Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines


The City of Toronto has prepared a second draft of the Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines (August 2016). The Guidelines are intended to help implement the policies in the Official Plan by achieving the appropriate design of low-rise, primarily residential buildings for a range of building types. These types include townhouses, stacked townhouses, stacked and back-to-back townhouses, low-rise apartments and low-rise hybrid buildings.

The Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines address infill townhouse developments as well as mid to larger sites and the more complex and intense types of low-rise, multi-unit development in terms of site context, site organization, building massing, detailed design and private and public realm. The guidelines build upon and once approved by City Council, are intended to replace the Infill Townhouse Guidelines (2003).


Low-rise, multi-unit residential buildings take many forms:

Townhouses are generally 2 to 4 storey structures with ‘through’ units that share a sidewall with a neighbouring unit and have at least three housing bays. They typically have a front and a back.

Stacked Townhouses are also ‘through’ units which share a sidewall and have units stacked vertically (typically two or three). Like the townhouse type they have a front and a back.

Back to Back Townhouses share a rear wall as well as a sidewall and the building block has two fronts. Typically, each unit has its own entrance to grade.

Stacked and Back-to-Back Townhouses share a rear wall as well as a sidewall and have units stacked vertically. This can include three units located on top of each other, two-level units stacked on top of one-level units, or two-level units stacked on top of two-level units. Typically, each unit has its own entrance to grade.

Low-rise Apartment Buildings are 4 storeys and less, units share interior corridors, vertical circulation and entrances, and have multiple units stacked vertically. Units may be organized on one or both sides of a shared corridor.

Low-rise Hybrid Buildings combine lower units with direct access to grade as well as upper units that gain access from a shared corridor, vertical circulation and entrance.

(See Section 2 – Building Types in the "Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines” for more detail on the various types of low-rise, multi-unit residential buildings)

The types of residential units described above are typically constructed in rows or blocks. The Official Plan allows these residential forms on lands designated as Mixed Use, Regeneration and Apartment Neighbourhoods. They may also fit under the four-storey height limit for residential development in designated Neighbourhood areas but policies regarding neighbourhood fit may impose restrictions. It is particularly important that the more intensive forms of low-rise, multi-unit residential development fit harmoniously within the existing neighbourhood context.


Townhouses have been a common and successful form of residential development in Toronto since the mid-1800’s. The City's traditional narrow lots accommodated buildings with windows on the front and rear for cross ventilation; front yards, rear yards and often rear lanes with parking. In the post-war period, townhouses continued to be a popular form of residential development, taking shape as grade-related housing in new lot and block configurations, near higher density apartments, schools and shopping centres.

In response to a growing volume of townhouse development applications, City Council adopted “Design Guidelines for Infill Townhouses” in 2003, and the Development Infrastructure Policy & Standards (DIPS) in 2005. Both the Infill Townhouse Guidelines and DIPS responded to, among other things, the decline in the quality of streetscapes and inadequate area for landscaping and street trees. This condition was created by narrow frontage units with front yard parking and integral garages, minimal front yard setbacks and narrow street widths. DIPS placed limits on the use of private residential streets and established clear directions for the layout and design of new public residential streets.

The demand for low-rise, grade-related housing has remained strong. It continues to be a desirable housing choice for many, including families with children. Land and construction prices have risen and the simple townhouse form has been supplemented by a wide variety of denser and more complex low-rise building types.

As the Infill Townhouse Design Guidelines (2003) do not address the full range of urban design issues and concerns encountered with current development applications, updating and enhancing these guidelines is warranted. The intention is to provide greater clarity and a more complete urban design and typological framework to evaluate townhouse and low-rise apartment developments city-wide.

At the same time, as part of the City of Toronto’s Official Plan and Municipal Comprehensive Review, "Urban Design Matters," there is direction to develop new low-rise built form urban design policies. It is anticipated that the further refinement and consultation on the Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines will inform the development of these new policies and vice versa.

Purpose of Guidelines

The purpose of the Guidelines is to illustrate how the public realm and built form policy objectives of the Official Plan can be addressed by:

i.     identifying strategies to enhance the quality of the public realm and overall living environment through improved spatial relationships, design and materials

ii.    establishing a balance between the protection of stable residential neighbourhoods and heritage features while allowing for appropriate infill development and intensification

iii.   providing best practices and guidance to citizens and stakeholders, particularly land developers, planners and design professionals and City staff in the creation and evaluation of development proposals 

How and Where the Guidelines Apply

The City of Toronto Official Plan seeks to direct and manage growth city-wide. While the Official Plan directs major and sustained incremental growth to the City’s Centres, Avenues, Employment Districts and the Downtown, much of the City’s land area is taken up by neighbourhoods where modest physical change is intended to take place. Low-rise, multi-unit buildings will often be located adjacent to and sometimes within stable residential areas and as such, it is important to ensure that new development will enhance and fit within the local area context.

