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Canadian urban design practice: a review of urban design regulations.


Cet article examine Ia nature et la portee de la pratique du design urbain au Canada. L'etude est basee sur une enquete des reglements municipaux concernant le design urbain des municipalites canadiennes ayant une population de 25,000 habitants et plus. Les reglements de design urbain sont des outils municipaux qui contribuent A la qualite physique et visuelle de l'espace urbain. Les planificateurs municipaux qui ont repondu a l'enquete ont indique le processus de reglementation du design urbain, les facteurs qui ont contribue a determiner les reglements et les principes de design urbain qui sont A la base des reglements. De plus, ils ont identifie les aspects du design urbain qui sont reglementes et les individus impliques dans l'evaluation des reglements. Les resultats montrent que la majorite des municipalites canadiennes ont des reglements de design urbain en place, bien que la majorite d'entre eux portent sur le centre-ville et les quartiers/lieux. Les municipalites ont tendance a souligner les caracteri stiques historiques architecturales et portent peu d'attention a de certains defis de base: sauvegarde contre le climat froid ou toutes autres conditions environnementales et le respect de la diversite culturelle. L'etude revele egalement que les reglements de planification des provinces, bien qu' influant, ne fournissent aucun conseil clair en ce qui concerne les reglements de design urbain et implementation.

Mots clefs : Conception urbaine; Reglements; Villes canadiennes; Climat; Environnement; Diversite culturelle.


This article examines urban design practice in Canada and takes stock of its nature and scope. This is accomplished through a survey of urban design regulations in municipalities across the country with populations greater than 25,000. Urban design regulations are municipal tools for shaping the physical and visual quality of urban spaces and the built environment. Municipal urban designers responding to the survey had to indicate how urban design is regulated, state factors that determined the substance of regulations, and select design principles that underlie the regulations. In addition, they identified design features that are regulated and individuals involved in design review. The results show that the majority of Canadian municipalities have urban design regulations in place, although mostly for their downtown and historic areas. Municipalities tend to emphasize historic architectural characteristics and do not attend to certain basic challenges such as providing safeguards against cold climate, carin g for sensitive environmental conditions and respecting cultural diversity. The study also reveals that the provincial planning statutes, although influential, provide no clear guidance as to what urban design regulations should entail and how they should be implemented.

Keywords: Urban Design; Regulations, Canadian Cities, Climate, Environment, Cultural Diversity.


Canada is a mosaic of rich and diverse cultures and architecture. This composition comprises the simple coastal settlements of Atlantic Canada; the solid gray limestone buildings of old Montreal; Toronto's Victorian, Richardson Romanesque and Edwardian architectural remnants juxtaposed with early-modem architectural pieces; vibrant Chinatowns; the simple, austere buildings of the flat Canadian prairies; the northern vernacular settlements, and the ornate bank buildings all across the country. Rapid changes in our lifestyles, needs and choices in the recent past have resulted in an eclectic mix of built forms and urban spaces where new and old exist together. We either appreciate or criticize the designs of the urban spaces we live in but we rarely understand what shapes these spaces. How do we preserve or alter them? Who determines the appearance of these buildings and the public spaces formed by them? What criteria are used to approve a design? Are there any consistent design principles underlying these deci sions?

This paper presents the results of a survey of the urban design regulations in municipalities across Canada. The intention of the survey was to examine the nature and scope of urban design practice as reflected in urban design regulations. The phrase "urban design regulation" means different things to different people. (1) In this paper, urban design regulation is regarded as an administrative mechanism to shape the physical and visual quality of private and public urban spaces and the built environment. It is concerned with the actual placement of the building on the site, the building envelope, its appearance and its relation to the streets and the surrounding areas. Urban design regulation is usually procedurally divorced from general land use decisions, which are made separately based on zoning by-laws and decisions about the internal aspects of buildings, which are, in turn, constrained by building codes (George et al. 2000). Zoning by-laws could still very well be a form of urban design regulation as lo ng as they do not pertain to land uses. Thus, the focus here is on the external appearance of the buildings, rather than their uses, and the spaces between them such as open spaces, parks, sidewalks, water bodies, landscaping, lighting and signage. Though it varies in terms of when and how it is applied, urban design regulation is usually enforced when a person asks the city to approve a proposal to alter or add to the existing built fabric. Depending on the type, scale, size and location of the proposed development, the city staff evaluates the design quality through the established set of urban design standards and communicates its decision to the applicant.

Although no comparable study has been previously undertaken, the paper tests the following three hypotheses, based on a general familiarity with the planning regulatory system in Canadian cities: first, urban design regulation is not often used in Canadian cities; second, the scope and extent of regulations vary across the country because of the provincial planning statutes, size of the community, topography and climate; and third, one or two design principles are consistently employed across the country to formulate urban design regulations. In addition, the study intends to report on types of mechanisms used to regulate urban design, identify factors responsible for the nature of urban design regulations, and discover any urban design principles consistently used to evaluate the design quality of development projects.

The remainder of the paper has four parts. The first part describes background information including a brief review of the literature on urban design regulations in Canada. Before proceeding with the findings, the second part discusses the objectives and the method of the research. The third part lays out a series of findings, and identifies issues and challenges in municipal urban design practice. The fourth and last part highlights some important findings as well as key issues and challenges, and provides some pointers for future research.


