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Diversity: the Challenge to Land Use Planning


by Nancy Smith, B.A., M.A.

The evolving diversity of Canadian society presents a challenge to land use planning. Recent immigrants are an important source of highly skilled human resources, critically important to the future prosperity of the country.

People zoning

The phrase "people zoning" is a cliché. However, experience with land use planning in a multicultural context suggests that the phrase has become an obstacle to clear thinking about the nature of planning, and to the development of good planning responses to the growing diversity of Canadian society. There are many opportunities for change that fall well within the bounds of "traditional land use planning"; that constitute "good planning"; and that enable planning to reflect the public interest.

The notion of "people zoning" implies discrimination on some restricted grounds. For example, the Government of Ontario went so far as to amend the Planning Act to explicitly prohibit the passing of zoning by-laws distinguishing between related and unrelated people with respect to land use.1

Land use planning reflects social and cultural norms. Zoning by-laws evolve with the norms and activities of people i and their uses of land. This can be as obvious as the diversification of restaurant uses from a single use to a whole list of uses, ranging from "restaurant, full-service", to "take-out with drive -in". Or it may be more subtle: the evolution of commercial and industrial zoning to reflect first, clean or light industry as opposed to traditional industry; then low rise business parks, often publicly developed; and now single owner high tech business campuses.

The Ontario Municipal Board has defined people zoning as zoning "which depends on personal characteristics of occupants of land to explain restrictions governing adjacent land uses."2 Rules based entirely on the perceptions of objectors are difficult to justify, said the Board. However, the Board acknowledged that restrictions may sometimes be made to preserve social values, with the condition that fairness requires that such a rule be general, and that all enjoy the same protection.

Neither can we forget the positive obligation to accommodate difference, as was directed by the Court in the case of a zoning by-law prohibiting the keeping of horses in a residential area in which many Old Order Amish resided.3

Ottawa has also seen the effects of recent changes in immigration. In 1998, Ottawa equaled Calgary as the fourth receiving city for all immigrants, after the big three, Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. That same year, Ottawa also passed Calgary as the fourth receiving area for skilled immigrants. And in the 1996 census, Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese) was the third most common language spoken at home in Ottawa, surpassed only by English and French.

One effect of increased diversity is a need for a more inclusive planning vocabulary. Mosques, Islamic places of worship, are an example: Municipalities have responded by deleting the terms "church" and "synagogue" in favour of the more generic "place of worship" or "religious assembly with other uses."4 Another less obvious effect is the introduction of new views of certain community institutions and land uses. These views often take municipalities and land use planners by surprise, and may only come to light in response to the circulation of a planning application.

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An Ottawa case study

A recent zoning change in the City of Ottawa to allow a funeral home in a residentially designated area provides an interesting case study. The re-zoning was appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board by residents on the basis of several conventional planning grounds, as well as the grounds that the proposed use was culturally offensive to many residents of the area.5

Until recently, funeral homes had developed very gradually, within existing communities. In the City of Ottawa, for example, approximately one funeral home a decade was built or opened throughout the twentieth century.6 New applications are now appearing, reflecting the aging baby boomer market; a change from local family business to national or international corporation; and competition for market share.7

The affected residential neighbourhood is extremely diverse, culturally and ethnically. Community leaders calculated that the area had 5 or 6 times the number of Asian families as the Ottawa-Carleton region as a whole.

In many cultures and countries, funeral homes as Canadian society understands them, do not exist, or have only existed recently. As one resident from mainland China8 exclaimed, "How would we ever think that a funeral home could be located near a residential area? It is completely unthinkable!"

A Muslim resident explained that a body had to be buried immediately, otherwise the soul would not make a safe journey and would never be at rest. She was very uncomfortable with the notion of visitation in a funeral parlour, with the body waiting several days for burial. Another mainland Chinese resident9 explained that he would worry constantly that the restless spirits would have a negative impact on his family, his son, his career, his health. The view of the future funeral home from his residence made it almost impossible to get it out of his mind.

These views were shared in differing degrees by residents from many different backgrounds: Muslims from Pakistan, a Sikh family, families from four different parts of Mainland China, a resident from Czechoslovakia.

Even more interesting, other families in the area who did not personally share these views felt very strongly that the views should nonetheless be respected and taken into account in land use decisions. Many had been attracted by the green surroundings and diverse nature of the community. In their view, inclusiveness and respect for diversity are fundamental Canadian values. To approve the funeral home would offend these fundamental values. It would also be seen as a personal rejection of the highly skilled immigrants that Canada so urgently needs.

Planning evidence referred to policies throughout the Official Plan of the Region of Ottawa-Carleton which referenced the high value placed on a diverse community.

What are the opportunities for change that fall well within the bounds of "traditional land use planning"; that constitute "good planning"; and that enable planning to reflect the evolving public interest?

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Other OMB Decisions

In addition to the Grace Villa decision already cited, several other Ontario Municipal Board decisions provide insights. One recent decision dealing with so-called Chinese Malls emphasized the importance and legitimacy of studying new land use forms arising from changing demographics. Another decision distinguished between planning for a new service, and planning against a proposed service. The decision went on to add that the Planning Act allows an Official Plan to have regard to relevant social and cultural matters. On examining the Official Plan in question, however, the Board found no provisions for social and cultural matters.

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What have we learned?

I suggest the following lessons from this experience and these Board decisions:

  • It is important to distinguish between individual perceptions and social values.
  • Provisions must be general in nature, so that all receive the same protection.
  • The Official Plan is the means to link the authority provided in the Planning Act with the actual by-law provisions.

It is clear that if a community values and respects diversity, then appropriate policies must be found in the Official Plan. The Official Plan is subject to public notice and to appeal, and represents a legitimate avenue for establishing social values shared by the community and that have by definition gone beyond individual perceptions.

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1. R.S.O., 1990 c. P. 13, as amended, s 35(2)
2. Grace Villa Nursing Home Ltd. v Regional Municipality of Hamilton-Wentworth, O.M.B.D. No. 112, 1992.
3. Regina v Kuepfer et al. Ontario Court of Justice (Provincial Division) Provincial Offenses Court. Stratford, April 26, 1996. Reported in Municipal World, Sept. 1996,Vol. 106, no. 9, 12-13.
4. See Mohammed Qadeer and Maghfoor Chaudry, :"The Planning System and the Development of Mosques in the Greater Toronto Area", Plan Canada Vol. 40, No. 2, February-March 2000, 17-21.
5. This article reviews only the multicultural issues; other more conventional planning issues were also at stake. At the time of writing, the decision had not been issued.
6. Ottawa City Hall was destroyed by fire in the mid 1930's. Many building permit records that were not burned were lost through the many moves until the new City Hall opened in 1956. Exact dates can only be established from the mid-1950's.
7. See Town of Markham, Funeral Home Study, June 1999, 2.
8. A person with Ph.D. in microbiology.
9. A person with a Ph.D. in remote sensing.

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People zoning
An Ottawa case study
Other OMB decisions
What have we learned?

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