goes to the City Council and can advise the City Council in terms of things that are missing out there. 

So some of those things can be done over time here at the City of Edmonton to, again, think about equity. And that's a much more meaningful way, so that it’s seeped into the practice and the culture of how we do things here.

Host: So kind of on the flip side then, do you think there are any key takeaways from our zoning bylaw renewal that other municipalities should pay attention to? 

Sandeep: Yeah, a number of things. First of all: how do we do it? I mean, we talk about equity; we talk about human rights but we just do not know enough as to, you know, ok, what you do with them? So the report that we had put out for the City of Edmonton includes a methodology, a framework, tests that other city planners and even their legal counsel could use to make sure that not only the old bylaw, the existing bylaw, but also look at new bylaws and whether they are consistent with the Charter Rights and Freedoms, their provincial human rights legislation and, obviously, the equity aspect of human rights as well. 

Host: Yeah it seems like it's a great example of equity in legislation and I hope that more people utilize those tools that you helped develop. So if people are interested in learning more about this topic, what kind of resources would you recommend that they look for?

Sandeep: So I would recommend going to the web and just Googling “Agrawal, equity, City of Edmonton.” it's going to come up with that report. It's a fairly long, 100 pages report, but there is a lot just in the executive summary, so they're just a couple of pages of reading – three pages of reading. It does include a ton of references and literature that one could then, you know, go from there and then look for others. 

Host: And that wraps up our interview with Sandeep Agrawal. Thank you, Sandeep, for joining us. Dr. Agrawal's research “Assessing inequity in zoning bylaw: A case of Edmonton, Canada” is linked in the description. There was a ton of other research that went into the bylaw renewal so if you feel like diving in, the City of Edmonton's document library for the Zoning Bylaw Renewal is also linked in the description, as well as a few other City of Edmonton resources like the City Plan. There's lots of good info in there so make sure to check it out.

Thank you so much for listening. This episode was our final episode about the Edmonton zoning bylaw renewal, but we’ll be back next month with a brand new topic, so make sure to tune in. Be sure to follow us on Apple Podcasts and our social media sites: Facebook, X, Instagram and LinkedIn, and sign up for our newsletter for updates about blog posts, research, calls for proposals and more. We’ll see you next time on the Land Use Podcast.