Making Space: reel life lessons for real life zoning in Edmonton

Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of Transforming Edmonton articles to look at space, zoning, regulations and other planning topics that you might think are boring, but, no way, they really aren’t! In exchange for the gift of your time, we hope you’ll get a different perspective on space. 

Those twinkling, make-believe, holiday-in-the-city movies—you know, where the snow is fluffy, the store windows dazzling and where there’s a friendly feeling in the air—are the stuff of real life for city planners. 

Robert Rutherford is one of them.

“Movies give us an idealized version of outdoor city life, and they are popular, especially at this time of year,” said Rutherford, a planner working on Edmonton’s Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative.

“We can learn from the kinds of things that make us watch.”

There is a key difference between the movie director and the urban planner, though.  It’s this: the director uses a set to compose a shot so the audience is entertained. The planner uses policy to help build a setting where fellow citizens feel alive.

A lights, camera, zoning approach means seeing things that make it easier for people to stop and look—and be outside. (File)

Set design

The Main Streets Overlay is one of those policies.

The Main Streets Overlay is a set of guidelines that support the growth of attractive, vibrant and walkable commercial streets in Edmonton. 

The overlay talks about the use of colour and decorative lighting to enhance the look of buildings. It requires clear windows on buildings as a cue for pedestrians to slow down and do window shopping. The overlay lays out the requirements for landscaping with colour throughout the year, and for common vestibules as public shelter in winter. The policy also encourages awnings and overhangs to shelter passersby and customers. 

The City is looking at incorporating parts of the Main Street Overlay into its standard zones, as part of the Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative. Taking parts of the overlay that contribute to vibrant spaces while removing the overlay itself means there will be one less set of rules for city builders to reference. Doing so will also preserve the aesthetics and placemaking it helped achieve.

Festival goers stroll Alberta Avenue’s streets during Deep Freeze, an annual event that embraces the city’s northern climate by melding arts, culture and heritage winter games. (File)

WinterCity Strategy

The pandemic has highlighted the need to create outdoor spaces that are not just passageways to somewhere else. Last winter, in making the same point, Bloomberg CityLab paid tribute to the City of Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy. 

“It has become clear that the safest place to be with other people is outdoors, and we can learn from winter cities how to keep the good times (literally) rolling,” it said in its How to Make the Most of Covid Winter guide.

Since 2012, Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy has played an ongoing role in helping Edmontonians experience winter as more than a season that’s gone dark. It suggests ways for more outdoor play, for better winter transportation and for safer, more comfortable and more beautiful design. 

“The WinterCity Strategy has helped develop a four-season patio culture and helped increase the number of festivals and celebrations,” said Isla Tanaka, Edmonton’s WinterCity planner.  “The City of Edmonton hopes to nurture a vibrant winter life, prioritize quality winter design, bolster a bustling winter economy and celebrate the city’s wintry identity.”

Citizens bundle up with a warm beverage on one of 104th Street’s four-season patios, an initiative set out by Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy that encourages business owners to create inviting and comfortable outdoor patios (File, December 2015).

Picture perfect

Tanaka said increased flexibility in Edmonton’s zoning regulations makes it easier to implement ideas in the City’s Winter Design Guidelines. 

Tanaka cited several examples. Awnings and canopies for businesses in Main Streets provide spaces of shelter from rain, sun and snow. Variations in building setbacks offer suntraps and shelters from the wind. Creative lighting in public spaces helps with wayfinding during the longer winter nights, creating a sense of place. Amenities like benches and chairs and patio spaces support a more vibrant public realm.

Edmonton’s WinterCity Strategy has people talking. (File)

The audience is noticing. Outside magazine recently listed Edmonton as one of seven marquee cities that embrace winter like nowhere else: 

“A decade ago, city planners in Edmonton got together to change the city’s approach to winter. Instead of building indoor malls and sending people inside, how could the city help people love the frosty season? Their solution was WinterCity Strategy, which united a team of urban-planning experts tasked with making it easier for Edmontonians to get outside in the cold.”

Rutherford gave that review two thumbs up. 

“Just like you need a script to make a movie, you need policies and strategies to help make Edmonton shine in winter,” said Rutherford.

“We take seriously the challenge of translating—from make-believe into day-to-day reality—a set for entertainment into a setting for life.” 

Thanks for reading. Thanks for finding a winter plot of your own out there.  And, for now, that’s a wrap! 

Editor’s note: For more information on the Zoning Bylaw Renewal Initiative and how regulations are being written to support all-season spaces and places, visit Here’s a fun story about some of the holiday flicks shot in Edmonton. The file pic at the top of the post shows Whyte Avenue in Edmonton.