A view of downtown Calgary from the north side of the Bow River
Kyler Nixon on Unsplash

May 7, 2021

Profs team up to examine how laws impact our built environment

Transdisciplinary research merges law, planning and architecture

Have you ever stopped to think about how laws impact the way a city gets built? For Faculty of Law professor Lisa Silver, LLM’01, and Dr. Fabian Neuhaus, PhD, in the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape (SAPL), the intersection of law and urban planning has led to an exciting joint research opportunity.

“The project is loosely based on the work of Alex Lehnerer, a European architect, who wrote the book Grand Urban Rules, in which he explores the varied, and often bizarre, urban regulations, mandates and codes that cities have in place for development,” explains Silver.

Spatial Dimensions of the Law examines 12 land-use rules and building codes in Calgary, with specific attention paid to their legal basis and practical outcomes for the built environment. The research team, which includes research assistants Benjamin Sasges from the Faculty of Law and Kiran Kaur from SAPL, is using a critical lens to analyze how rules shape the urban form and the city, both purposively and unintentionally.

One such law is the principle of the right to light, which is not a provincial law in Alberta, but does have a role in Calgary development.

Law professor Lisa Silver speaks about the right to light.

Project connects family history and research interests

For Silver, a second-generation Calgarian, the research connects her family history, her interests in criminal law, surveillance, and her previous work with the Calgary Police Commission.

“My mother was born in 1935, and was born and raised in Calgary,” says Silver. “She would tell me stories about going to football games when the stadium was at the armory. So we’ve got these artifacts of sunlight protection, and the strict bylaws that are in place to ensure that a public space has enough sunlight during certain times of day.”

In addition to exploring the history of the laws and how designers and city planners can work within, and even around, the rules, the project also explores aspects of equity and inclusion.

“Sunlight protection rules actually vary across the city, and it’s interesting to see what neighbourhoods follow the rules more closely, and if citizens have been able to have a say in sunlight protection in certain parts of the city or not.”

Lisa Silver speaks about normative laws, charter rights and city living.

Dr. Fabian Neuhaus, PhD

Fabian Neuhaus.

City design and laws entwined

Neuhaus specializes in urbanism and planning and has studied the urban morphology of cities around the world, including ones he’s lived in — Basel, London and Calgary. For him, the design of cities and the laws that guide them are entwined. The relationship between the disciplines is what Neuhaus calls “a two-way conversation” and through this research project they are uncovering the underlying mechanics that lead to what we see around us.

“The built environment is the result of a collective effort,” says Neuhaus. “We are examining conditions that act as the mechanisms behind the resulting shape. Understanding these conditions, in this case the law and the design, will help to nurture cultural practice to achieve the desired outcome.

“What emerges is an understanding of the practice of city building and tacit knowledge often described  as ‘building culture.’ It is something that is strongly rooted in the local context and therefore specific to, in this case, Calgary. It becomes something tangible, something we can collectively be proud of.”

Sasges and Kaur are presenting the team’s preliminary research and findings at the Constructed Environment conference in May.

This is a NEXTCalgary research project funded by the Richard Parker Initiative. 

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