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Urban Growth Boundaries


What is it?

An Urban Growth Boundary is used to protect surrounding areas from unconstrained urban growth. Predicted population growth is constrained to that area by encouraging higher-density development in the core, and by not providing servicing (such as public water, garbage collection, and public transit), outside the boundary. These boundaries can be established internally by a municipality, or externally as part of a regional planning initiative.

How can municipalities use it?

Municipalities can use growth boundaries not to halt development, but to ensure that development occurs in the most appropriate areas within a region. Growth boundaries allow municipalities to identify and conserve areas with valuable natural infrastructure attributes including rural and agricultural areas by focusing development and land conversion within the growth boundary. Growth boundaries are most effective when implemented regionally, and can be included in regional growth plans, or policies such as Intermunicipal Development Plans. Municipalities can then use complementary zoning and regulatory incentives such as transferable development credits programs to further discourage development of areas outside the growth boundary.

What are the advantages?

The many advantages of Municipal Growth Boundaries include:

  • Reduces development pressure on areas identified as high value and unsuitable for development, such as natural infrastructure and agriculture

  • Encourages preservation of community character, and revitalization and reinvestment in community cores

  • Creates more predictable and thus efficient permitting

  • Allows for longer planning windows for efforts to maintain natural infrastructure outside the growth boundary

  • Promotes cost-effective distribution of infrastructure

What should you watch out for?

No tool is a silver bullet. There are issues for municipalities to watch out for with Municipal Growth Boundaries, including:

  • Overly-generous growth boundaries may result in normal growth until the limit is reached, and expectations it will then continue

  • Establishing boundaries can be a complicated process

  • Land use regulations must accommodate the new development within the growth boundary

  • Growth boundaries are most successful when coordinated at a regional level, or when there is clear cooperation with adjacent municipalities

  • The level of growth allowed outside the growth boundary must be clearly communicated

  • Additional protections for rural, agricultural, and natural infrastructure areas outside the growth boundary will be necessary

  • Requires councils to say no to requested exemptions

  • Can be difficult for traditional developers to adapt to new development patterns (higher-density, inner-city)

How can it help maintain natural infrastructure?

When located outside of the growth boundaries, natural infrastructure will be protected from the most intense development pressure, which assists in maintaining all aspects of the natural infrastructure system – assets, functions, and benefits.


Building Invisible Walls: Urban Growth BoundariesArticle that discusses urban growth boundaries as an economical and efficient way to grow that also encourages re-investment and revitalization of downtowns and community centers.

Do Urban Growth Boundaries Work? Article that discusses the efficacy of growth boundaries. Includes case studies.

Town of Okotoks – Okotok's growth management strategy maintains a growth boundary based in large part on environmental carrying capacity as contained within the 1998 Okotoks Municipal Development Plan.

Portland, Oregon – To protect agriculture and forest areas from urban sprawl, each city and metropolitan area is required to have an urban growth boundary under Oregon state law. Metro, the regional government for the Portland area, manages the urban growth boundary.

Ontario Greenbelt - The Ontario Greenbelt is a provincially-dedicated area of 2 million acres in southern Ontario protecting agricultural lands, watersheds, and recreation opportunities in a belt around the highest-density, fastest-growing urban areas in that province.

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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