Thesis Excerpt: Parallax - Contemporary Issues in Postwar Suburbs / by Elie Bourget

Typical postwar streetscapes using CMHC Small House Design Scheme designs.

Typical postwar streetscapes using CMHC Small House Design Scheme designs.

3. Parallax: Contemporary Issues in Postwar Suburbs

i. Decentralization and Back-To-The-City Trends

Postwar suburbs are now fifty years old and much has changed.  Researchers have been aware since the 1980’s that the prosperity of inner-suburbs would subside as the natural lifecycle of the residential communities progressed. However, empirical studies of this decline only became feasible once sufficient data could be assessed in the late 1990’s. Several urbanists have conducted these studies in the United States but few Canadian cities had been studied until Dejan Pavlic’s thesis ‘Fading Inner Suburbs?’ In 2011. Expanding on Lee & Leigh’s(2007) conceptual model of Inner-suburban decline, Pavlic confirms that prosperity in Canadian inner suburbs, predominantly of the postwar era, has in fact declined in the wake of two paradoxical housing trends: the decentralization and back-to-the-city trends. In this study he examines the relative growth of average property values, average gross rent, and median household incomes by census tracts(CTs) in 15 Census Metropolitan Areas(CMAs) between 1986 and 2006. The CT statistics are classified into five urban zones based primarily on age of the housing stock and density, then analyzed for growth relative to their disparate groupings during the study period. He identifies the five zones as follows: core, inner city, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, and fringe exurbs. Inner Suburbs were found to have the lowest relative growth in household incomes and dwelling values, along with the lowest standard deviations among all groups(#Ann1). That the overall findings for this zone exhibited the least disparity among all CMAs demonstrates a consistency which further confirms the decline of Inner suburbs. Of the three metrics, household incomes in inner-suburbs experienced the greatest relative decrease. Inner suburbs of Ottawa-Gatineau in particular suffered the greatest deterioration which supports the precedence of retaining affordable housing in this zone when developing smart growth strategies. So how and why was the conceptual model of intra-zonal movement used to predict these results?

Figure 1: Sugie Lee & Nancy G. Leigh’s Conceptual Model of Inner-Ring Suburban Decline, 2007

Figure 1: Sugie Lee & Nancy G. Leigh’s Conceptual Model of Inner-Ring Suburban Decline, 2007

As previously indicated, Pavlic’s conceptual model is but the latest iteration of previous efforts to track model trends. While in the past they had indicated rural migration to cities followed by suburban flight and urban blight, recent iterations have grown to include the back-to-the-city trend and predicted that gentrification of urban centers would push urban “blight” into neighbouring communities.  At present there are two dominant trends which appear at odds.  First is the tendency towards decentralization largely driven by the desire for contemporary suburban housing and economical land values. This trend persists from the strong suburban flight witnessed in the postwar era. Often referred to as ‘White flight’ due to 20th century racial divides that contributed to wealth disparities and the desire for segregation, suburban flight has always coincided with advancements in transportation. Streetcars created a notable land rush in the early twentieth century and facilitated the development of both planned and unplanned streetcar suburbs. Later, the automobile and its associated infrastructure projects permitted a whole new type of suburb. Dispersal of the voter base caused the disinvestment of core areas which only intensified the desire for suburban life.  This decentralization is often referred to as sprawl and has grown so expansive since the postwar era that urban planners endeavored to curtail the unsustainable and inefficient leapfrogging of greenfield developments into valuable farmland. 

This reversal in planning theory began investigations into ‘Smart Growth’ strategies. The second trend, then, is very much a reaction to the first. As sprawl grows, the city thins out and people become isolated. Residents of the suburban fringe are dependent on the automobile for nearly all activities. Communities spread further away from the inner-city and ancillary costs of this auto-dependency being to negate the advantageous cost of living in the suburbs. The backto-the-city trend intensifies as sprawl increases and is thus strongest in Canada’s larger CMAs. This trend is driven by the desire for proximity to core amenities, institutions, and employment centres.  However, the inner city is burdened with higher density and limited supply of land. Land values here generally dictate smaller dwelling conditions than their suburban counterparts and therefore appeal more to the non-family households, the young, and the affluent.

