Edmonton Journal ePaper

Planners delve into their profession's role in historic inequities


Edmonton's city planners are releasing a report Thursday that gives a critical, soul-searching analysis of their own profession's role in reinforcing the systemic divides of race and wealth that persist in this city.

It will come with a second report that's sure to cause angst in many of Edmonton's historic neighbourhoods — an academic's equity review of Edmonton's zoning bylaw along with his recommendation to scratch the rulebook specifically constraining infill in older neighbourhoods.

That's the mature neighbourhood overlay, a document that's become an emotional touchstone among residents who've fought for decades to maintain the quiet, pedestrian-friendly, tree-lined character of the communities they call home.

“It's excessive in terms of the amount of notifications that happen, that extend the time and add complexity,” said Sandeep Agrawal, author of the paper and head of the University of Alberta's School of Urban and Regional Planning.

“It doesn't lead to a good place. The process leads to a bad taste because of existing inequalities. It amplifies the long-standing issues in the community.”

I've struggled with this column because, in some ways, it's a story of two good things colliding.

The city soul-searching is long overdue. Edmonton's type of prescriptive zoning — spelling out exactly what construction and activity is allowed on a property — has a long history of racial segregation.

This legacy comes out most clearly when regulating pawnshops and second-hand stores, which have the same land use impacts as a high-end shop selling cupcakes or dog treats but attract a different clientele. They face additional restrictions in Edmonton's 1960s-era zoning code, with a development permit often up to the discretion of whichever city employee gets the file.

But the inequity is in residential rules, too.

Group homes, lodging or multiunit rentals and other supportive housing are often “discretionary,” which means neighbours are notified and invited to weigh in before a development officer makes a decision. That adds time, cost and uncertainty.

When decisions are appealed, the arguments can get nasty.

Last fall, city planners did a series of two-hour interviews with 23 people to get a perspective on zoning from new immigrants, racialized minorities, people with disabilities or those experiencing poverty. Many found the zoning bylaw itself so complex it was inaccessible. Despite recent improvements, they still also saw zoning as banning them from certain areas if they can't afford to buy a whole house, said Livia Balone, director of the city's effort to rewrite the zoning.

“We've dedicated higher or medium density only along traffic corridors and the exterior of a neighbourhood,” she said as an example. “We're lacking the equity there for people who want to live by the park, by the school, by the commercial centre. There's a lack of flexibility.”

Her team is looking to create just one low-density residential zone for the whole city as part of the zoning rewrite. If it regulates the size of the house but not the number of suites within, that could give more flexibility, she said. An opportunity to comment on that and other proposed zones is available at edmonton.ca/Zoningbylawrenewal.

New mixed-use and higherdensity zones are also coming.

But Balone's example brings me back to how this story involves two good things colliding. Seeking equity is good, so is listening to the voices of people already living there.

Talk of equity makes it seem like anyone fighting change is a snob — or worse. That's simply not true. Sure, I've sat through public hearings where people use parking and other concerns as cover for not wanting “those people” as neighbours. But there are many others motivated to argue for design principles because they lead to greener and more socially connected neighbourhoods.

There was a group at city council last week who fought to keep rules actually promoting higher-density residential around the park in Parkallen. They were unsuccessful. Council voted to rescind their neighbourhood plan, along with 73 others, to make way for a set of 15 new district-focused plans being developed this summer/fall with a public review next January.

Council needs to be careful here, and I'm glad they also voted to review the engagement plan. Equity means welcoming voices that haven't been heard; it doesn't mean shutting out voices who've been contributing for years.

Yes, the mature neighbourhood overlay has been a tool of exclusion. It has also been a tool to preserve sunshine for gardening, prevent driveways from interrupting sidewalks and to stop home designs that, when under construction, are more likely to undermine the foundations of houses next door.

Keeping those hard-won elements while welcoming new neighbours will take wisdom in addition to soul-searching.