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Mixed-use City Planning in Canada: The New Urbanism Approach

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Literature Review
  4. Analysis
  5. Conclusion
  6. References


This paper aims to chart the adoption of the principles and practices of mixed-use within Canada, from its origins to its current implementation. Drawing on some examples where mixed-use has been established as an instrument in planning policies, the paper aims to bring to light some of the barriers encountered in implementing mixed-use. In a country that promotes the separation of land uses, this paper aims to explore how the potential benefits of mixing uses can be effectively delivered within the current socio-economic context.


The turn of the 20th century brought about a lot of changes within the urban landscape. Growing economic prosperity accompanied by immigration rates brought with them challenges that early city planners sought to address by implementing the segregation of land uses. These were measures taken to regulate noxious industries and single-purpose districts which were deemed to enhance safety and efficiency by putting distances between activities seen to be incompatible. However, by the end of the century, the normative standards of segregating uses started to garner criticism for its suppression of diversity in land use forms and its advocacy of a standardized approach to planning. Soon planners, advocating for vibrancy and sustainability, started calling on practices which fostered mixed land uses. The proponents of mixed-use developments largely viewed modern town planning’s effort to separate uses as unnatural.

This paper aims to examine mixed-use in theory and in practice by drawing on some Canadian examples. Canadian planners rallied early for mixed-use development, examples of which will be presented later on in the paper. But how far has this rallying cry been successful? Even with the popularity that New Urbanism enjoys in modern times and the many successful examples of mixed-use strategies, there are still some planners and developers that remain skeptical of the idea. Some of the barriers and problems commonly encountered by proponents of mixed-use is what this paper aims to explore.

Literature Review

City planning, in its nascent periods, was very much viewed as an organic growth process with complex interdependence on facilities like parks, recreational facilities, streets, transportation systems, etc. But growing advancement in technology, accompanied by the transformation of the urban landscape, changed this perception to a great degree. It was at this time that the principle of zoning came to be introduced as an essential tool within the practice of planning. Parcels of land began to be separated into different sections, designed to suit different purposes. This came to be practiced largely as a responsive tool towards population increase and the related pressures of congestion, land speculation, etc.

In addition, changing demographics and the socio-economic landscapes wrought by the end of World War II marked a new age in city planning and suburban development. The post-war era was marked by cities with typical subdivisions which encouraged sprawl settlements and communities zoned for single uses. Soon large parcels of land housing single-family detached dwellings started dotting the urban landscape. This made the dream of private homeownership a reality, possible to the masses. But one of the unexpected side-effects of this development was that it kick-started a mass exodus of people migrating to the suburbs, a phenomenon which holds true to this day. The “cookie-cutter homes” that started dominating many of the post-war residential landscapes started promoting developments being built in isolation, without proximity to the goods and services necessary to support them. Lack of destinations to walk to and increased dependence on automobiles resulted in the increased isolation of suburbs and walkability of neighborhoods. Traffic congestion also increased as more people were required to commute to work.

But, despite its many-faceted drawbacks, suburban sprawl was so successful because of the benefits it brought with it. It, for the first time, provided thousands of people the lifestyle, mobility, and privacy that had been, for the better part of human history, reserved only for the upper echelons of society. Private ownership of houses in suburban neighborhoods also made economic sense since these outlying subdivisions tended to have lower costs as compared to areas near city centers. But despite its socio-economic benefits, there were many who saw the inadvertent drawbacks this new pattern of development was having on cities, and thus, led many to examine the planning principles of the New Urbanist movement.

The New Urbanism approach calls for creating diverse communities, conserving the natural environment, and, most importantly, reconfiguring the suburban sprawl patterns of development. It seeks to create a framework that supports economic vitality and community stability and concentrates compatible land use within clusters of walkable neighborhoods while locating less compatible uses, such as heavy industries, beyond these clusters. Ironically, this was what the Euclidian zoning aimed to create. By separating incompatible uses; it attempted to create healthier living standards for people. But where the Euclidian zoning failed to come through, the New Urbanism theory promises to deliver by advocating for design features that bolster a sense of community, increase density and encourage walkability.

New Urbanism calls for a number of principles that vary based on their goal of implementation. The different design categories are listed in detail in the Charter of New Urbanism. For the purposes of this paper, however, the study will be focusing only on the New Urbanist principles associated with mixed-use.