Figure 2: Dejan Pavliv’s Conceptual Model of Inner Suburban Deline

Figure 2: Dejan Pavliv’s Conceptual Model of Inner Suburban Deline

“Current governmental incentives rarely address the well-being of inner suburbs specifically. Therefore, local regional, and higher level governments must be more explicit in targeting these urban zones with specific policies that may refurbish inner suburban neighbourhoods.” -Dejan Pavlic

These housing trends are at odds and have, for several decades, created a sort void between their extremes. Therein lies arguably the root causes of declining prosperity in postwar suburbs which feature neither the contemporary housing standards of the fringe suburbs nor the amenities of the Inner-city. Yet this situation, only evidenced in recent years through verifiable statistics, has been on-going for a substantial period of time. These conceptual trend models are not static. They are are snapshots of dynamic systems, at once both retrospective and prospective. Though there is still too little census data to accurately update the model, we may begin to predict the next iteration by referencing regional statistics, market data, and current events. The city of Ottawa publishes comprehensive statistics in their annual development reports for instance. The reports include population estimates for detailed sub-areas of the city tabulated using building permits, demolition permits, rental vacancies, and a variety of other factors.

Chart 1: Source, City of Ottawa Annual Development Report 2015.  Appendix Table 3

Chart 1: Source, City of Ottawa Annual Development Report 2015.  Appendix Table 3

Chart 1 tabulates the estimated population growth of sub-areas grouped into urban zones resembling those used in Pavlic’s model.  Though not directly correlated to his metrics, the inner suburbs are notably the only zone found to be in overall decline.  That this zone is consistently losing population demands closer inspection and should motivate governments to enact specialized policies.  Though the zone level data does not serve to advance the model for predictive purposes, the sub-area data tells a different story.  Figure 3, which maps the five year estimates of all urban sub-areas, would indicate that the inner suburbs have not experienced uniform changes.  The outer limits of the inner suburban zone appears to be declining at a marginally greater rate than those closer to the city.  More importantly, the sub-area of Ottawa West has experienced significant intensification during the five year period. This area includes the community of Westboro which was infamously a hotbed of infill activity even prior to 2011. As demonstrated in Chapter 1, CT level data in the 2011 National Household Survey indicates that dwelling values in this community had already appreciated to nearly twice those of other inner suburban communities. The continued intensification of this area has no doubt exacerbated dwelling values since then and validated concerns over rapidly increasing property taxes.

Figure 3: Source, City of Ottawa Annual Development Report 2015.  Appendix Table 3

Figure 3: Source, City of Ottawa Annual Development Report 2015.  Appendix Table 3

Westboro is a key example of intensification pushing out of core and inner-city neighbourhoods into adjacent suburbs.  Granted, it is an exception in Ottawa due to its amenities, public transit access, and a vibrant traditional mainstreet.  It suggests that the back-to-the-city trend is formidable enough to exceed the capacity of core areas.  Given enough time, it is only natural that demand will exceed the limited supply of ground-oriented housing within the core.  Pavlic’s own findings demonstrate that this trend has increased prosperity indicators more significantly in the inner-city than the core.  He suggests this is due to the predominance of condominiums attracting smaller households to the core where as the inner-city contains more ground-oriented housing.  As it happens, this zone scored the highest relative growth for both incomes and dwelling values in Ottawa as well.  His study also implies that the trend is stronger in the largest cities, such as Toronto or Vancouver where the fringe suburbs are exceedingly distant, or in cities with limited decentralization, like Victoria which is constrained by natural barriers.  These cities also happen to claim the highest housing costs in the country.  Here the inner suburbs have already felt the progression Pavlic’s model and their ranks swell with million dollar homes.  This is the third stage of the back-to-the-city trend made clear in overheated housing markets.  In a national economy which is shockingly dependent on real estate and construction as a share of GDP, the trends captured in the conceptual model are advancing quickly.  Clearly this is most pronounced in bubble markets but, should the economy continue apace, it is certain to affect many other Canadian CMAs in time.  However, where and when inner suburbs are faced with intensification, there will be other contributing factors to their long decline which must be overcome.

