What is Neighbourhood Character?
The "sense of place" inherent in a neighbourhood is a function of its history, buildings, natural features, landscape and people. Together, the interaction of these elements defines the distinctive identity and local character of a neighbourhood. A sense of place is known by experience. Residents living in a community actively use spaces to create a sense of place. The feeling of belonging to a community is created through familiar, everyday social interactions within a localized setting. Neighbourhood identity is expressed as a sense of belonging amongst residents that share a sense of place.
In planning terms, neighbourhood character is shaped by design elements that unify the look and feel of an area. These elements can be referred to in community-based planning policies or local policies. Patterns of streetscape are established through repeated setbacks, the placement of garages and landscaping, for example. Building forms can have similar heights and massing (lot coverage), roof pitch, dormers, window placement, and porches. The choice of materials can also be a unifying element. By creating an area plan that guides future development, community-specific policies can help ensure that new development is sympathetically integrated with existing buildings.
The coordination between top-down planning and bottom-up community perspectives is what makes great "place-based" planning. The demographic profile, character, and needs of communities vary substantially between neighbourhoods. This diversity creates unique places that require context-specific planning policies. Place-based planning begins with listening to the needs and the objectives of residents living in a neighbourhood. No one understands the challenges and opportunities of a place better than those who live and work there. A place-based approach means all government departments focus on the outcomes of a place rather than on individual projects. It privileges the needs of residents over the profits of non-owner property investors.
All the elements that make up the physical environment of a street and define its character. These elements include paving, sidewalks, trees and vegetation, lighting, building type, fencing, setback of buildings, etc. Historic streetscapes have garnered significant attention lately, with the approval of heritage policies to protect historic streetscapes in July 2020. Within part 4, see heritage area policy for historic residential streetscapes.
Main streets are often considered to be the principal streets of a town where shops, restaurants and other businesses are found. Main streets have historically developed along streetcar lines and then auto-oriented roadways. Calgary's Municipal Development Plan provides guidance for the development of main streets. The highest densities and tallest buildings on the main street should be concentrated into "nodes" that occur at the intersections of the main street with other major transit streets.
In encouraging the growth of a more compact city, Calgary's Municipal Development Plan (MDP) guides the highest density towards mixed-use, transit-supported main streets and activity centres. Currently, Calgary's primary activity centre is the Downtown. The MDP encourages the strategic placement of other activity centres that will support long-term employment and population growth in locations served by high-frequency transit services.
A local area plan guides where and how future growth and redevelopment should happen within a specific area. Calgary's new multi-community approach is to create one local area plan for groupings of 10 to 15 communities. This approach would help reduce the number of about 270 existing and possible "Area Redevelopment Plans" to approx. 42 multi-community area plans. A simplified framework allows area plans to be kept up-to-date using a common set of policies that support the growth of a more compact city.
In an effort to increase population in developed Calgary, the City is changing its rules for adding new development. Urban form categories create designations to allow for multi-unit, mixed-use buildings (commercial & residential) in the creation of local area plans. Neighbourhood urban form categories include: commercial required (where commercial uses should be offered on the ground floor); active (a mix of commercial and residential with high pedestrian activity); general (supporting a broad range of housing types and some small-to-moderate commercial uses); and local (a broad range of housing types and home-based businesses with strong private-public separation).
The current Land Use Bylaw in Calgary assigns a “district” (zone) to land parcels with permitted and discretionary uses. This approach to development is called “use-based” planning. Calgary’s land use bylaw distinguishes between residential, commercial, and industrial categories. Separate districts are defined for low-density residential, including: single-detached housing (R1, RC-1), duplexes (R2), and row houses (R-CG). These districts offer clarity and predictability to the planning process, giving citizens some assurance about what will be allowed where. The districts also attribute differences in building height and lot coverage that have impacts for overshadowing and massing, especially significant in historic neighbourhoods with older buildings. Currently, re-designations must go to a Public Hearing of Council that allows residents to comment on the impacts of new development in their neighbourhoods.
The urban form categories proposed for local area planning provide the foundation for a new bylaw that combines low-density housing forms into a new “district” or set of “districts.” If the new bylaw is adopted, to be considered in 2021, this will signal a shift towards “form-based” development, where physical form rather than the separation of uses becomes the organizing principle. The City would be able to implement its growth strategy more quickly. More diverse building types would be allowed without the need for public comment on the introduction of multi-unit and multi-use (commercial & residential) buildings in neighbourhoods.
