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Achieving environmental objectives

Need for policy

The public increasingly looks to municipalities to take action to protect the natural environment. Recent amendments to the MGA include “to foster the well-being of the environment” as a purpose of a municipality under section 3 of the MGA. Most municipalities include broad statements of intent in the municipal development plan which can then be followed up with specific strategies. An overall assessment of significant environmental resources and features will provide a useful framework for specific actions and priorities. A brief discussion of common areas of concern is presented below.

Top of bank

Many municipalities contain rivers or other features that have steep slopes within their boundaries. Engineering studies can determine the likelihood of slope failure and the recommended distances for development setbacks from these slopes. Often however these slopes also provide important vistas which the community has come to recognize as valuable to the public at large. Some municipalities have opted to require development in these areas to be fronted by a public road to ensure the vista can be accessed by the general public. Public parks can also be incorporated into these areas where there are sufficient reserves.

Riparian areas

The term riparian area generally refers to the transition zone between a body of water and uplands. Riparian areas provide an important function in reducing soil erosion and the impact of floods and in maintaining water quality and for the impact they have on fauna and aquatic ecosystems. A subsequent section discusses development in relation to flood plains. Flood plain protection however does not specifically address the need to protect riparian areas. Determining the width of a riparian area that requires protection depends on a number of factors and is best supported by analysis by a qualified professional. Alberta Environment and Parks has produced a guide book called Stepping Back from the Water – A Beneficial Guide for New Development Near Water Bodies in Alberta’s Settled Region. For more information visit the Riparian Area Management Section of AUMA’s Water Management Webpages.

(Graphic Source: Government of Alberta, “Stepping Back from the Water” pg. 24)

(Graphic Source: Government of Alberta, “Stepping Back from the Water”, pg. 21)


Wetlands have been identified as playing a key role in flood mitigation and the maintenance of water quality. An assessment of wetlands within the municipality should establish the role that these play and the priority for conservation. Wetlands are particularly important for their cross boundary impact and should be a part of discussion with adjacent municipalities to ensure overall effective protection.

For more information visit the Wetlands Section of AUMA’s Water Management Webpages.

Habitat protection

Some areas are particularly important for the protection of specific flora and fauna. These may be unique sites due to soil or microclimatic factors or part of linear systems that are integral to the movement of animals.  

Climate change mitigation and adaptation

Alberta’s climate is changing rapidly.  Although all levels of government have important roles to play to advance solutions, action at the municipal level is particularly important because that is where many of the impacts of climate change will be felt most directly and where there are opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Land use is an important part of municipal efforts to reduce community greenhouse gas emissions and facilitate local adaptation to climate change


Climate change mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emission of greenhouse gases. Developing complete communities that combine best practices in density, diversity of land uses, and appropriate site design can mitigate climate change by reducing dependency on automobiles, increasing energy efficiency, and encouraging the development of alternative energy sources.

For example, energy use in new developments can be optimized through strategic site planning:

  • The street pattern would allow most buildings to be oriented for optimal solar access (within 25 degrees of south).
  • The natural terrain can provide wind shelter and allow for closer spacing of taller buildings while maintaining solar access. The dimensions of the urban canyon, which relates the building heights and road width, determines the availability of direct sunlight and air flow. Some commercial and industrial buildings that have a cooling dominant load or non-air-conditioned spaces, such as parkades, could be located in shaded areas.
  • The location of vegetation can reduce wind and heat island impacts.
  • Municipal regulations could determine building form, lot dimensions, setbacks, heights, etc., that affect solar access and landscaping.

To learn more about opportunities to reduce emissions through land use planning see the Model Standard of Practice for Climate Change Planning developed by the Canadian Institute of Planners and  Getting to Carbon Neutral: A Guide for Canadian Municipalities  developed by the University of Toronto’s Sustainable Infrastructure Group.


Climate change adaptation involves taking practical actions to manage risks from climate impacts, protect communities, and strengthen the resilience of the economy.

Generally speaking, planning tools can be used to reduce climate risks in four ways:

  • limiting development in hazard-prone areas
  • ensuring that the built environment can withstand a range of environmental stresses
  • helping to preserve natural environments such as wetlands that protect communities against hazards
  • educating stakeholders and decision makers about risks and opportunities and fostering dialogue about adaptation

To learn more about adapting to climate change through land use planning see Natural Resources Canada’s Land use planning tools for local adaptation to climate change.

AUMA and climate change

AUMA recognizes that climate change is among the most challenging issues of our time and that municipalities are on the front lines of mitigation and adaptation efforts. AUMA is home to the Municipal Climate Change Action Centre (MCCAC), a partnership with the Government of Alberta and Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties.  The MCCAC provides funding, technical assistance, and education to support Alberta municipalities in addressing climate change. 

