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Buffer Zones


What is it?

A Buffer Zone provides a physical space that insulates a natural feature from the impacts of surrounding land uses. The delineation of the zone is based on the needs of the natural feature (e.g., a river, tree stand, habitat patch, wetland, etc.). These tend to be relatively large areas, established based on ecological principles, and may be determined proactively (i.e., prior to development applications).

Guidelines may be created for all Buffer Zones of a particular type, outlining the appropriate parameters that can be applied to a particular feature (e.g., water bodies) across the landscape. Associated management plans can provide direction on the appropriate use and management of land within a buffer zone. Buffer Zones are often used in conjunction with Setback Guidelines that give direction for adjacent land use and building activity.

(What is the difference between a Buffer and a Setback?)

How can municipalities use it?

Strategies and plans, such as the Municipal Development Plan and Open Space Plans, can be used to create policies surrounding the use of buffer zones for ecological integrity. Area Structure Plans and bylaws can implement directives on buffer zones. At any of these scales, these plans can be used to spatially identify areas that will be included in these buffer zones. Municipalities can also use environmental reserves, environmental reserve easements, or conservation reserves to establish buffers, in areas where a subdivision has been applied for.

One common example is riparian buffer zones, which can protect strips of vegetated land directly adjacent to a river or stream. By capturing surface and groundwater flow, a riparian buffer can filter pollutants and prevent erosion that can contaminate water quality.

What are the advantages?

The many advantages of Buffer Zones include:

  • Protects the ecological function of an area such as the ability to provide clean air and water

  • Provides recreational and cultural opportunities

  • Can increase property values

  • Protects land in the buffer zone from encroaching development

  • Can provide consistent and transparent requirements for buffer zones across the municipality

What should you watch out for?

No tool is a silver bullet. The following should be considered with designing a Buffer Zone:

  • Buffers often provide the minimum ecological requirements, which may not be appropriate in all cases

  • Detailed data required in order to establish and manage buffer zones (e.g., mapping, shoreline stability, biodiversity) may be difficult to obtain

  • Buffer zones should address relevant federal and provincial legislation, such as the Migratory Birds Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act, Municipal Government Act, Public Lands Act, and Water Act

How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?

Buffer zones can encompass whole ecological systems, maintaining the integrity of the natural infrastructure within. They are an important part of conservation strategies, and ensure there is enough of a barrier between a natural feature and potential sources of impact, while also protecting the land in between. As such, Buffer Zones can ensure that appropriate measures are being taken across the municipality to protect areas sensitive to intense land use (e.g., sensitive habitat). As well, buffer zones allow a greater portion of natural spaces to be protected, which is especially important as municipalities have few tools to proactively set aside land for the natural infrastructure system.


Stepping Back from the Water – A handbook for the best practices used to minimize impacts and risks associated with development near water bodies in Alberta.

Strathcona County Bylaw – Strathcona Country’s Municipal Development Plan, Bylaw 1-2007 sets out buffer requirements to protect lands and water resources adjacent to watercourses.

Cochrane: A Wetlands and Riparian Areas Conservation Management Plan – Cochrane’s conservation management plan for wetlands and riparian areas requires as much of a buffer zone (preferably vegetated) as possible between a wetland or riparian area and upland areas.

City of London Guideline Document for the Determination of Ecological Buffers and Development Setbacks – Provides recommended criteria and parameters to facilitate the establishement of ecological buffer zones.

Battle River Watershed Alliance Drought Adaptation and Management: Implementation Guidelines - This document outlines the BRWA’s implementation guidelines for drought adaptation and management in the Battle River and Sounding Creek watersheds in Alberta. Drought adaptation and management is one component of the BRWA’s watershed management planning process. Part of their prescribed guidelines is an assessment of setback and buffer zones for wetlands and riparian areas.

Human-Wildlife Coexistence: Recommendations for Improving Human-Wildlife Coexistence in the Bow Valley – developed by a technical working group of local experts and stakeholders, to encourage coexistence between wildlife and humans, to maintain a healthy population of wildlife and habitat across the landscape.

Ottawa Greenspace Master Plan: Strategies for Ottawa’s Urban Greenspaces - The purpose of this document is to express Council’s vision for greenspace in the urban area and set policies for how this vision can be pursued. As the city grows, there is to be an adequate supply of greenspace, accessible to all residents. It will be high quality and sustainable and linked to allow for movement through green corridors. This document mentions the use of buffering around open spaces or natural areas.

Protecting Riparian Areas: Creative Approaches to Subdivision Development in the Bow River Basin. A Guide for Municipalities, Developers and Landowners – Designed to assist municipalities and those thinking of subdividing rural land, with development in the Bow River Basin. This Guide is intended to provide municipal officials and potential developers with more creative and environmentally sustainable alternatives to existing country residential policies and subdivision approvals, and tools for implementing those alternatives. An overview of watershed and riparian issues, benefits and challenges is presented, along with tools and techniques that can be used for landscape conservation planning and protection of natural and sensitive areas. This document includes a section on natural riparian buffers, vegetated filter strips and buffer strips.

City of Hamilton Proposed Natural Areas Acquisition Fund Strategy – submitted by the Hamilton Planning and Economic Development Department to set aside funds annually for the acquisition of Natural Area lands. The general purpose of a Natural Areas Acquisition Fund Strategy is to outline the requirements for the implementation of the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund. It provides details on the suite of securement tools available for landowners who have natural heritage system lands located on their property. It also provides a framework for determining the natural heritage lands that would be suitable for acquisition by the City of Hamilton, and fosters relationships with Hamilton partners that currently participate in the securement of natural heritage system lands within the City of Hamilton. This document includes information on riparian buffer zones.

Did we miss something?

If you know of a resource that should be on this list - or your municipality has a sample or case that should be here, please let us know!

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