ii. Reasons For Decline In Postwar Suburbs

       Housing Stock

The leading cause of decline is the housing stock itself.  Chiefly, the homes are very small by modern standards.  It’s difficult to assign an average size covering the 25 year period but it’s safe to say they range from 700 to 1,500sqft, increasing progressively over the period with a majority in the mid-range.  A thousand square feet can be a difficult sell when buyers have an abundance of brand-new developer homes twice that size from which to choose. Contemporary homes that need little to no upgrades, in brand new communities with new schools, services, and retail.  Postwar homes on the other hand are often in dire need of repair. As of the 2006 census, they represented a 37 percent share of dwellings requiring major repairs, a disproportionate majority of the Canadian housing stock as a whole.  Many of the households may have foregone upkeep and maintenance throughout the declining decades. Even if one household chose to upgrade their home, the added value would be diminished by the overall state of the community keeping values in lockstep because of the uniform age of the subdivisions.  For prospective buyers, the cost of necessary repairs or maintenance may negate any savings earned buying a modest home in a depressed postwar suburb over a newer home in at the fringe.  These communities are therefore faced with stiff competition for upper and middle class residents.  Given that postwar housing represents roughly a quarter of the Canadian housing stock, overcoming the associated stigma is paramount in designing national housing strategies.  While infill projects are an indispensable vehicle for reinvestment in a community, they are sporadic and in no way mitigate the negative perception of postwar homes.  However, because they are uniquely suited to postwar site planning, coach houses may provide them a distinct advantage over the other urban zones.

Charts 2 & 3: Source, 2006 Canadian Census.

Charts 2 & 3: Source, 2006 Canadian Census.

      Demographic Changes

The natural decrease of population in postwar suburbs outlined in chapter 1 is also a notable concern. The lifecycle of household formation in these communities has previously been analyzed in Laura Dent’s doctoral thesis on attachment and change in postwar suburbs. In it she analyzed two case study communities in Don Mills and O’Connor hills using several decades of census data and building assessment data. The two study areas exhibited remarkably similar profiles in Household size throughout the study period. That data is used here to identify a typical progression of household composition in chart 4. Household size increases steadily during the baby boom years and throughout the early settlement phase of postwar developments. As the children age out of the home, household size begins to decrease through the 1980s and the decentralization of new suburbs stifles household turnover rates for the inner suburbs. A significant portion of residents also choose to age in place, further diminishing turnover. By the end of the study period, the population in both communities consisted largely of retired couples or singles(40% in Don Mills, 36% in O’Connor hills). These trends were then corroborated by expansion activity in both study areas.  As shown in chart 5, house additions and modifications increase during child bearing years to expand available space in the home. This activity diminishes throughout child rearing years and peaks again in the 1980’s as the parents reach their prime earning years. Additions decrease thereafter as residents enter retirement but conversions may rise depending on location and suitability for rental housing.

Chart 4:

Chart 4:

Chart 5:

Chart 5:

Besides having a relatively high elderly population, postwar suburbs also attract a disproportionate number of immigrant citizens.  Pavlic speculates they may be priced out of the more affluent urban zones because they are more likely to work “low-skilled and badly paid jobs”.  A glance at the 2011 National Household Survey data corroborates this notion however.  The data shows that Overbrook carries a marginally higher rate of immigrant residents than the Ottawa CMA as a whole, representing 26.2% and 22.6% respectively.  This is hardly a substantial difference but it is roughly 10% higher than the 16.3% rate in affluent Westboro.  Because Overbrook contains a large share of social housing units, relatively low dwelling values, and a proportionally higher immigrant population, Pavlic’s assumptions bear some truth.  Though the presence of social housing in postwar suburbs carries stigma, the tendency for immigrants to settle in postwar suburbs can benefit the revitalization of these communities.  Because many immigrants come to Canada from nations with higher birth rates than our own, they may bolster localized population growth.  The predominance of both elderly and immigrant residents in postwar suburbs only increases the need for coach house provisions.  Experts believe we are approaching a housing crisis as the baby boomer cohort enters retirement, further increasing the percentage of the population above 65 years of age which has nearly doubled since the 1970s.  They could provide this cohort financial assistance in retirement, accessible homes within their communities, reduce the loneliness of a solitary life, and potentially ease government spending on housing the elderly. Immigrants, on the other hand, are twice as likely as Canadian-born residents to live in extended family housing configurations.  Coach houses could alleviate overcrowding in small postwar homes for extended family households at a reasonable cost.

Chart 6: Source, National Household Survey 2011, Census profiles.  (Westboro includes CTs 5050032.02, 5050033.01, & 5050033.02.   Overbrook includes CTs 5050012.00 & 5050013.00)

Chart 6: Source, National Household Survey 2011, Census profiles.  (Westboro includes CTs 5050032.02, 5050033.01, & 5050033.02.   Overbrook includes CTs 5050012.00 & 5050013.00)