The MCCAC currently has three main programs

  • The Taking Action to Manage Energy (TAME+) program provides tools and funding to help municipalities understand how energy is used in their buildings, identify key savings opportunities, and implement retrofit projects.
  • The Alberta Municipal Solar Program (AMSP) provides financial rebates to Alberta municipalities who install solar photovoltaics (PV) on municipal facilities or land and complete public engagement for the project.
  • The Climate Resilience Express programs provide Alberta municipalities with climate resilience action planning support and training.

Tools for achieving environmental objectives

Environmental reserves

Municipalities often look to the provisions of the MGA requiring developers to provide at no cost to the municipality at the time of subdivision land as environmental reserve and up to 10 percent of the remainder for parks, schools and recreation purposes.

The term “environmental reserve” in the MGA refers to land that consists of:

  • a swamp, gully, ravine, coulee or natural drainage course,
  • land that is subject to flooding or is, in the opinion of the subdivision authority, unstable, or,
  • a strip of land not less than six meters in width abutting the bed and shore of lake, river or steam or other body of water for the purposes of preventing pollution or providing public access to the bed and shore.

The first two categories in the definition are perhaps better described as hazard lands with the intention of preventing development where it is not safe. The third category is limited to land adjacent water bodies. Together these definitions do not extend to the broad view of environmentally sensitive lands that many people have. Recent amendments to the MGA (section 664 1.1) reaffirm this narrower interpretation by that environmental reserves can only be taken for one or more of the following purposes:

  • To preserve the natural features of the land described above
  • To prevent pollution of the land or bed and shore of an adjacent body of water
  • To ensure public access to the bed and shore of an adjacent body of water
  • To prevent the development of land where there is significant risk of personal injury or property damage

As discussed previously, a new tool has been created titled conservation reserve. A municipality may require a developer to provide land as a conservation reserve if it cannot be taken as environmental reserve and the municipality wishes to preserve the natural features of the land. The municipality however must compensate the developer for the land at market value.

Subdivision design

Standards for the design of new subdivision can play an important role in addressing environmental concerns. Storm water management measures that allow for controlled run off and filtering of storm water will improve overall water quality. Reduction of impervious surfaces will reduce peak flooding and restore groundwater levels. Allocation of reserves and the creation of larger multi-family development sites will allow significant features to be retained through a combination of public and private measures. Some measures can be incorporated into the servicing agreement which a developer can be required to sign as a condition of subdivision or development permit approval. Negotiations with developers at the time of approval can lead to other protection measures.

Visit the Stormwater Section of AUMA’s Water Management Webpages for more information on improving stormwater management through approaches such as low impact development.

Developer incentives

Density bonuses have been outlined as a tool to assist in achieving development objectives above. This tool can also be an effective means of achieving public and private protection of important environmental resources. Transfer of development credits is a means of allowing higher densities in one location in exchange for limited development in another area. This tool can be relatively straight forward where the land is owned by the same company. However, as noted previously, situations that involve multiple owners and longer periods over which development may occur requires a more sophisticated approach.

Conservation tools

Building on the strategic direction provided by the Land-use Framework, the Alberta Land Stewardship Act (ALSA) enables the development and implementation of the following conservation and stewardship tools, providing acceptable options for decision-makers: conservation easements, conservation directives, conservation off-sets and transfer of development credits.

The following information on the tools is provided by Alberta Environment and Parks.

Conservation easements 

A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a qualified organization to protect, conserve, or enhance environmental, natural scenic or aesthetic value. The landowner is the easement donor, and a qualified organization can be the Government of Alberta, provincial government agency, local government body or registered organization that meets certain criteria.

Conservation easements help to preserve agriculture, ecological and cultural values, and the beauty of Alberta. Each easement can be tailored to the landowner’s needs through discussion between the landholder and the qualified organization, as long as the conservation is reached.                        

The private landowner still owns the land, but both parties are responsible for carrying out the terms and conditions of the easement. An easement is registered on the donor’s land title, protects land from certain types of development and applies to all future owners of the land. Under ALSA there is a Conservation Easement Registration Regulation. An easement may be registered on Métis Settlement land subject to Métis Settlements General Council Policy.

The Land Stewardship's Centre online Conservation Easement Registry for Alberta is intended to support and assist land trusts, government agencies and private landowners in planning, delivering and reporting on the status of conservation easement projects in Alberta. Currently, searches can be performed at either the quarter section or section scale by entering the specific legal land description to determine if there is a registered conservation easement on the specific quarter section.

