Look back over a year of planning decisions in London and you’ll see one storyline repeated over and over — neighbours upset because someone has unexpectedly applied to build a new apartment, condo, office building, methadone clinic, storage business, fast-food outlet or whatever close to their homes.
From a distance it’s easy to dismiss these protests as just another example of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). But the truth goes deeper, suggests Sean Galloway, the City of London’s manager of urban design.
“When people show up for urban planning forums they talk about density, but when the application comes to their street, it’s a totally different perspective,” he says. “How we deal with that is going to be the next big step for London because there are a lot of misnomers out there that high density devalues property and creates traffic issues.”
By their nature, cities are high density compared to the surrounding landscape. But even within the city, the number of people living in new suburbs is significantly lower than numbers in older, established neighbourhoods such as Old North or Old South.
Higher densities mean more efficient use of city services from water and sewer to roads and public transit. Higher densities also mean fewer farms and woodlots are being chewed up for new homes and shopping malls — a point the provincial government made a few years ago when it directed cities to practice better land-use strategies.
So the pressure is on London to encourage development that goes up rather than out in existing neighbourhoods. But when the rezoning sign indicating something different is coming goes up on the property next door, that’s when the protests begin.
There is a better way, says Mr. Galloway.
A zoning alternative London is beginning to explore tries to avoid those surprises by indicating before anything happens the kinds of redevelopment that would be acceptable.
Mr. Galloway explains how the system would work.
“We set all the zoning guidelines in the beginning after a discussion with the community. Then, if a development matches those guidelines, it gets approved with no further discussion.”
The concept is widely used in Western Canada and several municipalities in Ontario are now trying it out, with the encouragement of the province.
At present, Mr. Galloway notes, rezoning is usually confined to a single property, or perhaps several adjacent properties. Most often there is no discussion with the rest of the neighbourhood.
“In this new system, zoning and the site plan approvals get rolled into one. The discussion happens at the front end with everyone in the neighbourhood. Associated with the bylaw that results are urban design requirements so everyone knows in advance what they are getting.”
Each neighbourhood would have its own unique plan, allowing the preservation of certain features. Mr. Galloway says there are areas, such as Wellington or Wonderland Roads, where this could be done now as a way of making public transit more efficient.
He wonders, though, whether the politicians will get on board since the system does require them to give up a little bit of their decision-making powers.
“You do get a better product at the end of the day. I know it doesn’t sound sexy and cool, but it helps to build a sexy and cool city.”
Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.