       Disinvestment

Decentralization following the postwar period affected far more than housing markets.  Facing strong competition from other urban zones, employment and retail centres have tended to shift outwards as well.  Postwar suburbs thrived on industrial and manufacturing sector jobs that often provided good wages in accessible, nearby locations.  Unfortunately, Canada had undergone severe deindustrialization in the decades to follow and many of these jobs were lost, replaced by service sector jobs and lower wages.  Though many of the larger industrial zones would remain, new industrial enterprises or business headquarters often followed the flow of decentralization to outer suburbs where they could take advantage of tax incentives and lower land costs. Prosperity in postwar suburbs declined substantially where the loss of quality employment coincided with local residents aging into prime earning years or retirement.  Likewise, retail would face similar challenges.  Just as the automobile spawned a whole new type of suburb, it also created a new form of auto-dependent retail.  Many postwar communities were planned to integrate retail and institutional amenities but their distribution was segregated from residential zones.  Whether as arterial mainstreets or newly introduced shopping centres, mixed-use retail was discarded.  Once retail began to depend on consumers arriving by car, it had divorced itself from the local consumer base and suddenly found itself competing with regional shopping centres throughout city.  Businesses followed the currents of decentralization as prosperity and wages began declining in the inner suburbs.  Meanwhile the core and inner-city were able to persist on the strength of a far denser consumer base combined with the convenience of mixed-use development.  Prior to the amalgamation of many large CMAs, this economic decentralization had severely eroded the tax base and lead to persistent disinvestment in postwar communities.  In many cases, little has changed as the population of these communities continues to decline even after municipal amalgamations and the implementation of stricter urban boundaries. 

However, intensification and the back-to-the-city trend are beginning to reverse the decline and disinvestment. The smaller scale of postwar developments may have resulted in more evenly distributed retail than the outer suburbs, which have taken the segregation of uses to its limit.  Alternatively, inner suburbs are far closer to inner-city amenities or traditional mainstreets than their fringe counterparts.  Overbrook, for example, still remains in close proximity to both industrial parks and inner-city communities.  As infill and reinvestment creeps in from the inner-city, it will also create opportunities for new forms of retail and office space.  Coach houses might introduce small opportunities to integrate mixed uses on corner lots which are prevalent in the case of Overbrook due to the orthogonal pattern of subdivision carried over from the prewar period.

iii. Statistics of Renewal

Though recent population estimates confirm the on-going decline of the inner suburbs, they do not assess whether the trend is being reversed in any defined areas.  For this purpose, the sub-areas in the city’s data set are still too broad.  This section investigates building permits in order to more accurately track the progression of intensification into postwar suburbs and to confirm the next stage of Pavlic’s model.  But first, a visual survey of Overbrook was conducted to identify infill projects.  These projects were then mapped to determine any distinct patterns in their distribution.

Figure 4: Distribution of Known Infill Projects in Overbrook.

Figure 4: Distribution of Known Infill Projects in Overbrook.

It is evident that infill projects are concentrated to the west, in CT 5050013.00, but there are few projects to the east of Lola st, in CT 5050012.00.  It is indicative of the desire to settle in close proximity to the inner-city.  However there are perhaps other contributing factors.  Some of the housing stock in the western section dates back to the early twentieth century and the rest was developed ad hoc in the fashion of unplanned suburbs.  The homes are more diverse and their quality of construction or state of repair can be lacking compared to those of the planned subdivisions to the east.  The absence of design consistency and upkeep make them more vulnerable to being torn down for infill. Conversely, the eastern section carries the majority of the roughly fifteen hundred social housing units in Overbrook, much of it dating back to the early 1950s.  They are more resistant to redevelopment and create a stigma that may repel buyers from adjacent housing.  Larger projects along the southern edge and northwest corner were developed in the 1980s on vacant or underutilized lands but, more recently, smaller infill propagates throughout the residential streets.  A closer look at the permit data will reveal that this small scale infill is on the rise.  The data is compared with three census tracts in Ottawa West, both to gauge the rate of intensification against a well known hotbed of infill activity and to confirm that infill pressure is moving outward from the inner-city.  They also share an orthogonal street pattern and are the furthest most west or eastern suburbs to have such.  This means they form the outer limit of an invaluable subset of land supply and infill activity is likely to plateau in these areas before it can adapt to the site conditions of the postwar corporate suburbs.

Figure 5: Location of Census Tracts Selected for Building Permit Analysis.

Figure 5: Location of Census Tracts Selected for Building Permit Analysis.

The permit data acquired from the City of Ottawa covers an eleven year period from 2004 to 2015 in seven inner suburb census tracts, identified in figure 5.  At first a ten year period was considered but it became apparent that all permits in Overbrook had peaked in the final year of the sample so an additional year was studied to confirm the on-going trend. In this additional year, dwelling units demolished doubled and new units constructed dropped only slightly, making it a valuable addition to the sample.  Census Tracts one through four are charted out in several graphs to compare the data.  Permit data was also acquired for east Overbrook and two other CTs in a community named Carlington, just southeast of the Ottawa West study area to support the conclusions. However, these were omitted from the graphs to reduce clutter.  The complete data set can be seen in Appendix.  On the whole, the data proves that infill activity is increasing in all postwar suburbs studied as predicted but also that intensification, which is to say the substantial and efficient increase in population density, has yet to materialize anywhere but Westboro(Chart 7).  Overbrook only has one large scale infill project planned despite on-going infrastructure renewal in the community. This project, proposed in 2010, was met with community opposition due to being far out of scale with its location and has since faced several delays. However, the rate of demolition has accelerated and, most recently, the number of units demolished has reached the same levels as the Westboro CTs(Chart 8). It’s a valuable benchmark to consider because the housing stock in Westboro is quickly being transformed and replaced altogether.

Chart 7: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Chart 7: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Chart 8: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Chart 8: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Table 1: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Table 1: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

As seen in table 1, Demolition activity predominantly affects owner-occupied, ground-oriented housing.  Over 70 percent of demolitions in all seven areas were single and semi-detached homes. This rate was most pronounced in areas furthest from the inner-city, particularly Westboro CTs three and four in which the rates were 93 and 100 percent respectively.  In Westboro CTs two and three, where demand is highest, nearly 10 percent of all single detached homes were torn down during the study period.  This trend is not only augmenting cost of land and housing, but is rapidly changing the character of the community without significantly increasing density.  The 271 demolitions of ground-oriented homes resulted in a net gain of 295 units in the same category. On the other hand, the real population gains are achieved through large condominium projects. 80 percent of the 1,477 net new units across all study areas were apartments, largely in mid-rise developments along mainstreets. 

Chart 9: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Chart 9: Source, City of Ottawa Building permits

Overall, the meager gains achieved through frequent demolition come at great cost to the community.  This type of infill typically results in doubling the unit count of existing homes which is no greater than simply adding accessory dwellings units.  No doubt it greatly increases building area and living space but the same could be achieved through the construction coach houses with far less impact on the community.  Due to the relatively high costs associated with infill redevelopment, it’s application as a form of intensification is also quite limited.  Yet, the data confirms that these small scale infill projects are increasingly popular in postwar suburbs(Chart 9). The chart excludes all new apartments for the sake of simplicity even though some types of apartments such as triplexes, conversions or secondary suites may qualify as ground-oriented. Still, despite the inconsistent number of projects year-over-year relative to demolitions, the increasing yield is clear.  In Overbrook this trend is made all the more likely to continue as new infrastructure is put into place such as light rail transit and new pedestrian connections across the river and highway.  In particular, the Adawe bridge connects Overbrook to the neighbouring community of Sandy Hill which struggles with extreme infill pressure.  The University of Ottawa in Sandy Hill creates immense demand for student housing which will spill over into Overbrook.  As the back-to-the-city trend pushes into postwar suburbs, these connections, amenities, and quality of housing will be crucial factors when identifying which individual communities will face the greatest infill pressure.  They are the reason Westboro is the most advanced case in Ottawa and why select communities are progressing faster than others.  Nevertheless, in a closed system with a limited supply of land, the trend will only follow paths of least resistance for so long.  In the end, the strongest factor remains proximity to the core.  Permit data across all seven CTs confirms that intensification radiates outward from the inner-city. Net new units constructed, as a percentage of the existing housing stock in 2006, are highest in CTs nearest to the city(Table 1).  In Westboro CTs, total occupied dwelling units increased by 31, 20, and 19 percent.  In Overbrook CTs, the increases were 5 and 0 percent.  The data for Carlington also confirms this trend with increases of 3 and 1 percent.  As the back-to-the-city trend progresses, its effect will reflect back further and further into postwar suburbs.  New apartment units, excluding a spike in 2008, have steadily increased from zero in 2004 to roughly a dozen per year in Overbrook at present.  This is a good sign but it is nowhere near the levels of intensification in Westboro.  Large scale projects will no doubt be developed in the decades to come but small scale infill precedes them.  It is scenario which may become all to common; small scale infill forms the vanguard of intensification as it radiates out from the inner-city.  Therefore there is an urgent need for the city of Ottawa, and other Canadian municipalities, to review all guidelines and bylaws related to low-rise infill development.  As city-wide guidelines for large scale intensification are already well-established in Ottawa, planners should focus their efforts on reviewing bylaws for low-rise infill and regulating new forms of small scale intensification.  Laneway houses have gained some recognition in Vancouver and Toronto but too few suburbs were built to include laneways.  Some that originally had laneways have since granted residents easements to shutter the alleys and re-opening them would be nearly impossible.  Coach houses on the other hand would make a sensible extension of the laneway model for all postwar suburbs.  If postwar suburbs are just beginning to reverse decades of disinvestment, it is important that all residents be given every opportunity to benefit.  That means providing new forms of infill sooner rather than later.

iv. Ottawa’s “Happy Problem” and Planning Reactions

Figure 6: Source, City of Ottawa Official Plan, Schedule B - Urban Policy Plan, 2015.