Unlike the extensive attention they receive in the US (Scheer 1993; Shirvani 1981; Delafons 1990; Punter 1 999a; George et al. 2000), urban design regulations have not been explored systematically in Canada. The only published scholarly research in this area is by John Punter (1999b). He describes the design experiences of the city of Vancouver in the past three decades and explores ways in which Vancouver controls design and its urban structure while maintaining its compactness and cityscape. Punter identifies four ways to control design in the city: discretionary zoning, mega-project planning, a 'planning gain' system and a participatory planning process.

The few compilations of work examining urban design practice in Canada that do exist paint a bleak picture of urban design, afflicted as it is by a wide array of issues. Among them is Charette's (1995) report, in which various practitioners and academics have commented on Canadian urban design issues. The report presents a dismal state of urban design in Canadian cities, and highlights the processes and forces responsible for it. It also explores numerous issues in urban design such as sustainability, climate, NIMBY-ism and the fading identity of small Canadian towns. Roger Kemble's (1989) book The Canadian City: St. John's to Victoria, A Critical Commentary, one of the first books on Canadian urban design, evaluates spaces in 16 major Canadian cities from coast to coast and strongly criticizes the current practice of urban design. His essay in Charette's report champions the exercise of mandatory and prescriptive, yet sensible and simple, urban design regulations. To argue that cities and their citizens are often at odds when deciding the physical make-up of their environment, Wolfe (1991) and Whitzman (1991) present two real-life accounts: the political wrangling over the location of a concert hall in Montreal, and conflicts between designers' and the community's design ideas in the St. Jamestown neighbourhood in Toronto. One can learn some important lessons from these two narratives. First, community design involves a wide range of tastes, opinions and some opportunism; second, designers should not impose their design ideas. Instead, they ought to involve the public in developing urban design solutions.

To draw attention to urban design, Plan Canada, the journal of the Canadian Institute of Planners, has been publishing several individual cases of new initiatives in urban design regulations. The following articles are worth mentioning: Lanktree's (1994) commentary on how urban design policy in Ottawa's official plan forms a policy framework for land use planning across the city; a feature article by Young (1995) on the St. Lawrence neighbourhood in Toronto highlights the need for carefully crafted design guidelines to help architects and developers come up with better designs; and Von Hausen and Robinson's (1991) study in the city of Barrie, Ontario reports that existing urban design regulations resulted in undesirable built form and, by and large, ignored the unique natural and historical character of the study area.

In a special issue that appeared in March 1996, Plan Canada described how to maintain safety in cities by applying various design strategies and looking to the social policy initiatives that have been enacted by a number of cities worldwide for guidance. There are also Plan Canada articles describing the design principles of the new Canadian towns recently developed or being developed, such as Bois Franc near the city of Saint Laurent in Quebec (Sauer 1994), McKenzie Towne in Calgary, Alberta (MacDonald et al. 1995), Cornell in Markham, Ontario (Gabor et al. 1997), Queensville in York Region of Ontario (Bogdan 1992) and Bamberton near Victoria, British Columbia (SIDC 1992). Other writings consist of alternative approaches to traditional zoning for both existing and new developments in suburbs and within cities (Friedman 1996; Bedford 1997; Ito 1997; Gaboretal. 1997; D'Amouretal. 1996; White 1996; Grant 1999). Worth noting among them is White's (1996) sketch of Calgary's newly adopted "performance standards" a pproach to design better suburbs.

Several Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) supported research projects explore alternative development patterns and performance-based planning. Among them, the study on alternative development standards (CMHC 1997) is most relevant to this research. The CMHC study recommends a re-evaluation of current standards and promotes a hybrid form of standards that can adopt successful elements from both urban and suburban development patterns.

Many initiatives for sustainable community design in Canadian cities, while seemingly breaking down the regulatory barriers, espouse the natural evolution of designs within the communities (Gurstein et al. 1993; Pedersen 1999; Perks et al. 1993; Hough 1984, 1990, 1994). Hough (1994), in his seminal work on ecological design, attributes the monotony of the modern urban landscape to designers' indifference towards the diverse ecological system and human settlement. He makes a strong case against having rigid urban design regulations, and argues that the stringent application of regulations has produced the most "placeless, environmentally destructive, and energy consuming human habitats of modern times" (1994: 147). Excessive control, he believes, is a formula for "homogeneity, sensory deprivation, and Jack of environmental and social identity" (1994:151).

Research Objectives and Method

The objectives of the research presented here are fourfold: to find out the scope and nature of urban design regulations across the country; to discover who participates in design decisions and which design elements are subject to review; to determine the factors that influence the nature of urban design regulations; and finally, to determine what urban design principles are being used to evaluate the design quality of development projects. To fulfill the above four objectives, a 12-page survey (2) comprised of 31 questions was distributed. Most of the survey questions sought multiple-choice responses, but allowed for descriptive answers. There were also several open-ended questions.

During the months of February and March of 2001, the survey was mailed out to 95 municipalities across Canada whose populations were 25,000 or more according to the 1996 census and which were willing to participate in the survey. In order to ascertain representation from all the provinces and territories, responses were also sought from sparsely populated cities in some of the Atlantic and Prairie provinces and territories where one or two or, in some cases, no city had a population of more than 25,000. The city halls of the municipalities were contacted and the city officials responsible for urban design were located. Inmost instances, the subjects were contacted directly and were persuaded to participate in the survey. Because of the language differences, additional efforts were made to seek responses from Quebec. A person who was based in Quebec and was fluent in French was recruited to assist in translating the questionnaire into French, contacting the municipalities and collecting responses from them.