The “Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines” apply to the design, review, and approval of new low-rise, multi-unit building developments that are 4 storeys or less. The guidelines will normally be applied through the evaluation of development proposals and design alternatives in Official Plan Amendments, Zoning By-law Amendments, Plans of Subdivision, and Site Plan Control applications. The guidelines are intended to be read together with, and help implement the relevant Official Plan policies, applicable Zoning By-laws, Secondary Plans, Heritage Conservation District Plans, the Toronto Green Standard, the Toronto Development Guide, as well as any other applicable regulations, policies and guidelines.

The Guidelines are intended to provide a degree of certainty and clarity of common interpretation. Each provision in the guideline should be weighed across the board with the other guidelines and "work together" to determine whether a development application has successfully met the overall intent of City policy. However, a guideline may not be appropriate in a particular instance or an alternative approach may result in a better solution. In such cases, it is the responsibility of the designer/developer/builder to demonstrate to the City where such an exception is appropriate. It is then at the discretion of the City to support or not support the justification. In cases where the City requires further review of applications, the City’s Design Review Panel may assist in the process.

Guiding Principles

The Guidelines do not determine where low-rise, multi-unit buildings are permitted. Rather, they assist with the implementation of the City's Official Plan policies to help ensure that low-rise, multi-unit buildings are located and organized to fit with its existing context and minimize their local impacts. The Guidelines provide specific and often measurable directions related to the following guiding principles:

  1. Enhance the quality of the public realm and promote harmonious fit and compatibility with the existing and planned context through appropriate scale, placement, and setbacks of buildings.
  2. Improve connectivity to streets, parks and open spaces, community services and amenities.
  3. Reinforce the structure and image of the City and respond appropriately to prominent sites and important views.
  4. Integrate and enhance natural and man-made features such as trees, topography and open spaces and conserve heritage properties.
  5. Create a safe, comfortable, accessible, vibrant, and attractive public realm and pedestrian environment.
  6. Promote architectural, landscape and urban design excellence, sustainability, innovation, longevity, and creative expression with visionary design, high-quality material and leading edge construction methods.
  7. Create comfortable living conditions by providing access to sunlight, privacy, natural ventilation and open space.
  8. Minimize the impact of service areas and elements on the public realm.


At its November 16, 2015 Planning and Growth Management Committee adopted with amendments the "Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guidelines Project".

Item 2 of the Committee's decision directed the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning to use the draft Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guideline as the basis for further consultation.

The revised Guidelines are intended to address the feedback received during the consultation process, where applicable and appropriate.

Prior to presenting a finalized version of the Guidelines for Council consideration and adoption, City Staff will undertake additional consultation and refine the Guidelines further. During this period, the Infill Townhouse Guidelines (2003) will remain in effect. City Staff will also refer to the Draft Townhouse and Low-rise Apartment Guidelines in the review of new Development Applications and encourage applicants in the development of their projects to use them.

City staff and stakeholders are requested to review the Guidelines and provide feedback by September 30, 2016. Please provide Diana Birchall Program Manager, Urban Design, East City Planning with any comments or questions. 416-396-7027.

Stakeholder Consultations - A Collaborative and Consultative Approach

A main objective of the Guidelines is to provide certainty and some flexibility, in creating building designs and development layouts that reflect the goals and policies of the Official Plan. This includes making a positive contribution to the quality of life and fitting appropriately within the context of the surrounding community. The complexity and importance of this objective demands a high degree of internal and external consultation to build a set of guidelines that best represents the diversity of interests and expectations.

Four consultation meetings with City Planning staff (one in each district) and one cross-divisional staff meeting were organized to gather feedback and recommendations on townhouse and apartment building development. The meetings were well attended and the feedback provided has contributed to the creation of the guidelines.

In addition to ongoing collaboration with internal stakeholders, the current draft Guidelines reflect the results of a project mandate for an open and consultative process. Table 1 summarizes the consultation, public outreach and stakeholder engagement carried out to-date.

Consultation and Outreach Action


Public Outreach Online

Current Draft Guidelines posted online for review

Project highlights and staff contact information

Toronto Society of Architects (TSA)

Draft Townhouse and Low-Rise Apartment Guidelines Forum and Panel discussion: April 14, 2015
Discussion comments compiled from staff notes

Online Survey: direct outreach to townhouse (with an emphasis on residents, living in the stacked and back-to-back building type)

September 11-October 5, 2015

Approximately 50 respondents

Building industry and Land Development Association (BILD) Staff Presentation I: June 24, 2015

BILD comments received by letter July 31, 2015
Staff Presentation II: September 29, 2015. Subsequent meetings to address specific concerns were held.  

Federation of North Toronto Residents Associations (FoNTRA)

Draft Guidelines circulated for review
FoNTRA comments received by letter August 5, 2015

Design Review Panel (DRP)

Staff Presentation I: July 7, 2015
Staff Presentation II: October 1, 2015
DRP comments received verbally and by meeting minutes

City Divisional Workshop  Staff presentation to representatives from relevant City Divisions, followed by a workshop: January 21, 2016
Toronto Planning Review Panel (TPRP) Staff, BILD and FoNTRA presentations to the TPRP, followed by a workshop on the topic: January 23, 2016
TPRP meeting minutes and learning materials available at: