Land-use planning is climate planning

City planners and developers across Canada make choices that create low-carbon or high-carbon neighbourhoods every day. Choosing the historically popular low-density land-use approach locks in carbon emissions for decades to come. In the face of the climate crisis, this choice is simple: low-carbon developments are the only viable option. 

But municipalities continue to struggle with implementing and enforcing policies that support low-carbon development. Challenges include policies that lack enforcement measures, certain parties lobbying for continued low-density development, and exploitation of policy loopholes that sometimes allow for low-density development as long as certain development features are technically met. 

The case for better land-use bylaws 

The energy sources, energy uses, and transportation behaviour resulting from neighbourhood location and design endure for decades. It is difficult and expensive to change a development’s emissions once constructed. Using well-considered land-use bylaws at the development design phase can avoid emissions “lock-in” effects of new developments. 

Land-use bylaws like Official Plans, Official Community Plans (OCPs), Municipal Development Plans (MDPs), and Community Development Plans (CDPs) dictate the location and design of housing and development, which in turn influence transportation, buildings, energy infrastructure, and waste and wastewater treatment—along with the  greenhouse gas emissions these developments generate. Incorporating climate considerations into planning policy documents and land-use bylaws makes it easier for municipalities to achieve low-carbon outcomes than through almost any other municipal mechanism. Careful language must be used to avoid loopholes and misinterpretations. 

Image from the City of Courtenay’s Official Community Plan

Building 10-minute communities

Transportation generates the majority of emissions in most communities. Shifting personal vehicles trips to transit and to active modes, such as walking, rolling, and cycling, can make a significant dent in emissions. SSG has modelled the potential emissions reductions of such shifts for jurisdictions like Halton Region, ON, Courtenay, BC (OCP passed in July 2022), Ladysmith, BC (OCP under review), and Sooke, BC (OCP under review).

The City of Courtenay is encouraging compact, complete community development by adopting land-use objectives that focus growth into existing urban centres and amending zoning bylaws to permit multiple dwellings on one residential lot, among other means. This type of densification facilitates “10-minute neighbourhoods” in which residents can live, work, and play within a 10-minute walk, roll, or transit trip.  

Shifting parking regulations

Changing parking regulations is another way to shift away from car ownership and use. For example, parking spot minimums for new multi-story buildings can drastically affect the number of vehicles in a community. A typical minimum parking requirement is 1.2 to 2 parking spaces per two-bedroom apartment. Modern policies eliminate this minimum requirement, replacing it with a maximum number of parking spaces allowable per unit. Some municipalities allow replacement of would-be parking spots with car and bike share services, saving the development millions of dollars in parking structure construction and maintenance, and saving residents money on vehicle ownership and parking costs.

Net-zero building policies

Buildings are also a large source of emissions. To help the City of Courtenay identify how to reduce building emissions, SSG modelled the impact of different building standards on new building emissions between 2020 and 2050. Our modelling provided the data necessary for the City of Courtenay to adopt a net-zero GHG emission policy for all new buildings after 2025 as a part of its OCP.

With the realities of the climate crisis looming, effective and responsible land-use plans need to include comprehensive risk assessment for weather catastrophes, as well as actions to mitigate further global heating. In this way, land-use planning is climate planning.    

Jeremy Murphy is an urban planner specialized in climate action planning and a principal at SSG.