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Canadian cities need more 'gentle density' to address housing crunch

Ground-oriented housing that's more dense than a detached house is the "missing middle" in the housing conversation.

Gentle density in Halifax.

Courtesy of Brent Toderian

Gentle density in Halifax.

If you could be a fly on the wall in city planning departments lately, chances are you'd overhear a conversation about “gentle density.” And the planners would look pretty stressed.

That’s because most cities are struggling with significant housing challenges, and recognize their existing planning rules and approaches aren’t going to solve them.  

These difficult and complicated challenges include building more complete and resilient communities, addressing politically explosive debates about neighbourhood change, and improving affordability. There’s also the challenge of preserving community “building blocks” like local schools and shopping as some neighbourhoods lose population, the debilitating cost of sprawl, and the clear connections between public health and building communities.

So what is gentle density, and what does it have to do with all that?

As I defined it back in 2007, gentle density is attached, ground-oriented housing that's more dense than a detached house, but with a similar scale and character. Think duplexes, semi-detached homes, rowhouses, or even stacked townhouses.

In short, it’s “gentle” because the actual impacts of adding such housing choices, if designed well, are minimal – although you wouldn't know that by the controversy that can be raised in some communities.

Gentle density in Vancouver.

Brent Toderian

Gentle density in Vancouver.

Many people don't mind sharing a common wall and are eager to cut their costs and carbon footprint, but still appreciate a direct relationship with the ground. That's why fellow urbanist Daniel Parolek in San Francisco calls this kind of density the "missing middle.” In most cities this middle is under-represented, if it’s there at all.

In some cases, this is because builders need to learn (or re-learn) this kind of building. In others, land economics and land assembly make it tough sledding.

In most cities though, deliberate zoning decisions have made this kind of housing illegal.

That's a problem, because from a planning and design perspective, there's nothing fundamentally incompatible about all sorts of gentle density co-habitating in a well-designed neighbourhood.

When we listen carefully, the opposition to such a mix usually isn’t about planning principles – it’s more often about politics fueled by financial self-interest (the perceived impact on property values) and "not in my backyard" sentiments.

If we want to get serious about addressing our big challenges, we need to seriously rethink how we discuss and address change in our communities. Ironically, gentle density could help strengthen and stabilize our neighbourhoods far better than trying to cast them in amber would.

Our cities and suburbs need more gentle density. Our stressed-out planning departments are struggling with how to do it well. Let’s give them our encouragement and ideas.

Brent Toderian is an international city planner and urbanist with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS. He is Vancouver’s former chief planner, and also the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter at @BrentToderian

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