Most municipalities responded to the survey. Out of the 95 municipalities contacted, 62 (almost 65%) responded (Table 1). Among the provinces, British Columbia (75%) and Alberta (72%), in particular, contributed enthusiastically. The reason for an excellent overall response rate could be attributed to a significant amount of time devoted to locating the municipal officials with urban design expertise and developing a personal rapport with them. These officials were also telephoned to remind them to fill out the survey. The 62 municipalities that participated make up almost 40 percent of the Canadian population as per the 1996 census. It is therefore needless to say that the survey is thus far the most comprehensive survey undertaken in this area.


The findings of the survey are explained in the following four sections. The sections describe the extent and scope of urban design regulations, and the effects of factors such as climate, provincial planning legislation and design principles. They also identify the most commonly regulated design elements and individuals who review them, and make suggestions for improving the process.

How Common is Urban Design Regulation?

There were a few inconsistencies in the responses to the question "Do you have a design review committee3 to review designs?" Previous to this question, respondents were asked to choose one or more means of controlling urban design from a given list and almost 15 percent of the respondents failed to mention the presence of design review committees, which was one of the choices. But in response to the above the question, the same respondents indicated that they indeed had design review committees in place. Despite this discrepancy, it appears that the overwhelming majority of municipalities in British Columbia and Quebec have design review panels, albeit with only an advisory status. Outside of these two provinces, there are sporadic cases of its existenceu Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta, Niagara Falls in Ontario, Winnipeg in Manitoba and Whitehorse in Yukon. This is in contrast with the American situation where design review panels exist in almost 83 percent of the municipalities (Scheer 1993). The respondents indicated the presence of other municipal review bodies such as Site Pl an Control Committees4 and Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committees5 in Ontario municipalities, Heritage Boards6 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and in Saint John and Fredericton in New Brunswick, which evaluate the design quality of development proposals depending on their location, nature and type.

Ninety-two percent (92%) of the municipalities surveyed have some form of urban design regulation in place. These are available in diverse forms, the most common being zoning by-laws (87%), policy statements (65%) and heritage preservation policies and guidelines (58%). Many municipalities adopted urban design regulations in the past three decades, but the bulk embraced them in the I 980s and 1990s. Almost two-thirds of municipalities have revised their design regulations in the past five years. Even though their enforcement appears to be much more pervasive than was anticipated, most design regulations remain either overly prescriptive (for instance, in the form of zoning by-laws), or overly generalized (mostly in the form of policy statements in municipal official plans). Only 32 out of the 62 municipalities have taken the extra step of developing detailed urban design plans, policies and guidelines (Table 2). This means that many municipalities still fall short of crafting comprehensive sets of urban desig n standards. A substantial number, however, indicated that they use heritage preservation policies and plans as a means to implement urban design regulations.

When asked whether urban design regulations are voluntary or mandatory, more than 60 percent of the respondents claimed that they require mandatory review of development projects and full compliance with the govemment's recommendations. Only ten percent use a voluntary process of reviewing and encouraging compliance with the design regulations, that is, they are not a requirement but rather depend on a show of good faith by a developer. Some of the participants who checked off mandatory review and mandatory compliance qualified their responses by stating that the review of urban design projects also depends upon the project type, its location, and sometimes on the municipal council's approval. One respondent indicated that although the projects are subject to mandatory review, municipal urban designers and developers could openly negotiate compliance with the administration's recommendations.

The specific areas of the community that are subject to urban design regulations were also a focal point of the survey. As shown in Table 3, the downtown areas (53%) and historic areas (44%) are more likely to have design regulations. Almost one-third of the respondents also mentioned that the entire city, special districts and commercial areas were regulated. A close examination of descriptive responses reveals that a variety of other areas such as waterfronts, business improvement areas and special corridors are also required to abide by urban design regulations. For instance, the City of Ottawa claims to regulate design of almost every aspect of the city at every level. Richmond in British Columbia, in addition to regulating other areas of the city, pays special attention to the edges of the city. Some municipalities indicated that they have design regulations only for secondary plan areas (7) or for high-rise buildings. Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on the other hand, allows its municipal council to designate areas either to preserve the physical character or to promote a selected design theme. Such areas include entry points to the city, sensitive infill development sites and new development areas.

Which Factors are Influential?

Almost 70 percent of the respondents indicated that the substance and scope of urban design regulations were largely guided by a mandate adopted by the municipal council, the historic character of their community, or both (Table 4). The municipal council's mandate to determine the content of design regulations is reasonable. However, the apparent emphasis on heritage preservation may have to do with a recent emerging trend among Canadian municipalities to develop tourism by promoting the historic aspect of the community. Another influential factor is provincial legislation (55%), which dictates which and how many design-related elements could be regulated. In addition to the above factors, almost 40 percent attributed the content of urban design regulations to the size of the community, followed by topography and environmental conditions. Others (almost 30%) valued the market trends, development industry and residents' input in formulating the regulations.

Respondents were asked to identify the vision of their communities on which their urban design regulations are based. They had the option to select from the list of 12 visions and/or to add others if they wished. Most opted for multiple visions for their communities. Leading the selection was "livable community," followed by "safe city," "historic city," "sustainable city" and "city of neighbourhoods. "Livable city" may have been chosen more often because this term encompasses all or most of the spatial and non-spatial aspects of creating a "good" city. Very few communities embraced the concept of neo-traditional development as their vision of the community. But there is evidence of its recognition and the incorporation of the idea into the existing regulations by requiring that dwelling units be placed closer to the street edge, and asking for front porches and recessed garages.