A secondary suite is self-contained anywhere within the main home (often the basement) but secondary to it (smaller). A backyard suite must be smaller than the main house and be contained in a detached building behind the front façade of the main residential building. Examples are a suite located above a garage or a separate “laneway” or “garden” house. Legal suites contain 2 or more rooms designed to be used as a residence by one or more persons. Suites must have a kitchen, living, sleeping and sanitary facilities, and one parking stall on the parcel. They must meet all building codes for safety and construction and have passed inspection. Secondary and backyard suites do not have a separate title and cannot be sold independently of the main home. They can be rented out, owner-occupied, or occupied by other person(s) like a family member or caregiver.
Designated heritage homes may be eligible for the City’s Historic Resource Conservation matching grant program to help with retrofitting costs and all homes listed on the Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources may be considered for parking bylaw relaxations, if parking for tenants can’t be accommodated on site. The City continues to update its tools and incentives to accommodate suites and retain heritage.
Types of Heritage Resources
Heritage resources include: "buildings, bridges, engineering works and other structures; cultural landscapes such as historic parks, gardens or streetscapes; culturally significant areas, including indigenous traditional use areas and sites with archaeological or palaeological significance. These can be managed by municipal, provincial or federal authorities." (City of Calgary). Buildings, landscapes and features that are at least 25 years-old and have standalone significance, may qualify for listing on the City's growing inventory of historic resources. They are evaluated by Heritage Calgary, a civic partner, according to a Council-approved evaluation system. When listed on the inventory, historic resources are recognized for their heritage significance and are referred to as heritage sites. Historic resources are not subject to development or demolition restrictions unless designated (legally protected) in cooperation with a property owner. To access Calgary's Inventory of Evaluated Historic Resources, click here. Other inventories exist for federally and provincially recognized historic places.
Once an evaluated historic resource on the Inventory becomes municipally designated by a Council-approved bylaw, it is legally protected under the Alberta Historical Resources Act, and regulation prevents alteration or demolition of its significant features without approval by the City of Calgary or the Province of Alberta, depending on the designation. Approximately 100 heritage sites, listed on the Inventory, are protected through a municipal designation bylaw. To read more about municipal designation, see here.
The City of Calgary defines a heritage asset “as a privately owned structure, typically constructed before 1945, that significantly retains its original form, scale, massing, window/door pattern and architectural details or materials. Individual heritage assets may not warrant inclusion on the inventory.” Their heritage significance may be tied to them being part of a geographic concentration of similar sites.
A visual survey of possible heritage assets in an area identified according to specific criteria of historic architecture and design. It’s called a windshield survey to give the idea that an area can be quickly surveyed through the windshield of a car. In practice, the survey is completed after properties are checked by walking the streetscape and scrutinizing individual properties. This best-practice approach follows examples such as Los Angeles’ SurveyLA program. In 2019, Calgary commissioned a windshield survey to identify potential heritage assets in 26 communities. More than 4000 historic properties were identified, many of which are clustered in what could then be identified as heritage areas.
The department of Calgary Parks has identified 27 historic streetscapes in some of Calgary’s oldest communities that retain significance due to their original plantings. Patterns of elm trees and lilac shrubs, for example, can become the object of protection. These 27 streetscapes have been evaluated by Heritage Calgary and were added to Calgary’s Inventory of Historic Resources. Calgary Parks has a plan to ensure the long-term conservation of trees for future Calgarians to enjoy.
Cultural landscapes are the combined works of nature and of man that are illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal. (Source: UNESCO and ICOMOS). Numerous cultural landscapes are listed on the Inventory of Historic Resources. Cultural landscapes are historically significant landscapes. Similar to other historic resources, cultural landscapes connect Calgarians with their past. They help to tell the story of how Calgary developed, and how Calgarians lived.
Protection & Reuse of Heritage Resources
The Standards and Guidelines are a tool used to help decide how best to conserve a historic place by understanding why that place is significant. The guidelines address four types of resources: cultural landscapes, archaeological sites, buildings, and engineering works, as well as materials. Conservation practitioners operate in a ‘values-based context’ to identify and manage historic places according to an evaluation process. These values generally include the aesthetic, historic, scientific, cultural, social and/or spiritual importance of a place. The heritage value of a historic place is embodied in its character-defining materials, forms, location, spatial configurations, uses and cultural associations or meanings.
Adaptive reuse is the process of reusing an existing building for a purpose other than for which it was originally built or designed. Some of the benefits include: cost savings on materials and demolition, reduction of materials going to landfill, and retention of heritage character.