Figure 6: Source, City of Ottawa Official Plan, Schedule B - Urban Policy Plan, 2015.

Intensification has made great strides in a short 15 years. In the late 1990s it was still a fairly new concern for planners. A half century of rapid suburban sprawl had worked well for its time but there was no denying the necessity of smart growth as sprawl continued to exceed projections. In 1998 the city started tracking the number of dwelling units built in target locations for intensification(Figure 6).  That year, they represented 10 percent of new units city-wide. In 2003, five years later, their proportion grew to over 20 percent of new units. Though this figure declined in the mid-2000s, intensification in target areas has since reached a high point representing roughly 40 percent of all new units in 2015.

Chart 10, 11: Source City of Ottawa Annual Development Report 2015, Appendix Tables 15, 12, 13

Chart 10, 11: Source City of Ottawa Annual Development Report 2015, Appendix Tables 15, 12, 13

This is due in part to 2015 being Ottawa’s lowest year for housing starts in a decade and intensification units showing resilience in the market(Chart 10).  But intensification and infill projects are not, nor ever were, limited to these areas.  Perhaps out of desperation for new tax revenue or to simply take the opportunistic approach to intensification, the city has been habitually spot-zoning and approving infill projects far out-of-scale with their respective locations.  Whether in the outer suburbs or core neighbourhoods, community backlash against ‘overbuild’ became a city-wide issue.  To that end, the city approved its first of many urban Community Design Plan in 2007 for Westboro.  These plans were meant to direct intensification projects to targeted areas and deter them from others, incorporating community and stakeholder feedback.  However, they were not necessarily paired with any kind of zoning amendments.  The more ambiguous language of the official plan and outdated zoning bylaws therefore took legal precedence in development applications, committee of adjustment hearings, and planning committee rulings.  Ultimately these plans provided validation to the objections of community associations but proved ineffective at preventing invasive infill or addressing low-rise infill concerns at all.  Just how much stray infill evades target areas?  Is this all just NIMBYism or is it a valid concern?  According to the city’s 2015 Annual Development Report, the disparity is getting larger.  That year, a remarkable 57.8 percent of all new urban and suburban units were classified as intensification, but only 40.6 percent were in target locations (Chart 11).  Where did the missing 17.2 percent go?  Likely along residential side streets and some arterial roads.  This is the blindspot, the intensification that is unaccounted for in planning policy.  In fact between 2011 and 2015 exactly one third of all intensification units were outside designated areas.  And while much of the controversy stems from mid and high-rise projects, we know from building and demolition permits that much of this missing third consists of unregulated low-rise infill.  The city was ill-prepared for this type of activity.  The zoning bylaw predated infill pressure and planning reports stemming from the 2003 official plan substantially underestimated the potential for small-scale infill.  In a report titled ‘Where Will We Live?’, staff estimated a potential of 208,539 new units within existing urban boundaries between 2001 and 2021.  The estimate included only 1,353 small-scale infill for the twenty year period, a measly 0.6 percent of potential units.  Yet, in only a five year period from 2009 to 2013, there were over 1,600 units of low-rise infill outside of designated areas in mature neighbourhoods alone.  That intensification is exceeding city estimates has been called Ottawa’s ‘happy problem’, a beneficial trend creating unforeseen tension within mature neighbourhoods.  This growing trend of infill development will certainly continue and it will require mindful oversight as it pushes out of the inner-city.  Small-scale infill is no longer a small-scale issue.