Despite the fact that many parts of Canada have a cold, harsh climate, the respondents did not think it important enough to be taken into account in design regulations. Many scholars like Bargh and Lehrman (1995), Pressman (1995a, I 995b, 1986) and Manty et al. (1988) have consistently drawn our attention to the special needs of a great number of winter cities in Canada. Still, not much has been done in this area. Whatever few attempts have been made, there appears to be a greater emphasis on minimizing the impacts of sunlight and wind as opposed to those of precipitation (snow and rain) and extreme temperature variations.

Some of the techniques used to counteract the impact of sunlight or lack thereof are using shading devices like canopies and overhangs, conducting shadow studies and orienting buildings, streets and public spaces so that they have better access to sunlight. Several respondents identified canopies, arcades and awnings as ways to provide protection from rain. Vancouver requires permeable paving materials in parking areas to counteract the adverse effect of rain. Ottawa has detailed designs for storm water management. It has also paid attention to the influence of air temperature on a micro-scale through designs. Except for Ottawa, unfortunately, not much thought has been given to the problems arising from snow accumulation during the winter season. However, a few municipalities did require the use of canopies and the creation of snow-loading areas. With regard to wind, the techniques employed are: conducting wind impact studies; requiring setbacks for building of a certain height; and creating barriers using wa lls, vegetation, or screening.

Some cities are proactive in dealing with new challenges posed by changing global and local climatic conditions. Being more susceptible to the effects of global warming, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, is making attempts to respond to the threats of the rising levels of the sea by requiring buildings to be raised above ground level. Saint John, New Brunswick, through its Pit and Quarry guidelines, requires earth-berming to reduce dust swept by the wind.

Provincial Planning Legislation

The survey also documented the sections of provincial planning legislation that administer urban design. When the contents of the statutes were analysed using the "content analysis" technique, the term "urban design" was sadly missing. It appears that municipalities interpret urban design from expressions like form, design and character of buildings in the legislation under sections pertaining to land use, site plan control or the development permit approval process (Table 5). Quebec and Ontario statutes allude to urban design under their site plan control section. Alberta and BC, on the other hand, have it under the development permit section.

In terms of what powers the provinces give their municipalities to control urban design, some planning statutes are general and vague while others are detailed and include some specific prescriptions and proscriptions. Ontario prescribes which design elements can and cannot be regulated. For instance, it prohibits regulation of the colour, texture and type of materials used, and all exterior architectural details such as windows. Saskatchewan's planning legislation places a greater emphasis on urban design by devoting an entire section to architectural controls. The section allows the creation of areas that adhere to strict architectural details. In comparison with other planning statutes, Alberta's statute is also fairly detailed. Nova Scotia's legislation, on the other hand, limits itself to the following vague statement about regulating urban design: "Where a municipal planning strategy so provides, a land-use by-law may regulate the external appearance of structures." Despite this wide variation found in the planning statutes, the survey has not explored whether the communities in provinces that have detailed design statutes have comprehensive, more inclusive or more easily implemented municipal urban design regulations. Perhaps this idea could be explored in future research.

Design Principles

Respondents were asked to indicate which design principles they have used to formulate their urban design regulations. They were allowed to select multiple principles to indicate the blend of ideas, if any, in their regulations. The list of 20 urban design principles provided to them was compiled from urban design and planning literature. The intent was to discover any design guides consistently followed to produce "good design" in Canadian cities.

It was interesting to note that "historic preservation" was the most common theme (almost 65%) indicated, closely followed by a strong desire to develop human-scale spaces and encourage pedestrian-oriented development (Table 6). This was expected because these three principles are intertwined and usually co-exist in planning literature and in municipal documents. It was, however, not clear how exactly these principles were applied or translated into specific design plans, policies and guidelines. Some respondents cited Jane Jacobs (1961), William Whyte (1988) and Randall Arendt (1994) as design scholars who influenced their urban design thinking. One quoted Lennard and Lennard (1995) for their work on livable cities. One respondent presented a convincing argument that the urban design staff generally has the necessary academic knowledge of design principles and applies them consciously or unconsciously in practice even though the principles are not expressed explicitly in urban design regulations.

Goals and Objectives

One survey question asked respondents to state the primary goals and objectives of their community's urban design regulations. It gave them the option to quote passages from official plans, zoning by-laws and/or from urban design policies and guidelines, if any. The intent of the question was to get a sense of what different types of themes form the underpinnings of urban design regulations. To properly understand the responses to this question, themes from urban design literature were constructed so that almost all the possible aspects of urban design could be encompassed. The themes are "good form," "legibility," "vitality," "meaning," "comfort," "efficiency," "social justice" and "environment." Good form emphasizes the artistic and aesthetic principles of good design (Sternberg 2000). Legibility is based on Lynch's (1960) idea that city parts should be identifiable and organized in a coherent pattern or whole. Drawn from Jacobs' (1961) ideas, vitality refers to active and diverse street-life. Meaning recog nizes and strives to preserve the unique physical characteristics of local places. Comfort evaluates the environmental and physical qualities of a space that affect human comfort. Efficiency in design looks for ways of reducing costs and increasing urban manageability. Social justice discerns whether design addresses social issues such as poverty and inequality (based on gender, ethnicity, disability and religion), and alienation. Environment refers to the attention paid to the natural environmental concerns in design.