A defined area that is legally protected to manage and conserve heritage resources within its boundary. Each province has unique legislation that enables and/or limits a municipality’s policies for the protection of heritage districts. These are sometimes called ‘heritage conservation areas’ (e.g. British Columbia) or ‘heritage conservation districts’ (e.g. Ontario). Calgary does not yet have any municipally designated heritage districts, whereas Edmonton has created a ‘heritage character area’ for Glenora. In Alberta, the Historical Resources Act specifies the legislative authority that municipalities have to create historic districts.
The word ‘district’ may also be used to identify a particular neighbourhood or commercial area, like the ‘warehouse district’ or the ‘design district’ in the Beltline, Kensington’s ‘shopping district,’ 17th Avenue’s ‘retail and entertainment district’ or the historic ‘Mission district.’ Used in this manner ‘district’ does not imply protection.
A unique set of rules and uses defined for land parcel(s) that are unavailable in other land use districts. Parcels that have unique characteristics, unusual site conditions or innovative design might require special regulations. A direct control district can be used to protect character-defining elements for heritage streetscapes, for example. Elements to be regulated might include: building setbacks, heights, reduced parking, accommodation for alternate uses, and specific architectural controls.
When heritage assets exist in a concentrated grouping, as identified through a local area plan, then all residential properties on the identified streetscape are eligible for protections. Calgary’s heritage area policy applies to residential block-faces. A block-face is one side of a street between two street corners or other geographic boundaries. If 25% heritage assets are identified on a block face: all new construction is discretionary, requiring a design review, which applies to all properties (including non-heritage). If 50% heritage assets exist on a block face: mandatory architectural controls and regulations could apply to all properties; involving the creation of a “direct control district” with owner-consent; the highest level of control offered.
A municipal or provincial historic resource is a heritage site that has been legally protected (designated) against demolition or major alterations under the Alberta Historical Resources Act. Designation is performed by a municipality or Alberta’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Designation does not affect activities in a building or on the property, it does not affect the ability to sell or purchase property and owners retain all their rights to the enjoyment of the property. Calgary also has a number of designated National Historic Sites.
Heritage District Implications
The designation of a heritage district allows for the regulation of character-defining elements that tie together an area. Each heritage district is unique, and so are its protections. Heritage districts do not necessarily impact individual houses. But, they often introduce guidelines for improvements and new developments that are compatible with the goals of preserving the character of the area. Property owners within the affected area must give consent to a designation by municipal bylaw that would be registered on title of each affected property within the district. Patterns of development on either side of area boundaries often become increasingly different after the designation of a heritage district is established.
An individual’s ability to sell or buy a building located in a heritage district is unaffected. The designation of heritage districts is generally good for property values. The largest study of its kind in North America, conducted by the University of Waterloo Heritage Resource Centre, found that homes in heritage conservation districts (HCDs) consistently perform as well as, or better than, the market trend in non-designated neighbourhoods. Properties in heritage districts tend to fare better on the real estate market because supply is limited. Also, when the quality and character of a heritage district is protected, a sizeable subset of the property market will display confidence by paying a premium to own property there.
The City’s Heritage Planners and eligible property owners work together to identify and discuss the character-defining elements that could be regulated for an historic area. The elements to be regulated would be specified in a bylaw and registered on land titles. Improvements and new developments would then have to be compatible with the goals of preserving the character of the neighbourhood.
Incentives for Heritage Conservation
The City of Calgary operates a Historic Resource Conservation Grant Program offering matching funds for projects to restore, preserve or rehabilitate a privately owned, designated resource. Different levels of funding apply to residential and non-residential projects. The Province of Alberta also offers conservation grants for municipally and/or provincially designated sites, as well as one-time grants for professional studies (architecture/engineering/conservation).
Tax credits incentivize owners of residential or non-residential heritage sites to legally designate their property. The City of Calgary will consider a residential tax credit as part of 2023-2026 budget deliberations, to be discussed no later than Q1 2022. If approved, the residential tax credit could offer up to $50,000 for individual homeowners of designated properties.
Tools have been introduced to encourage heritage retention. These tools can reduce on-site parking requirements, for example, and expand permitted uses to promote adaptive reuse and minor infills that do not impact the structure of the character home (eg. backyard suites/laneway housing, live work units, home occupations etc).
Density bonusing is a tool used by planners to add extra height (“density”) on a given project, and in exchange for this, developers provide a “public good.” In the context of heritage, it often involves designating a historic resource in exchange for permission to build added density on a site that normally wouldn’t allow it. Learn more about density transfer programs and the other heritage conservation incentives on Calgary’s heritage planning website.