City Shows It’s Eager for Change

City of Edmonton launches new initiative to improve the planning and developing process

By Melanie Franner

Dealing with any big city can be fraught with difficulty in a number of different areas. But the City of Edmonton is demonstrating its commitment to its citizens – be they residential, commercial, or industrial – by launching a brand new initiative that will tackle these issues head on.

Called the Urban Form Business Transformation Initiative, the city hall undertaking seeks to improve the planning and development process. Many people in the City feel it’s an idea long overdue.

“The City of Edmonton is always looking for ways to continually improve, but we recognize that we are lagging behind other municipalities,” explains Nancy Domijan, director, business performance and transformation, City of Edmonton. “As we move toward bringing services online, customer expectations are changing. The City needs to be proactive, but in order to do so, we needed to have a team of dedicated staff.”

Nancy Domijan, director, business performance and transformation, City of Edmonton.

The buy in

The Urban Form Business Transformation Initiative launched in November 2017. But its genesis stems from well before then.

“Our city-building partners have told us of the challenges they face in the planning and development process,” says Domijan. “This project has been designed specially to address these challenges and to make it an easier and more streamlined process for all our partners.”

Domijan names the four main challenges that have given rise to this new initiative: inconsistency, internal disconnect, frustrated citizens, and resource challenged.

In terms of inconsistency, she cites the variability in application and permit standards, which creates frustration for developers and builders. Applicants, she adds, are experiencing delays as a result of unpredictable and lengthy application and permit timelines.

The internal disconnect, states Domijan, stems from disjointed connections within the city’s departments, which creates confusion and delays in planning and development applications, particularly when handing them off between the different areas like development permit to building permit.

Citizens likewise become frustrated when they find it difficult to navigate the planning and development process.

Adding more staff isn’t an option. Domijan explains that budget constraints mean that the City has to find more efficient ways of delivering its services within the capacity of its current staffing levels.

And thus, the Urban Form Business Transformation Initiative was born.

“We recognized the need for dedicated process improvement work to be done,” says Domijan. “We received full support from our executive leadership team to move forward. We were excited to share our project with industry and spent a few months presenting to various industry organizations to gather initial feedback and garner support.”

The details

The new initiative spans key elements of the land development process that support the large and complex task of city building. The scope of this project includes:

  • Rezoning, subdivision, servicing agreements and engineering drawings, development and building permits;
  • Inspections for infrastructure, development, building, lot grading and landscaping; and
  • Residential, commercial, and industrial private development.

“The benefits will be primarily seen by builders, contractors, and developers,” states Domijan. “However, some improvements, such as the Home Improvement Permit, will result in direct benefits for homeowners.”

Goals worth chasing

According to Domijan, the long-term goal of the initiative is to “support the quality of life for Edmontonians and the economic vibrancy of the City by enabling efficient and effective planning and development in collaboration with stakeholders”.

She cites the project’s primary objectives as the following:

  • Improve applicant experiences when interacting with the City;
  • Improve urban form and corporate strategic development staff productivity by reducing rework, errors and delays in application processing, and providing the right tools for staff;
  • Improve the sustainability of the funding model; and
  • Improve integration across the relevant City branches and departments.

Although the road to continuous improvement may be an arduous and lengthy one, the City has committed to actionable change by delivering three quick “wins” within the first six months of the project.

First deliverable

The first of these “wins” is expansion of the Expedited Development Permit Program, which allows applicants with a good track record to be rewarded for their past efforts. Applicants now have the opportunity to assess their own applications to obtain a development permit for single, detached dwellings in residential small lot (RSL) and planned lot residential (PLR) zones. An applicant provides the technical zoning bylaw review, such as setbacks and site area, as part of their application and the approval is provided within two business days.

The administration staff is then free to focus on those applicants that require more support.

“We launched this program in Q2 2018,” explains Domijan. “As a result, we anticipate the potential realization of a 15 per cent increase in applications processed through the system, an 82 per cent increase in applicants, and the ability to reallocate staff resources to more complex applications.”

Second deliverable

The second quick “win” from the City is the Efficient Resource Allocation for Safety Code Inspections program. Based on data and risk, the administration focused on reducing the number of footings and foundations inspections per year to allow inspectors to spend their time on higher-risk inspections.

The program mirrors the previous “win” in that it rewards applicants that have a good track record by allowing them to have inspections scheduled five per cent of the time, instead of 100 per cent. There is no change to how a footing and foundation is built or how an inspection is requested.

As outlined in the Alberta Building Code, builders remain responsible for ensuring that the footing, foundation, damp proofing, and weeping tile meet all applicable codes, guidelines, standards, and requirements.

“Not only does this program reduce the number of footings and foundations inspections per year, but it also allows the builders to move more quickly to the next phase of construction,” explains Domijan. “And it allows for the excavation to be backfilled more quickly, thereby reducing the risk of damage or collapse.”

Third deliverable

The third quick “win” in the Urban Form Business Transformation Initiative is the Home Improvement Permit. This program aims to improve the residential permit experience. It covers all common residential improvements or construction, including decks, accessory buildings (garages, sheds, etc.), and basement development.

These applicants are now processed differently by the City to increase efficiency and reduce processing time. And, as of Q2 2018, applications began to be accepted online.

“This program increases the convenience for applicants in that they can apply from anywhere,” explains Domijan. “It also reduces barriers to obtaining permits, without compromising legislative requirements. It enables consistent and timely decision making, and it allows for more experienced staff to focus on more complex applications.”

All in a day’s work

By all appearances, it looks like the City of Edmonton is well on its way to introducing its new Urban Form Business Transformation Initiative. It’s a program guaranteed to ease process and increase efficiencies for all stakeholders – be they residential, industrial, or commercial private development.

“We have already begun to realize the benefits of the process improvements that have been implemented,” states Domijan.

And time will certainly see the realization of many more benefits to come over the next few months and years.

The Urban Form Business Transformation team is busy working on the next round of process improvements that will make further positive changes to the planning and development processes. Already, there are six additional projects expected to launch this fall.

In the meantime, the “wins” continue to add up. And, although the Urban Form Business Transformation Initiative is an Edmonton “one-off”, the good news is that its success is spreading far and wide.

“There is interest from other municipalities and cities,” concludes Domijan. “We are continually in touch with the City of Calgary and continue to learn from each other.”

The collaborative work between the City of Edmonton and its industry partners continues, united in its efforts to design new processes and implementation tools for efficiency and to establish clear expectations.