The content analysis technique was employed, again to show that the majority of municipal urban design goals and objectives fall under good form, followed by meaning and comfort (Table 7). This implicitly tells us that there is a heavy emphasis on the aesthetic and artistic forms of cities. It was a little disturbing, though, to find that some of the key components of urban design, such as legibility, vitality, social justice and environment, were largely missing from the goals and objectives of many municipalities. This was a severe setback to ideals like cultural diversity, equal access and ecologically sensitive designs, which did not make their way into design regulations. Although the goals of urban design are ostensibly to mitigate temperature, wind and microclimate issues, they do not seem to have been effectively translated into urban design regulations. The survey responses, unfortunately, do not reflect the true picture of urban design themes used. A preliminary analysis of the supplied official pla ns and urban design documents reveals that municipalities knowingly or unknowingly practice a completely different urban design theme or mix of multiple urban design themes than one might discern from their urban design goals and objectives statements. For instance, Richmond's (British Columbia) official plan highlights ecologically friendly design practice, but this was difficult to discern from the goals and objectives provided.

Who Formulates and Who Enforces Urban Design Regulations?

Respondents were asked to choose one or more individuals from the provided list who were engaged in formulating urban design regulations. The responses indicated that staff members with planning education (84%) participated most often, followed by outside private consultants (76%) (Figure 1). Design staff and elected officials also have contributed to the development of the regulations, but to a lesser extent. Unfortunately, the input of some critical stakeholders such as the public (39%) and developers (39%) is not actively sought. Eight-five percent (85%) of respondents indicated that the planning staff is primarily involved in making design review decisions, distantly followed by the design staff (Figure 2). As is the case in developing urban design regulations, citizen involvement (31%) is minimal at the review stage. The director of the planning department usually makes the final administrative decisions, but some respondents indicated that this task lies solely within the purview of city council.

The process of appealing an administrative decision varies from province to province. Most of the respondents indicated that staff decisions could be appealed at municipal council. In Saskatchewan, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, provincially-appointed quasi-judicial boards hear appeals of municipal decisions, while in other provinces where there are no such boards, and appeals go straight to the courts of law. The provincial tribunals, the ultimate decision-makers in these provinces, are the Saskatchewan Municipal Board, Ontario Municipal Board, Island Regulatory Appeals Commission, Nova Scotia Utilities and Review Board and New Brunswick Provincial Planning Appeal Board. The appeals of the boards' decisions are heard in the court only if there is any error in law.

What is Being Regulated?

In response to the question "What building types and spaces are regulated using urban design regulations?" more than 80 percent of the municipalities indicated that they regulate both public and private buildings, whether residential (mostly multifamily) or commercial. The City of Calgary appeared much more progressive in this respect. In addition to regulating buildings, Calgary controls the architectural designs of bridges, reservoirs and transit stations. The City of Prince George, British Columbia specially reviews the designs of hillside developments while Surrey, British Columbia has elaborate design guidelines to evaluate designs of gas stations.

Respondents were asked to provide the details of the design features they regulate. The question had four categories of design elements: building, site and neighbourhood levels and public spaces. At the building level, 90 percent regulated 'height' in addition to massing (77%), and porches and entrances (68%) (Table 8). Other elements frequently regulated included architectural details, material and roof profile (63%), windows (60%) and proportions (55%). Colour was least frequently regulated.

At the site level, signage, site circulation, lighting and the location of parking/garage seem to be of paramount importance, but landscaping (87%) tops them all. At the neighbourhood level, streetscape (73%) and heritage resources (63%) were considered worth regulating, followed by views and vistas, parks, open spaces, trees and woodlots. The least amount of emphasis seems to be on the public realm. Those who care for public spaces tend to focus on lighting, landscaping, sidewalks, signs, street amenities and views and vistas, in that order.

Innovation, Controversies and Suggestions for Improvement

In three open-ended questions, respondents were asked to suggest any unusual or innovative aspect of their design regulations, including any controversies that arose over design issues. They were also asked to suggest ways of improving their regulations. Almost two-thirds of the participants responded to these questions and provided valuable opinions and suggestions.

The examples of innovative design regulations varied from using state-of-the-art technology to having discretionary power to negotiate with developers and providing powerful means of implementation. More than 50 percent of the municipalities reported using computer-aided visualization techniques to review development projects. The City of Victoria, British Columbia, which does not currently use visualization techniques, is set to employ the "Smart board" (8) method to view the digital submission of projects by clients and to create digital images of the overall city, its streets, and some specific sites. Some of the respondents were pleased with recent changes in their design policies and guidelines that allowed more flexibility and discretion to carry out negotiations with the developers on design issues. Others were proud to highlight that they were able to better integrate urban design with the land use component of planning through both policies and zoning by-laws. Only Toronto claims to have fully achiev ed integration of urban design with planning, both administratively and through policies. It also boasts that it is the best-staffed city in the country to administer urban design.

With respect to controversies over designs, respondents cited specific cases in their respective cities. Most cases point to the inconsistent views held -- and decisions made -- by the urban design staff, the elected council and the public toward design schemes which often resulted in complete design failures, creating urban eyesores. This issue was also highlighted in the design cases presented by Wolfe (1991) and Whitzman (1991). Many, like Witty (1995), alluded to NIMBY-ism as the major problem for the community's opposition even to the well-developed designs. One respondent feared that urban design regulation is increasingly becoming biased in favour of historic-style buildings, so much so that it has often led to 'facade-ism' and the 'museumification' of parts of cities. For instance, by requiring a shopping centre to be designed to resemble a barn or a farmstead. The analysis of responses to several other survey questions supports this view.