Following amalgamation of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton in 2001, the new City of Ottawa needed to consolidate its then 36 zoning by-laws into a single zoning by-law with respect to the 2003 Official Plan update.  Apart from the occasional up-zoning, the by-laws in various residential neighbourhoods remained essentially the same with one glaring loophole.  Limitations on maximum lot coverage, the total buildable area for houses and accessory structures, we’re excised from all but select R1 zones in order to reflect the intensification policies of the new Official Plan, and substituted with minimum setback tables.  To take full advantage of increased lot coverage, low-rise infill often utilizes garage frontage or front yard parking in order to exploit the building area previously reserved for side and rear yard parking.  This practice can quickly transform the pedestrian friendly landscaping of yards on mature neighbourhood streets into a pattern of asphalt frontage.  Once severances are factored in, the streetscape becomes a dissonant sequence of driveways and garage doors.  Water runoff increases and the space required for snow clearance is eliminated.  Living spaces are often elevated to a storey above street level and the character of the street is permanently altered. 

Figure 7: Existing Built Heritage and Character Protections in Ottawa, 2016.

Figure 7: Existing Built Heritage and Character Protections in Ottawa, 2016.

Fortunately, Ottawa has acknowledged the issue and, in late 2009, began extensive low-rise infill studies under the leadership of Alain Miguelez, program manager for zoning, intensification and neighbourhoods.  The purpose was not to inhibit infill but to analyze new building patterns and devise a bylaw which could enforce the retention of basic street character attributes.  The bylaw was titled Infill 1, or the Mature Neighbourhoods Zoning By-law 2012-147(Figure 7).  Five central wards were selected to assess the new rules, based on their high rates of infill activity and relatively compact urban fabric.  They created a system without precedent in Ontario which hinged on the notion of ‘dominant character’, and coined the phrase “Your street gives you your rules.”  The zoning overlay was approved by city council in 2012 but it took another three years of appeals to finally get the endorsement of the Ontario Munical Board.  In essence, the zoning bylaw fluidly adapts to any given street within the affected wards.  As there was no other way to update zoning to match what was already on the ground, the new bylaw requires all low-rise development applicants to submit a Streetscape Character Analysis(SCA) form.  Though it does not address building mass of new developments, Infill 1 sought to address the way the homes meet the street.

Figure 8:  Basic Streetscape Character Analysis configuration. (SCA Manual)

Figure 8:  Basic Streetscape Character Analysis configuration. (SCA Manual)

Figure 9:  Example Streetscape Character Analysis diagram. (SCA Manual)

Figure 9:  Example Streetscape Character Analysis diagram. (SCA Manual)

To complete the SCA form, applicants must document the front yard and parking conditions, as well as main door orientation, of twenty one neighbouring properties.  The subject lots are typically five to either side of the property being developed, as well as the eleven across the street.  The analysis requirements are specified for a number of possible variations such as end lots, corner lots, cul-de-sacs, etc.  Depending on the site configuration, the SCA may require as few as eleven or as many as 32 lots documented.  Documentation entails measuring lot, driveway and yard widths on all subject properties.  These are sorted into their character groups based on predetermined ratios and then sub-grouped based on various attributes, such as soft or hard landscaping, and the precise location or type of parking space.  Within this sampling, the most common character groups by category are considered the ‘dominant character’ which must be respected in designing the infill home.  Should there be a two or three way tie, the owner or developer can choose his preference.

"The bylaw seeks to ensure some consistency. We’re not saying we don’t want multi-unit dwellings in Overbrook. We have a number of those and we’ll continue to see them… We know development is coming, but it should be more consistent with what exists in the neighbourhood."  - Rawlson King,  Overbrook Community Association President
"We're a neighbourhood that's on the cusp of change."                                                                - Tobi Nussbaum, Coun. Ridea-Rockcliffe Ward

These character groups have no bearing on architectural style but simply force new developments to respect, at a bare minimum, the predominant parking and yard conditions of the street.  But the impact of this by-law on current infill trends should not be underestimated. Such zoning would have a drastic impact on infill development in postwar suburbs.  Because postwar homes are so very small relative to their lot size and potential lot coverage, infill can be wildly out of scale with existing homes.  In fact, the difference in character here may be more conspicuous than in any other urban zone.  Yet Overbrook and most other postwar suburbs were excluded from Infill 1, the first phase of low-rise infill guidelines. In the early stages of the mature neighbourhood studies, the still nascent infill rates there didn’t warrant their inclusion although the character groups and attributes established could easily be extended should the need arise.  To that end, the Overbrook Community Association made a formal request in 2015 to be designated a mature neighbourhood.  However, it has yet to receive that recognition and Overbrook may, by its very omission, be subject to increased infill activity.  It is the nearest suburb to the inner-city to lack any type of infill regulation or heritage conservation.  This may work to its benefit for a time, given the re-investment it represents, but Infill 1’s future effectiveness is diminished with every severance, row house, and ‘McMansion’ that is built in the interim.  Alternatively, applying Infill 1 now, as the community desires, would undoubtedly help retain character and preserve two of the essential conditions for coach houses; side yard parking and rear yard access.  And although phase 1 of the low-rise infill regulations would preserve the required site conditions for coach houses, phase 2 may compel builders to recognize their necessity.