A conservation easement does not stop development for oil and gas. The Surface Rights Act and all other planning and regulatory processes apply on lands with conservation easements. A conservation easement can be used to support a conservation offset or a transfer of development credit program. A conservation easement may also qualify for the Canada-wide Ecological Gifts Program, as long as it meets the established environmental criteria. This provides the landowner with a tax benefit.  

Conservation easements have been legislatively enabled in Alberta since 1996 under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act and since that time have been restricted to the purposes of supporting conservation of biological diversity and/or natural scenic values. In 2009, with the proclamation of ALSA, the Government of Alberta took the step of expanding Alberta’s conservation easement provisions to include agricultural lands.

In 2011, the Environmental Law Centre and the Miistakis Institute, undertook an applied research project to better understand the legal and policy context, experience, challenges and opportunities as well as the legal structure surrounding application of Conservation Easements for Agriculture in Alberta.

To find answers to questions regarding conservation easements, visit Conservation Easements in Alberta.

Conservation directives

 A conservation directive is a new tool enabled under ALSA that allows Albertans to retain ownership of their land, and the Government of Alberta to ensure a specific area be protected. It can only be expressed in a regional plan to explicitly identify lands for the purpose of protection, conservation or enhancement of environmental, natural scenic or aesthetic values. It describes the precise nature of the directive and its intended purpose with respect to protection, conservation or enhancement.

A conservation directive cannot be used for commercial development such as electrical power transmission lines. A landowner who has a conservation directive on their land still owns the land, and can continue to do a number of land-use activities within the purpose of the directive. A landowner is entitled to compensation if there is a decrease in the market value of their land resulting from a conservation directive. The Land Compensation Board resolves disputes at the landowner's discretion. No conservation directives have been incorporated into any regional plans to date.  

Conservation offsets

A conservation offset is a tool that enables industry to offset adverse effects of their activities and development by supporting conservation efforts on other lands.

ALSA indicates, in general terms, where an offset many be applied and identifies provisions for accountability, including monitoring and compliance. ALSA also provides for setting out the rules for trading and defining an offset through regulations.  

Currently there is work underway on development of the conservation offset tool. The goal of this work is to explore offset design options which would allow the government and Albertans to understand and establish an offset market in the future. This means taking a look at market design options including:

  • offset requirements and eligibility rules;
  • pricing and bidding rules for selling and buying offsets; and
  • rules for combining buyers and sellers.

Refer to the Experimental Economic Evaluation of Off-set Design Options for Alberta: A Summary of Results and Policy Recommendations or the full report Experimental Economic Evaluation of Off-set Design Options for Alberta: Research Report for additional information. 

Transfer of development credits

Transfer of development credits (TDCs) is an enabling tool that helps address urban growth pressures on the land by offering an incentive to redirect development away from specific landscapes to protect open spaces. 

TDCs can be used by municipalities to move development away from areas they want to conserve for agricultural or environmental purposes. This allows development to happen at the same time as conservation, and allows the owners of developed and undeveloped land to share in the financial benefits of development. Relocating urban or industrial development could help protect prime agricultural land or wildlife habitat, while still allowing growth.  TDCs can also be used to preserve historic resources or aesthetic aspects of a municipality as discussed in the section on achieving cultural or aesthetic objectives.

A TDC program can be used to designate an area of land as a conservation area with one or more of the following purposes:

  • the protection, conservation and enhancement of the environment;
  • the protection, conservation and enhancement of natural scenic or aesthetic values;
  • the protection, conservation and enhancement of agricultural land or land for agricultural purposes;
  • providing for all or any of the following uses of the land that are consistent with the following purposes: recreational use, open space use, environmental education use, or use for research and scientific studies of natural ecosystems; and
  • designation as a Provincial Historic Resource or a Municipal Historic Resource under the Historical Resources Act.

There are certain ways a TDC program can be established:

  • through a regional plan;
  • by a local authority if the TDC program is first approved by the government; or
  • by two or more cooperating local authorities if first approved by the government. 

Some Alberta municipalities are already exploring options in developing TDC programs. More information is available in A Practical Guide to Transfer of Development Credits in Alberta by the Miistakis Institute.

Efficient use of land

One of the Land-use Framework’s seven broad strategies is to “promote efficient use of land to reduce the footprint of human activities on Alberta’s landscape." This strategy was included in the Land-use Framework in response to strong calls by the public and stakeholders to build on past and existing efforts to promote the efficient use of public and private land and reduce the footprint of human activities on Alberta’s landscape.

To help promote the efficient use of land, the Government of Alberta has completed a review of tools and best practices by municipalities in Alberta and other jurisdictions. The results of this review have been complied into the Efficient Use of Land Tools Compendium to serve as a resource for land-use planners, land users and decision-makers involved in land management planning and decision-making on public and private land.