The suggestions to improve the process of urban deign review were varied. Many wished urban design to become the core of the planning process, rather than a "distant" issue, through definitive and detailed provincial legislation. The need for a consistent and streamlined application process for developers was mentioned repeatedly. Some sought a clearer direction and jurisdiction over urban design matters from the province, while others highlighted the need for more design studies. One suggestion was to encourage design discussion and education within the community, especially among developers, designers, politicians and residents through design charettes, workshops and forums. A strong political will to support urban design was also mentioned. One respondent pointed out the lack of cultural sensitivity in urban design regulations, which was consistent with the patterns emerging from this survey.


While there maybe possible gaps between what respondents say and what they practice, the survey results can be interpreted in light of the three research hypotheses. First, Canadian municipalities widely employ urban design regulations. This refutes the first hypothesis that urban design regulations are not prevalent in Canada. Most municipalities, however, have embraced a rigid framework for their implementation or remain elusive about their concrete implementation. The second hypothesis was that the scope and extent of regulations vary across the country because of the provincial planning statutes, size of the community, topography and climate. The findings of the survey does not support this. It found that the substance and scope of urban design regulations are largely guided by a mandate adopted by the municipal council, and/or the historic character of the community. The third and last hypothesis was that one or two design principles are consistently employed across the country to formulate urban design regulations. Historic preservation was found to be the most commonly applied design principle, closely followed by human-scale and pedestrian-oriented development themes.

Some other major conclusions for urban design practice can be drawn. First, urban design regulations avoid addressing some key issues that are unique to the Canadian situation, such as cold climate, sensitive ecology and cultural diversity. This is a little disturbing as it suggests that municipalities are not paying much attention to local physical, social and environmental issues through physical designs. Second, there is a lack of provincial recognition of a strong role for urban design in planning and community development activities. The acceptance of urban design will give it a statutory role in various aspects of planning and development. Third, there is a preoccupation with historic preservation activities under the disguise of "good" urban design. This trend may very well turn a city or a town into a charming and successful tourist destination, but may fail to create a livable environment. Fourth, urban design regulations largely focus on buildings and less on improving the public realm. Public space s such as open spaces and streets are critical components of urban design. They require special attention primarily because they occupy large amounts of urban space, but most importantly because they are experienced most often.

The survey findings present several challenges to urban design practice that we should reflect upon. First, municipalities should pay close attention to their local demands and requirements with respect to aesthetic taste, climate, ecology and cultural diversity. This could be achieved effectively by allowing more public participation in the search for design solutions. Second, provinces should take a hard look at their planning legislation and demonstrate a long overdue recognition of urban design. For a start, two statutory revisions are necessary: adopting the term "urban design" in planning legislation (as the term "heritage preservation" has been); and acknowledging that better physical designs could lead to improved infrastructure, urban management and community development. We have some precedents that could further strengthen this idea. For instance, the planning statute in Saskatchewan adopted some useful planning tools, including detailed architectural controls, in 1983. A decade later, the provinci ally-appointed Sewell Commission on Planning and Development Reform recommended including urban design as an indispensable part of Ontario's community development and conservation policies. Third, Canadian cities should carefully examine the role of their preservation programs and make sure that they work in tandem with more broadly-based values and objectives in urban design initiatives. Finally, urban design regulations should strike a proper balance between the general and the specific. There is a need for clear and prescriptive design policies and guidelines while leaving enough room for innovative mechanisms of implementing urban design.

There is clearly a need for further study. Almost 80 percent of the respondents supplied copies of urban design-related documents for their jurisdiction, which would prove to be an excellent resource for future research. In extending this work, more emphasis should be placed on analysing products such as urban design plans and guidelines, policies and processes, and comparing them with the responses to the survey. A number of the findings of this research remain unexplained. A careful examination of the collected documents may reveal some answers. For instance, a quick analysis shows that cities such as Winnipeg, Montreal, Saint John and Vancouver, which have their own charters, have greater autonomy over how they regulate urban design. To explore in more detail the lack of cultural diversity in urban design regulation, as identified in this study, it may be worth investigating whether municipalities embrace diverse ethno-cultural forms of development. But if they do, how do they practice a culturally-respons ive urban design? As an example, the current zoning by-laws and design guidelines in the city of Toronto are largely indifferent to certain ethno-cultural forms, ethnic malls and places of worship such as mosques, temples and gurdwaras in particular (Qadeer 1994, 1998,2000). One theme not discussed in this paper is a comparison of provincial variations and a comparison of the urban design regulations in big cities with those in small cities and towns. There also needs to be a discussion of regulatory differences between older urban areas and newer suburban communities. Furthermore, a deeper analysis ofthe collection of provincial planning legislation could help us identify ways to settle on a more definitive role for urban design in planning.
Figure 1

Who Formulates Urban Design Regulations?

Participants %

Development industry 39
Voluntary citizens 39
Zoning board/panel 11
design review board/panel 31
Private Consultant 76
Elected Officials 60
Staff with no specific 26
Staff with education in planning 84
Staff with education in design 63

Note: Table made from bar graph

Figure 2

Who Reviews Designs?