The charter of the New Urbanism defined a mixed-use development as, “A development that comprises various land uses where diverse population, diverse income, multiple transportation modes including walking, and environmental and social health is sustained”. And the advocates of New Urbanism believe that this is best done by the provision of amenities essential for the sustainability of communities through designing local centers as community anchor points, which will act as the focus of serving the said amenities of the residents. And only through mixing compatible land uses such as residential, commercial, public, etc., can the provision of amenities best be achieved. The mixing of uses also serves the dual purpose of creating diversity within neighborhoods and provides for appealing options for a wide variety of age groups. They are also seen as encouraging social interactions, promoting physical activities, and improving the overall health of the communities.

Within the theory of New Urbanism, two models for approaching mixed-use have emerged. The Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) seeks for the mixing of compatible uses by the intensification of existing uses. It promotes methods such as adding apartments over garages, residential units over stores, and reforming zoning codes so that people are allowed to work from homes. In contrast, the second model of mixed-use called Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) calls for a very different approach. It proposes the concentration of development along nodes associated with transit stations. This forces commercial and high-density residential developments to coalesce near transit networks, resulting in the dispersal of low-density residential towards the edges of these nodes, and creating a density gradient of different uses. Each method expounds on different strategies of approach and discussions abound in academia favoring one over the other.

But, despite the many debates surrounding the different methodologies, over-time mixed-use zoning has come to be established as a principle of good planning. The vision of mixed-used developments usually starts with a comprehensive plan that sets out official policies that help implement the principles of mixed-uses. Subdivision plans and zoning bylaws soon follow, which help set in place other essential elements of the theory. And zoning tends to be the most difficult area to effect any changes because of its inherent inflexibility. But the theory has encouraged many cities to allow the amendment of zoning bylaws for allowing the mixing of compatible uses.

But, despite its enthusiastic adoption by many advocates, the mixed-use theory has also faced much opposition. One such popular criticism brings into question the premise for negating the suburban pattern of development. Critics argue that negative effects popularly associated with suburban developments, such as the environmental and social costs, have been highly exaggerated. The argument implies that suburbs have been instrumental in the democratization of the good life and therefore hold a valuable place in modern society. Much of the criticism also stems from the fear of the resulting reduction of property values that mixing low-income residents to neighborhoods will bring. Also accompanying this is the fear of mixed racial neighborhoods. Additionally, unintended consequences that mixed-use developments will bring in the form of conversion of uses and of rising real estate values have also been major factors in the criticism against mixed-use developments.

Mixed-use zoning became a popular strategy for many Canadian cities during the 1980s. Its advocates encouraged many cities like Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Winnipeg to revise their plans to accommodate constructions centered on the principles of New Urbanism. Many organizations like The Canadian Institute of Planners, The Canadian Institute of Transport Engineers, Canadian Urban Transit Association, etc., advocated urban development centered around mixed-use nodes with well-connected transit systems. The effects of the theory were soon being seen in the workforces, with cities hiring consultants to help city staff reorient existing plans and policies to the ideas of mixed-use.

Many growth areas in major cities were zoned for mixed-use. But these efforts weren’t without challenges. In Halifax, for example, the local governments created several new zones in an effort to stimulate leasing in an under-utilized industrial park. But this effort to allow commercial outlets to co-locate with industries failed to achieve the vision of a compatible mix of manufacturing and retail uses. Instead, the project resulted in bringing in a chain of retail giants with large parking requirements.

Another example of an attempt to generate mixed commercial and residential was a project in Dartmouth. An area close to an industrial park and lying adjacent to a major highway was zoned for mixed-use commercial and medium density industrial. What the planners failed to realize in this instance was their overestimation of the commercial retail uses that the project was anticipated to bring. Due to an excess of already established commercial in the region, the project was able to bring out only a few commercial buildings, with the majority of buildings being mid-rise apartments. This resulted in the closure of older apartments in other parts of the city and was unsuccessful in achieving the vision of a mixed-use district that was anticipated.


