First Draft of Ottawa’s New Zoning By-Law: Exciting changes ahead!

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We’re excited about the possibilities the new Zoning By-Law could bring to Ottawa! The first draft of the new Zoning By-Law was released last month and is open to public consultation. Given the importance of this document to the City’s shape and functioning, we will highlight the ecological benefits this draft could bring, as well as some shortcomings.

What is the Zoning By-Law?

Since Council’s adoption of the new Official Plan in 2022, the City has started the process of adopting a new Zoning By-Law to meet the Plan goals. The Official Plan commits to 5 Big Moves: Growth, Mobility, Urban Design, Resiliency, and Economy. A Zoning By-Law elaborates aspects of the Official Plan pertaining to what developers can build, where they can build, and building height and size. The city is mapped according to sections or zones, each with its own permitted uses (read this blog post for more zoning information).

Exciting Changes 

Many proposed changes to the Zoning By-Law are part of the City's Official Plan to densify, increase permeable surfaces, protect greenspace, increase the proximity of services to residences, and encourage 15-minute neighbourhoods. The possible ecological, health, and community benefits of these proposed actions are significant, and we will explore them in detail. These changes will promote environmental action by reducing emissions, maintaining permeable surfaces, protecting trees and natural spaces, reducing dependence on cars, and increasing available space for dense development. The proposed changes will also increase health by promoting walkability and active transportation over cars, and reducing air pollution. 

Mixed Use and New Zones

Another major proposed change is the shift from separate residential and commercial zones to simpler categories of multi-use areas. The following new zones demonstrate these big changes:

  • 6 Neighbourhood Zones replace traditional Residential “R” zones and will allow conditional, limited retail and recreation uses. 
  • 3 Hub Zones: replace some mixed-use zones across the city, prohibit “auto-oriented” uses, and permit residential and nonresidential uses.
  • 2 Main Street zones replace Traditional Main Streets and Arterial Main Streets and permit residential and nonresidential uses.
  • The Neighbourhood Mixed Use zone replaces the remaining general mixed-use zones and some commercial zones. 

This will allow business uses in traditionally residential-only areas and increase the proximity of residents to services. This is a common trait of the 15-minute neighbourhood, an urban planning strategy with the goal that residents’ daily needs can be met within a 15-minute walk from their homes.

Densification 

A new approach in this draft By-Law is greater densification across the city. Allowance of up to four dwellings per lot where possible and implementing minimum heights in certain areas benefits our transit system by increasing proximity to routes, increasing ridership and revenue that can be used to improve transit. Denser housing promotes sustainability as it uses land more efficiently, preserving undeveloped natural land for conservation purposes instead of sprawl. Natural land helps manage stormwater through absorption and drainage, and absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Keeping natural lands intact is essential to maintaining these ecosystem services that have been running for thousands of years. Disruption of lands for development followed by ecosystem restoration elsewhere does not cancel out the destruction.

The draft Zoning By-Law allows for more units per lot, encouraging up to four units per lot where adequate infrastructure exists. Ottawa took this measure to be eligible for funding from the Federal Housing Accelerator Fund. Density also eases service provision like roads, reducing resource use, emissions from road construction, and paved surfaces. Paved surfaces prohibit plant life, destroy habitats, and seriously harm ecosystems. Reduction of paved surfaces increases drainage and stormwater absorption, allows for more natural space for plants, and reduces the heat island effect. 

Parking 

Another change in zoning could eliminate the minimum parking spaces required by the city in new developments, leaving the decision to developers. However, the City includes a maximum parking space number for several different uses including residences, shopping centers, and medical facilities when the facility is within 600m of a planned or existing rapid transit station. The City also proposes the prohibition of new surface parking lots in the Downtown Core (Area A, see Figure 1). Parking lots as principal use in the Inner Urban (Area B) will be prohibited, parking must be located in a building or underground. Surface parking regulations will not impact Areas C - F of Figure 1. 