Participants %

Development industry 23
Voluntary citizens 31
Zoning board/panel 15
design review board/panel 31
Private Consultant 42
Elected Officials 52
Staff with no specific background 27
Staff with education in planning 87
Staff with education in design 58

Note: Table made from bar graph

Table 1

Response to the Survey

Provinces and Municipalities Number of Responses
Territories Pop. 25,000+ Surveys Sent Note Received

Ontario 56 30 19
Quebec 48 23 11
British Columbia 27 15 11
Alberta 9 7 5
Saskatchewan 4 4 3
Manitoba 2 3 # 2
Newfoundland 2 3 ! 2
New Brunswick 3 3 3
Nova Scotia 3 2 2
Prince Edward Island 1 2 * 2
Northwest Territories 1 ^ 1
Yukon 1 ^ 1
Nunavut 1 ^

Total 95 62

Provinces and Response
Territories Rate (%)

Ontario 63.33
Quebec 47.83
British Columbia 73.33
Alberta 71.43
Saskatchewan 75.00
Manitoba 66.67
Newfoundland 66.67
New Brunswick 100.00
Nova Scotia 100.00
Prince Edward Island 100.00
Northwest Territories 100.00
Yukon 100.00

Total 65.26

* One city (Stratford) in PEI has less than 25,000 population.

! One city (Truro) in Newfoundland has slightly less than 25,000

# One city (Thompson) in Manitoba has population less than 25,000.

^ The cities (Whitehorse, Yellowknife and Iqaluit) in the three
territories have populations less than 25,000.

Table 2

Types of Urban Design Regulations

Means of Implementation Number of Municipalities
 Municipalities (%)

Zoning 54 87
Municipal Official Plan 40 65
Historic Preservation Plans/Guidelines 36 58
Landscape Design 28 45
Urban Design Plans and Policies 32 52
Urban Design Guidelines 31 50
Historic Districts 30 48
Design Review Boards 18 29
Special Districts 21 34
Secondary Area Plans 21 34

Table 3

Areas Subject to Urban Design Regulations

Area Number of Municipalities
 Municipalities (%)

Entire city 24 39
Downtown 33 53
Waterfront 18 29
Commercial district 20 32
Areas with historic character 27 44
Environmentally sensitive areas 8 13
Special corridors 16 26
Special districts 20 32
Business improvement areas 13 21
Others 6 10

Table 4

Factors Influencing the Substance Urban Design

Influential factors Number of Muncipalities
 Municipalities (%)

Language 6 10
Size of community 33 53
Climate 24 39
Topography 28 45
NAtional/provincial status 6 10
Provincial legislation 34 55
Municioal council mandate 43 69
Historic character 41 66
Environmental conditions 28 45
Other 19 31

Table 5

Sections from Provincial Planning Legislation Concerning Urban Design

Provinces Sections from planning legislation
 concerning urban design

Ontario Planning Act Section 41(4)
Quebec Land Use Planning and Development
British Columbia Local Government Act Chapter 323
 Sections 876,898,920(8)
Alberta Municipal Government Act Division 5
 Section 640(4)
Saskatchewan Planning and Development Act
 Section 73
Manitoba Planning Act Section 42(4)
Newfoundland Urban and Rural Planning Act
 Chapter U-8; Part III, Sections
 12-30; Parv V, Sections 34-39
New Brunswick Community Planning Act Chapter C12
 Section 34(3)
Nova Scotia Municipal Government Act Part VIII
Prince Edward Island Planning Act Section 8(1)(f)
Northwest Territories Planning Act Section 15(1)(v)
Yukon Yukon Municipal Act Section 290(1)
 (K) Part 7
Nunavut Nunavut Planning Act Section 15

Table 6

Design Principles

Principles Number of Municipalities
 Municipalities (%)

No principles 3 5
The image of the city 12 19
Townscape 6 10
CPTED 16 26
Transit-oriented development 14 23
Pedestrian-oriented development 37 60
Human scale 39 63
Heritage preservation 40 65
Energy preservation 11 18
Environmental protection 27 44
Designing with nature 17 27
Context is everything 14 23
Eyes on the street 24 39
Genius loci 15 24
Minimize pollution 12 19
Barrier-free 28 45
Growth management 16 26
Traffic claming 21 34
Storm water management 16 26
Dense urban form 24 39

Table 7

Urban Design Goals and Objectives

Themes definitions

Good Form Good form' emphasizes artistic and
n = 33 aesthetic principles of good

Legibility Logibility is based on the idea
n = 9 that city's parts should be
 easily identifiable and organized
 into a coherent pattern or whole.

Vitality Vitality refers to active and
n = 8 diverse street-life.

Meaning n = 24 Meaning' recognizes and preserves
 the unique physical identity of
 local areas.

Comfort Comfort deals with environmental
n = 20 and physical qualities of a space
 that affect human comfort.

Efficiency 'Efficiency' in design looks for
n = 19 ways of reduing costs and
 increasing manageability

Social Justice 'Social Justice' discerns whether
n = 10 design addresses social issues
 such as poverty, inequality
 (based on gender, ethnicity,
 disability and religion), and

Environment Environment' refers to the
n = 11 attention paid to the natural
 environmental concerns in design.

Themes considerations

Good Form Continuity of Experience,
n = 33 Cohesiveness; scale; Geometric
 interpretation of visual
 perception; proportion, definition

Legibility Origins and destinations should be
n = 9 intensely connected in order to
 increase a users sense of bearing;
 Edges should creale boundaries
 between areas of distinct
 identities; Nodes should act as
 strategic focal points; Landmarks
 should serve as points of
 reference; Distincts should have
 identifiable charcter: City design
 should support way-finding

Vitality Having a fine grained mix of uses;
n = 8 arbitrary separations should be
 avoided; Uses should support each
 other; Densities should be high
 enough to generate constant use:
 permeable streets; diversity

Meaning n = 24 Design for an area should be rooted
 in the areas indigenous culture;
 Recognizes that the spirit of a
 place emanales from its land,
 materials, myths and traditions;
 Local identity; Coherent
 interrelationships between