Despite its many setbacks, mixed-use developments still enjoy wide popularity among planners today. This is largely due to the fact that mixed-use theory is viewed to be a progressive planning strategy that draws on important planning principles of equity, efficiency, and environment. But these principles, however noble and just, have proven hard to be fully delivered. The two examples of Halifax help exemplify the fact of how certain economic circumstances can create difficulties in achieving mixed-use developments. They further go to show that zoning regulation alone, although a necessity, is not enough to generate mixed uses. Cities today are in a need to accommodate a mix of diverse uses, yet there are a number of barriers that stop this vision from transforming into reality. People fear change and tend to find comfort in inhomogeneity. Allaying such fears within communities about mixed uses is a major challenge that planners are faced with today.

Retail patterns also form an important factor in challenging the success of mixed-use developments. Current retail patterns have affected a dramatic change in the shopping behavior of people. And this phenomenon is not limited just to Canada, but rather is beginning to be observed all over the world. Big box retail stores enhance segregation and dependency on automobiles and thus provide serious barriers to the efforts of generating mixed-use developments.

Financial risks form another part of the equation that has made many developers cautious against mixed-use developments. Capital interests may, in many instances, make the social objectives of mixed-use developments difficult to achieve. In today’s real estate markets, the aims of achieving income mixing and a rich network of public and private spaces can be hard to realize. But in the face of continuing sprawl, planners seem to be left with few alternatives. The roots of racial and class segregation in North American cities extend far beyond the scope of this paper to the discussion. But, in comparison to other contemporary planning tools, the prospect of mixed-use developments seems to fair far better. But it isn’t reasonable to assume that simply proposing a mixing of uses will affect any significant changes to the barriers that threaten mixed-use developments. It seems that there remains much work to be done towards incorporating tools and policies that will prove favorable in incorporating mixing of compatible uses.

An obvious place to start would be devising methods of overcoming the shortcomings of mixed-use principles. A major drawback that has caused much ambiguity comes from the lack of specificity in mixed-use theory’s approach methodologies. The theory offers no clear definition of what constitutes an appropriate mix of uses. Given the lack of specificity, it becomes difficult to set targets or allow us to know when we have succeeded in achieving them. Governments have a key role to play in this regard by working with industry and academics in order to gain a deeper understanding of the various financing practices that make for economically viable mixed-use districts.

Work also needs to be done on enabling legislation that will encourage the mixing of uses, supports a compact form of development, and that promote efficient public transportation. There’s also a need to reexamine current policies that may inadvertently limit mixing such as building codes, setbacks, etc., to better suit our contemporary context. Additionally, there’s room for government-funded research to look into the criteria for success in mixing uses. This can be helpful in identifying strategies for overcoming unbalanced mixes. Also, government aid for the redevelopment or retaining of mix in neighborhood uses, such as providing aid to small businesses in order to better equip them with the means of competing with big-box retail stores, can help in retaining the mix of uses.

Instead of focusing on changing the form of the city, perhaps there needs to be a shift in focus on shaping the cultural choices of the masses that support mix. Developing programs that encourage behavioral changes such as encouraging the use of public transportation, local shopping, providing incentives for not having cars, etc., could help in creating a cultural context in which people support the mixing of uses. Government intervention is essential in promoting viable options for compact mixed-use developments. Finding ways of affecting consumer behavior seems to be an important tool for mixed-use developments to succeed. The long-term sustainability of our cities depends on how successfully we integrate the mixing of uses within our built environments.


Mixed-use characterized cities for much of human history. But the recent confluence of technological advancements and shifting cultural behaviors has resulted in providing an alternative option to this age-old pattern of development. The current urban patterns that dominate our landscapes today are a direct result of that alternative. And our experiences of living in this modern world have helped us gain a better understanding of the limitations and consequences this alternative poses.

Cities are shaped by human interaction and by our changing cultural and social behaviors; we impact the cities we inhabit. The complexities of cities are further defined by our cultural beliefs, technological advancements, prevailing environmental and political dynamics, etc. As planners, it’s our responsibility to analyze the predominant policies and regulations against community goals, in order to help achieve the objectives of mixed-use developments. Order to bring about any serious, long-term changes to the status quo requires concerted action and political will. And while it’s a fact that mixing of uses cannot promise to solve the many problems that our cities are facing today, it’s also important to recognize that the alternative approach which we have been espousing for the past few decades cannot hope to achieve long-term prosperity or sustainability.


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