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  • Jodi Dubyoski

The Density Issue

Density is a hot topic these days--new developments, tiny houses, NIMBYs & YIMBYs--even the New York Times ran a feature story on single-family zoning this past week (click through if only to look at the cool maps!). Here are a few things I've been digging lately when it comes to talking about density.

First off, if you haven't heard the term "missing middle" housing, here's some in-depth info from the source of the now-ubiquitous missing middle diagram. Basically the term refers to all kinds of housing types between Single-Family Homes and apartment buildings (such as duplexes, triplexes, quads, and courtyard apartment buildings) that used to be popular but became illegal to build with the advent of Single-Family Zoning. Now that people are moving back to cities and housing is becoming scarce in many urban areas, these "missing" types of housing are extremely desirable due to their walkable locations and relative affordability.

ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units) are becoming popular all over the country and are a fantastic way to increase housing availability and choice while honoring the architectural character of a neighborhood. Because they’re small, it’s easy to design them well, like as a garage apartment, a stand-alone backyard cottage, or as an addition onto an existing home. This guide from AARP and Portland community builder Eli Spevak breaks down the ABC's of ADU's into an extremely digestible format. Two of my highlights:

1. Check out Page 7 for a house that was lifted off of its foundation to make room for a basement ADU (by communitecture ARCHITECTURE | PLANNING | DESIGN, another OG of Portland placemaking).

2. Page 8 explains what YOU can do to encourage ADUs where you live.

Why is this important? Well, increasing density in cities provides more housing options for people of different income levels close to transit and amenities. Missing middle housing is a great tool because it doesn't involve knocking down perfectly good historic homes to put up cheap apartment buildings. For a more in-depth dive, 1000 Friends of Oregon is a great example of a multifaceted approach to inclusive cities that includes housing as a tool. Here in the Southeast, Kronberg Wall Architecture in Atlanta has some great location-specific data, but residents of similar cities will recognize the trends. Click the link at the bottom of the blog post for their detailed slide deck with lots of great infographics (and snoop around their website for more great content, they produce a lot of it!).

A quick word on tiny houses. Tiny houses are cute, and they can mean clever, low-impact living. Two things to consider:

1. The true cost of a tiny house includes the land it sits on, as well as utility hookups and other permitting fees. These costs will vary by jurisdiction, but they're not insignificant, are often unaccounted for when tiny homes are advertised as cheap.

2. From a design standpoint, very small living spaces work well when their context is also beautiful and well-designed. Is the tiny home situated on a beautiful piece of property? Or in a cleverly designed community that shares amenities? Considering the context, along with the true cost, will go far to help ensure a successful tiny house project.

One more thing--while I'm partial to city living myself, thinking about density and designing our future places doesn't just apply to cities. In many suburban neighborhoods it's difficult or impossible to add an in-law apartment to your home, or to pick up a gallon of milk without getting in your car. Thoughtful infill can help make even less dense neighborhoods better places to live by providing flexibility for changing family sizes and things to walk to, like corner grocery stores.

More reading: Happy City by Charles Montgomery - a jargon-free deep dive into how urban design affects our everyday lives.

Let me know what you're thinking or reading--comment below!

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