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A zoning tale

by former RTPI President Martin Bradshaw MRTPI (Rtd)

The excellent letter from Victoria Hills recently published in The Times refuted the proposition that a zoning system would improve the efficiency and speed of the planning process. Having worked in such a system, albeit not recently, I have no doubt that she is completely right that it would not and I am prompted to suggest why.

Zoning has a certain apparent and seductive simplicity attached to it, but, in reality, it is complex and can take just as long to prepare and review as any Development Plan in England. I contributed in the late 1960s to a review of the zoning plan for a vibrant, very mixed use, local area on the fringe of Downtown Toronto. I recall that the uses, sites and density allowable in one block were eventually defined by a label comprising five letters and four numbers, written variously in upper and lower case. This reflected a degree of site and use precision which not surprisingly involved a lengthy process beforehand. The review had already been under way for two years or so before I became involved and took another two to three years before adoption. This was exactly the level of detail which, here in England, discredited the lengthy Local Plan process in the 1960s and led to the Development Plans manual of 1970 (itself never followed through).

The overall bylaw for the City of Toronto had of course been in existence for some years and was under constant statutory review. It was also subject to change via 'planning applications' which were in effect proposals for zoning variations and which were the main business of the Planning Board - roughly equivalent to a Planning Committee here. The majority of these applications seemed to concern residential density, particularly of apartments. A developer anxious to replace high rise with low over an entire block, once asked me whether the City would prefer an indoor ice rink or a Concert Hall should he be able to proceed - perhaps not so different from contributions to political parties here. I suggested that rather more modest adjustments to his proposals might be welcome, and he did in the end get his zoning variation without having to build an ice rink.

The website for the current Toronto bylaw - No. 569-2013 updated May 2020 - shows that the system has become even more complex and comprehensive. It now runs to over 1,000 'Chapters' and is accompanied by a remarkable interactive zoning map of the entire Metropolitan area. One downtown site which I selected at random has the zone header 'CR7.8(CH.5; r7.8)SSI(1357)' and provides a link to the relevant bylaw chapter 40. This indicates that CR is a mixed commercial/residential zone whilst the letter 'c' covers 16 permitted uses ranging from apartments to an art gallery and massage therapy.

For residential areas, the degree of prescription is at a level which would simply not be contemplated here. For example, a 'lot with an apartment building must have (A) a minimum of 50% of the area of the lot for landscaping, and (B) a minimum of 50% of the landscaping must be soft landscaping'. Much of what is contained in such a bylaw would, in this country (if prescribed at all) be covered by building regulations, but in Toronto virtually every conceivable element relating to the development process is set out within the zoning system.

A system of appeal and zoning variations is allowed frequently, but I am not sure that the decision making process here, which is rooted in a degree of discretion and flexibility, wants or indeed needs such complexity. In any event, we do not have the resources to initiate it.

In conclusion, zoning, though appealing in some ways, does not necessarily mean speed or greater simplicity.

The RTPI have produced a one-page briefing on zoning which can be found here.



Martin Bradshaw

Martin was President of the RTPI in 1993. He was Assistant Director of the City of Toronto Planning Board (1967-70), Director of The Civic Trust (1986-95) and a consultant Planning Inspector (1995-2005).

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