Figure 10: Recently Proposed By-Law Overlays for Low-Rise Infill Regulation - Phase 2, 2016.

Figure 10: Recently Proposed By-Law Overlays for Low-Rise Infill Regulation - Phase 2, 2016.

After council approved Infill 1 in 2012 they instructed planning staff to begin studies for Infill 2. Where the former was meant to regulate how the house meets the street, the latter will directly address the building envelope. And though phase 2 also impacts the five central wards, its reach was expanded to include all wards within the greenbelt, eleven in total. Infill 2 is meant to be a course correction in the fallout of the bylaw consolidation. The proposed changes would mean decreased square footage for small infill builders looking to capitalize on the intensification potential of large postwar lots.  Besides placing additional controls on at-grade amenity spaces and rooftop terraces, the core of the proposal addresses four principles of massing. Combined, these regulations are meant to obstruct the trend of excessively large infill homes.

1. Maximum building heights are reduced. Where zones R1, R2, R3, and R4 have previously been limited to 11 meters. They will now be limited to 8.5 metres in R1 zones, 9 metres in R2 zones, and 10 meters in R3 or R4 zones.

2. Minimum Rear yard setbacks are now the greater of either 25 percent of lot depth or equivalent to the proposed building height to enforce a one-to-one slope ratio to the rear property line. 

3. Side yard setbacks of 1.2 meters or greater to ensure access to a rear yard.

4. Building mass regulations will be added to limit privacy concerns arising from certain types of projections including: rooftop accesses, decks, and bay windows.

Feedback on the proposed changes was gathered by staff in working sessions with the Federation of Citizens Associations and representatives of the infill development industry.  The comments received were, not surprisingly, divided.  Community associations supported the new rear and side yard requirements but remained concerned about building height, roof types, and severances.  Some rightly asked why Infill 1 and Infill 2 were not being integrated, but rather put forth as separate amendments which left the majority of affected wards without simple character regulations.  On the other hand, developers strongly objected to the proposed rear yard setback requirements and maximum building heights.  They haggled for circumstantial exemptions and argued in favor of intensification potential but, in doing so, failed to recognize the purpose of the by-law amendments.  Low-rise infill regulations are meant to channel intensification into suitable locations, at appropriate scales.  This is no different than how medium and high rise intensification has been regulated for decades.  It only seems jarring because small infill has formerly been a profitable and unregulated market.  Though city council approved Infill 2 as By-law Amendment 2015-228, it may take years to overcome OMB appeals.

The myopic concern over losing square footage here, or a storey there, misses the greater implication of both bylaws. Intensification in mature communities will simply require creative new solutions.  The by-law amendments only set the parameters for these new solutions, parameters which greatly advantage the development of coach house, for one.  Unlike other infill solutions, they are not limited to new developments but can in fact benefit and compliment existing homes.  It may take time for developers to assess and grow the market demand for coach houses beyond niche industry status.  However, doing so should be feasible given certain trends in Canadian markets.  For one, laneway houses have been a resounding success in Vancouver.  Permits issued for laneway houses in the City of Vancouver have increased every year since the launch of the EcoDensity laneway housing initiative in 2009.  In fact, permits issued for laneway houses have begun to exceed permits issued for single-family dwellings, and at far lesser cost.  Through the first half of 2016, there have been 277 permits issued for laneway dwellings at an average value of $183,360, while there were only 201 permits for one family dwellings at an average value of $816,331.  By year’s end there will be roughly 2,500 laneway dwelling permits issued since 2009. Their market demand is bolstered by abnormally high cost of housing within the city, but it’s worth considering that the back-to-the-city trend is largely driven by young individuals and young families.  They may find themselves priced out of gentrified inner-city neighbourhoods and seek the affordability of nearby postwar suburbs on the cusp of change.  Canadians still overwhelmingly chose to live in the suburbs despite the increasing desire for urban amenities.  Coach houses may just provide postwar suburbs a much needed advantage when competing with other urban zones for residents.

Figure 11: Example Coach House Infill Design - Shown with CMHC Design 309

Figure 11: Example Coach House Infill Design - Shown with CMHC Design 309

Typical postwar streetscapes with coach houses.

Typical postwar streetscapes with coach houses.