Looking Beyond Zoning To Change The Shape Of Cities

two visions of a stairwell superimposed, one a fire, the other an escape route
This scene was created by affordablehousingaction.org and is licensed under CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
A housing escape route, or a fire trap? Could be either or both. Building codes require housing developers to build for safety.

Zoning is often named as the culprit in shaping cities in North America. There are vast areas of low density, with single detached homes, along with areas of high density housing, which shows up near transit corridors (bus lines, subway routes, urban collector roads and freeways).

Cities have stepped up to allow higher densities in the single detached zones. Minneapolis is often recognized in the United States for being a leader. In 2018, it allowed duplexes and triplexes in zones that had been the preserve of single detached homes1. Since then, other cities in Canada and the United States have followed suit.

The webinar linked to this post illustrates that zoning is not the only culprit. Building codes are also a factor. Building codes are country specific. The presenters, Nik Luka and Conrad Speckert compared building codes in many countries. They have pinpointed how building codes can get in the way of building middle density housing.

Building codes are primarily intended to ensure that what gets built is safe. Looking at other jurisdictions, it becomes evident that there are multiple ways to achieve safety.

Single emergency stairways are one example. They are unusual in North America, but common in the UK and Europe. They have come up for much debate following the Grenfell Tower fire. Spekert draws on evidence from the post Grenfell fire inquiries and the safety records from other jurisdictions where they are allowed to assess the single emergency stairway design.

While safety is the primary function of the building code, decisions about safety affect many other aspects of the homes we live in. Some of the issues, which Luka and Spekert discuss during the webinar, include how changes to Canada’s building code:

    • can make housing safer
    • can reduce the cost of housing
    • can improve the quality of life for residents who will live in the buildings and
    • can reduce the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling.

Speckert has been working with multiple experts to make a proposal to amend Canada’s building code. It starts with fire officials, architects, engineers and land use planners. It also includes affordable housing advocates, community groups, the construction industry and the development industry. Every group may be wary of change, each for their own reasons.

This webinar will be of particular interest to Canadians as well as for groups in other countries that are considering changes to safety codes. The webinar is posted on youtube: The Missing Middle and The Second Egress: Building a Code Change


  1. Try: Is Minneapolis Now Reaping The Fruits Of Anti-NIMBY Bylaw Change?