Urban design basics

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Urban design basics [ PDF 3,202 KB ]

What is Urban Design?

The City of Ottawa’s Official Plan defines urban design as “the process of applying desired functional and aesthetic parameters to the design of the city and its parts.

More specifically, urban design is about creating public friendly environments such as, charming streetscapes, bustling markets, distinct town centres, safe neighbourhoods, beautiful parks, trails, and public squares.

Implementing good urban design is an ongoing and creative process that requires a common vision and cooperative efforts amongst many people and professions. Planners, developers, architects, landscape architects, engineers, artists, politicians, community groups, business owners, and residents all have a role and responsibility toward creating and maintaining highly functional and beautiful communities.

This photo of downtown Ottawa illustrates how buildings can combine to create distinct areas, and how streets, sidewalks, parks, pathways, and bridges connect and define the boundaries of each area.

Source: Canadian Aerial Photo Corporation

Communicating Development

Most development applications must be accompanied by drawings that clearly communicate details of the proposed addition to the community. Depending upon the complexity, location, and type of development, typical drawings may include:

1. Plan drawings are composed from an aerial view and are best used to communicate site layouts, landscape plans, and functional relationships.

Plan drawings

2. Cross-section drawings are like a slice across a specific section of a project. These types of drawings are very effective for showing proportions and elements within the streetscape.

Cross-section drawings

3. Elevation drawings are 2-dimentional and show the exterior details of a building or structure. Elevations are best used to show façade details, building height, and scale.

Elevation drawings

4. Perspective drawings are 3-dimentional and are best used to communicate surrounding context and to assess issues relating to mass and compatibility.

Perspective drawings

Development Review

For Official Plan, Zoning By-law Amendments, Plans of Subdivision and major Site Plan Control applications, community consultation is an integral part of the process. City staff, community organizations, and individual members of the public have several opportunities to provide comments and feedback relating to the details of these types of applications.

Community organizations can automatically receive notification of specific development applications or studies to be undertaken by registering with the City. To register you must fill out a two-page form that can be found on ottawa.ca by keyword searching ‘Public Notification’. If you’re not a member of a community organization and would like to review a development application or if you have general inquiries you must contact the planner on file whose contact information is located on the bottom of each public notification sign or advertisement.


Public notice


public consultation

Regardless of your specific interest in a development, it’s essential that your input is based on sound planning principles and knowledge of any studies, plans, or polices that relate to the subject property and surrounding neighbourhood. Once aware of the broad directions for your community it will be easier to recognize appropriate design considerations relating to the fit, function, and form of each proposed development.

Visit ottawa.ca for more detailed information relating to development review and approval processes.

Get Involved

  1. Send us your Thoughts
    The City is always looking for new and innovative ways to overcome barriers and advance the themes introduced in this guide. If you or your organization has ideas, questions, or suggestions please e-mail them to urbandesign@ottawa.ca
  2. Community Associations/ Groups
    Whether you’re interested in public art, protecting the environment, or preserving heritage, one of the most effective ways to get involved is by volunteering your time and talents to an organized community group.
  3. Public Consultations
    Check ottawa.ca for a list of upcoming public consultations and plan to attend meetings that interest you.
  4. Talk to your Councillor
    Attend an upcoming ward meeting and get to know the issues and opportunities for improving design in your community
  5. Pre-consultation
    If you are planning a development you should speak with a city planner first. They can help guide you through the process, provide information on what you will need to submit to the City, and answer any questions that you may have relating to development.

Related Information

The following information is key to understanding and implementing good urban design throughout Ottawa. These, and many more related topics can be explored in detail by performing keyword searches.


  • Official Plan Volume 1 Section 2.5.1 Compatibility and Community Design
  • Official Plan Volume 2A Secondary Plans
  • Comprehensive Zoning By-law (in progress)
  • Community Design Plans (14 completed to date)
  • Street Design Policy for Special Streets (in progress)
  • Right-of-Way Lighting Policy (in progress)


  • Downtown Ottawa Urban Design Strategy
  • Urban Design Guidelines (Traditional Mainstreets, Arterial Mainstreets, Large Format Retail, Gas Stations, Drive-Through Facilities, Low-Medium Density Infill Housing, Greenfield Neighbourhoods)
  • Land Use and Design Guidelines for Transit Oriented Development
  • Outdoor Patio Design Guidelines
  • Regional Road Corridor Design Guidelines
  • Guidelines for Transit Oriented Development
  • Environmental Noise Control Guidelines
  • Stormwater Management Strategy


  • Green Partnership Program
  • Public Art Program

Promotion and Education

  • Annex 3 of the Official Plan: Design Framework
  • Urban Design Awards Program
  • Ottawa Architectural Conservation Awards
  • Accessibility by Design Awards
  • Urban Design: A Reference Guide to Creating Great Places and Great Spaces
  • Planning Primer: A public information session relating to planning issues and processes (ongoing registration)