Urban Design Guidelines for High-rise Buildings

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Urban Design Guidelines for High-rise Buildings

Approved by City Council on May 23, 2018

Urban Design Guidelines for High-rise Buildings [PDF Version 5.193 MB](link is external)PDF opens in a new tab or window


A high-rise building is defined in the Official Plan as any building that is ten storeys or more. In high-rise housing, residential uses predominate but other land uses are often included in a mixed-use development including, retail, office, institutional, cultural and entertainment activities. Whether a building is “high rise” or not, a building may appear relatively “tall” when it is significantly higher that the surrounding context; or it is taller than the width of the right-of-way that it faces.

A high-rise building has three primary components that are integrated into the whole of the design: a base or podium; a middle or tower, and a top. The base is the primary interface with the city context of the street, people, and services. The tower is sized, shaped, orientated and clad to respond to functional and contextual requirements as well as the lifestyle of the residents. The top integrates the mechanical equipment, and contributes to sky views.

Purpose and Application

These urban design guidelines are to be used during the review of development proposals to promote and achieve appropriate high-rise development. The design guidelines will be applied wherever high-rise residential and mixed-use buildings are proposed. While these guidelines are aimed at residential development, they are a useful reference when considering high-rise commercial development as well as, mid-rise development that appears tall in relation to its context.

These are general guidelines, and not all will apply equally in all circumstances. Each context will inform the application of, and the emphasis on, various guidelines. Specific site context and conditions will be considered in conjunction with these guidelines.

A Community Design Plan (CDP), or other planning studies, may augment and refine these design guidelines for a specific area. The guidelines will also be a resource for the preparation of new Community Design Plans.


The objective of these urban design guidelines is to highlight ways to:

  • Address the compatibility and relationship between high-rise buildings and their existing or planned context;
  • Coordinate and integrate parking, services, utilities, and public transit into the design of the building and the site;
  • Encourage a mix of uses and open spaces that contribute to the amenities of urban living;
  • Create human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly streets, and attractive public spaces that contribute to liveable, safe and healthy communities;
  • Promote high-rise buildings that contribute to views of the skyline and enhance orientation and the image of the city;
  • Promote development that responds to the physical environment and microclimate through design.

Official Plan and By-Law Direction

High-rises are one of the many possible building types contributing to land use intensification that meets provincial mandates and fulfills Official Plan direction to create efficient development and land use patterns that support healthy, liveable and safe communities. Official Plan Sections 2.5.1, and 4.11, and the Design Considerations in Annex 3, are key policy areas that direct high-rise buildings to specific areas of the city, including the downtown core, along mainstreets, in mixed-use centres, and near major transit stations. The Official Plan also provides policy direction to evaluate the appropriateness of individual sites, and to inform many aspects of high-rise design.

The Comprehensive Zoning By-law is also a tool that establishes the preliminary design framework for high-rise developments. Through detailed analysis of a site, amendments to the zoning bylaw may be required to address issues and opportunities relating to context, massing, shadows, and public space. A wide range of other applicable regulations and By-laws must also be met.

Context and Issues

While the existing context may set the present day framework for high-rise buildings, the planned context, laid out in documents such as Community Design Plans and the Comprehensive Zoning By-law, provides a reference for growth and change. Change, in the form of high-rise buildings, regardless of whether or not they are envisioned in approved plans, is often met with apprehension.

High-rise buildings, by their nature, stick up from the context and attract attention. As a result, there are a number of design concerns related to fit and compatibility, impact on the pedestrian environment and open spaces, the quality of materials, and the buildings’ operations that requires extra attention.

When poorly done, high-rise buildings can be an unwelcome addition to a neighbourhood. Poor design can overwhelm pedestrian spaces, invade privacy, deteriorate neighbourhood character, and contribute to a negative microclimate and environmental issues such as wind tunnel effects, shadows, noise, and air quality.

When properly done, most negative issues can be addressed early in the design process creating a significantly positive outcome for the community. High-rise buildings that are well designed and integrated into a neighbourhood can include a mix of land uses that support urban services and amenities, contribute to an area’s liveability, and shape and define public street and spaces at a human scale. They can be a distinctive community landmark feature, enhance the skyline, and contribute to the image of the city.

High-rises are often proposed in different contexts, each with their own challenges. For example:

  • High-rise housing located in existing neighbourhoods is usually on smaller sites set in an established pattern of development along the street and within the block. Issues of connection, transitions, shadows, compatibility, parking and servicing are often at the forefront. This type of infill creates opportunities to renew neighbourhoods, upgrade services, meet intensification targets, and achieve more sustainable communities that are safe, healthy and liveable.
  • High-rise housing in new and emerging areas is often on larger sites with incomplete or fragmented patterns of development. Issues of scale, phasing, accessibility to services, and sensitivity to the natural and social environment are prevalent. This type of development can set the tone for continued mixed-use nodal development that is more compact, pedestrian oriented and supports rapid transit.

While these guidelines present a number of broad approaches, each context must be analysed to determine the appropriate scale, height, important views, situational opportunities and building efficiencies. High-rise building proposals often require detailed analyses of the area microclimate, social context, historic and existing land use patterns, public transit, services, utilities, and the planned function for the area.