Map of Transects, city sections used to organize and apply By-Laws

Figure 1. Map of Transects, city sections used to organize and apply By-Laws (Draft Zoning By-Law Schedule A1; As defined in the Official Plan Schedule A).

This change in parking requirements will not change the mandatory number of accessible parking spaces in new public parking lots (see Traffic and Parking By-Law Section 111). Visitor parking spaces for residential buildings (i.e., apartments and condos) in all Areas except F (Rural) will require 0.1 spaces per dwelling. Additionally, each area has its own mandatory visitor parking requirement that increases further from the downtown core. The limitations on new parking will increase Ottawa’s climate resiliency by maintaining stormwater absorption and greenspace rather than covering it with asphalt. The City also proposes mandatory electric vehicle charging stations in new parking spaces of accessory use, excluding visitor and barrier-free parking (Zoning By-Law draft Section 611). Chargers must serve at least 30% of the parking spaces in office and industrial areas, where two spaces can share a charger. This will encourage lower-emission vehicular travel.

Greenspace

The proposed Zoning By-Law aims to promote greenspace through permitting soft landscaping, mature tree protection, and allowing parks in most zones. Soft landscaping includes “principally organic materials and vegetative in-ground plantings such as trees, shrubs, hedges, ornamental flowers, and grasses, and may also include some accessory ground cover, such as riverwash stone, mulch or similar pervious material” (Zoning By-Law draft Section 199). Some examples of new soft landscaping requirements include increased soft landscaping percentage required in parking lots; minimum soft landscaping for front and side yards larger than 1.5m and in any rear yard in Neighbourhood Zones; and 25% lot area soft landscaped in planned unit development. This will promote opportunities for more plants, helping pollinators and local biodiversity. 

Ottawa’s mature trees could be protected through the addition of an alternative setback rule “for an additional degree of flexibility in the permitted building envelope of a residential (urban or rural) lot to retain a mature tree” (Notes, Zoning By-Law draft Section 214). The setback space can be applied elsewhere on the lot to compensate for space lost to the tree (Figure 2). Additionally, the tree canopy will be supported through the introduction of mandatory soil volume - 30 cubic metres in Neighbourhood Zone rear yards, 1 metre in parking lot soft landscaping, and 30 cubic meters for underground structures. Parks are permitted in most zones, and protecting and promoting green space will minimize the island heat effect and reduce flooding by increasing water absorption.

Figure 2. Alternative setback for the preservation of mature trees (Zoning By-Law draft Section 214).

Possible Improvements

A new Zoning By-Law is an excellent opportunity to improve our built environment and help adapt to the impacts of climate change. While the changes discussed above are admirable and will promote a positive city environment, there are some improvements that could be made to the draft and the consultation process. For example, permitted uses in residential areas could be expanded to further mixed use and proximity of residents to services. Additionally, soft landscaping should account for the need for native plants; this could be a great opportunity to increase native flora and fauna in the city. Many native plants are low maintenance and could help local pollinator populations. 

Since the release of the first draft Zoning By-Law in May, the City has conducted one information session with the general public. City-run virtual information sessions and pop-up events will continue until the fall when in-person sessions will start. We encourage the City to hold consultations with the Anishinaabe Algonquin Nation on whose unceded and unsurrendered land Ottawa is located, aligning with the City’s Official Plan commitments.

To keep in mind

While this amount of change to City planning is exciting, it is important to understand that this is the first draft. This draft will be followed by a second draft in Spring 2025 with more changes and incorporation of feedback. The final Zoning By-Law will be released in the Fall of 2025 following more public consultation and approval from two committees (Agricultural and Rural Affairs, Planning and Housing) and Council. If the new By-Law is passed, it will be in effect until 2046. If approved, little will change materially overnight. Zoning By-Laws allow for certain uses, which will impact future development. For example, even though minimum and maximum building heights are proposed, developers might not build the maximum height. In any case, the new Zoning By-Law should allow for ecological, healthier, community-focused neighbourhoods. Be sure to stay informed and contribute to the consultation process!

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