Comfort Sun angles; Microclimate; Wind
n = 20 exposure; Walking distances; Rest
 slops; Traffic barriers; Intimacy
 and security: Arrangement of

Efficiency Adapatability; Density;
n = 19 Concentration of systems;
 Circulation; Economic feasibility;

Social Justice Redistribution of resources;
n = 10 Choice; Alienation: Access;
 Segregation; Self Relianca

Environment The integration of environmental
n = 11 concerns into goals and
 objectivies; Relationship between
 the built and natural
 environment; Preservation of the
 natural environment

Themes words/phrases frequently
 used in goals and
 objectives statements

Good Form well planned, attractive,
n = 33 character, built form, quality of
 design, good design, aesthetics,
 architectural harmony, visual
 quality/perception, design

Legibility expresses city's image; linkages,
n = 9 order identity; inlegrate into
 city pattern; views and vistas;

Vitality enable mixed-use integration;
n = 8 neighbourtiness; stimulating

Meaning n = 24 preserve unique character;
 encourage sensitive rejuvenation
 of older communities; strive of
 conservation of heritage resources
 capitalize on the natural
 attribute of sites; community
 pride; project historic character;
 sense of place:

Comfort safe community; liveability: regard
n = 20 for public health, safety,
 convenience, and security;
 pedestrial comfort; enhance
 environmental quality

Efficiency managed growth strategies that meet
n = 19 future needs; encourage cost
 effective means to use
 underutilized city resources;
 develop in a manner which will
 lead to a more compact,
 sustainable and efficient land use
 form; incorporate transportation
 utilities; encourage and manage
 change without impact on fiscal,
 natural and social/economic
 resources, efficient use of land,
 energy and infrastructure;
 functional environment.

Social Justice housing choices; barrier-free
n = 10 access affordable housing; promote
 social interaction; accessibility;

Environment environmentally sound development;
n = 11 preserve and enhance (natural)
 environment; capitalize on natural
 attributes e.g. vegetation;
 consideration of surrunding
 natural conditions; harmonize
 buildings with environment;

Table 8

Regulated Urban Design Features

Building Level Number of Municipalities
 Municipalities (%)

Height 53 85
Material 39 63
Colour 28 45
Massing 48 77
Roof Profile 39 63
Windows 37 60
Proportions 34 55
Architectural style 33 53
Architectrual details 39 63
Porches, entrances 42 68

Neighbourhood Number of Municipalities
Level Municipalities (%)

Street network 24 39
Streetscape 45 73
Parks and open space 34 55
Transit stops 13 21
Heritage resources 37 60
Trees and woodlands 34 55
Views and vistas 36 58

Site Level Number of Municipalities
 Municipalities (%)

Landscaping 54 87
Signage 46 74
Lighting 42 68
Building cluster 29 47
Location of parking 42 68
Site services 33 53
Site circulation 43 69

Public Space Number of Municipalities
 Municipalities (%)

Public art 25 40
Sidewalks 35 56
Landscaping 39 63
Street amenities 32 52
Lighting 36 58
Views and vistas 31 50
Servicing 26 42
Signs 37 60
Cycle lanes 23 37
On-street parking 24 39
Street corners 23 37


The author wishes to thank his colleague, Dr. Jim Mars, for his helpful comments, and research assistants, Craig Lametti, Stanislas Ketelers, Elizabeth Pagliacolo and Karima Esmail, for their unwavering commitment to and patience throughout this research. He would also like to thank the respondents who enthusiastically participated in the survey and willingly shared their candid views, opinions and suggestions. In addition, they provided their urban design documents, which will prove to be an invaluable asset for students and faculty at Ryerson for future urban design instruction and research. The research is financially supported by the Ryerson Faculty of Community Services Scholarly Research and Creative Activity Fund and the Ryerson Internal Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Fund. An earlier version of the paper was presented at the annual conference of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning, Cleveland, Ohio (November, 2001).


(1.) Urban design regulations are also referred to in the literature as urban design controls, design controls, architectural design controls and aesthetic controls. While these regulations are targeted at physical design decisions, they encompass interconnected factors like human, social and natural environment.

(2.) The survey questionnaire is available on request.

(3.) A design review committee is typically a group of public officials and private citizens, professionals or non-professionals, which the local government appoints to evaluate the design quality of development projects. The committee offers advice to the city staff or council about the design quality of the proposed project.

(4.) The Site Plan Control Committees review the planning and design of development proposals within specified areas, mainly addressing items such as building massing, location, land uses, landscaping and parking.

(5.) The Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committees are established by municipal council, pursuant to the provincial Heritage Act, to maintain an inventory of heritage resources, undertake public awareness programs and advise council on heritage matters including the designation of heritage properties, and to review applications concerning alterations to the listed or designated heritage properties.

(6.) The Heritage Review Boards serve as an advisory board to city council on matters pertaining to policy direction, and protection of heritage resources. The boards are comprised of residents of the city with expertise and interest in the area of heritage conservation, as well as members of city council. They encourage owners of heritage resources to enhance the heritage value of buildings, streetscapes and the city overall.

(7.) "Secondary plan" means a plan approved as an amendment to an Official Plan which applied to a specific development area. It is much more detailed than the Official Plan policies and schedules overall. Generally, secondary plans are concerned with residential densities, quality of built form, intensity of land use, area servicing standards and the staging and phasing of development.

(8.) The Smart board is an interactive whiteboard technology developed by SMART Technologies Inc. for teaching, collaborating and presenting.


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Date:Dec 22, 2002
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