Stealth density vs high rise density

Living in walkable, urban neighbourhoods is becoming trendy.  And communities are defined as “walkable” when virtually everything you could need from groceries to clothes to plumbing supplies can be acquired on foot.

But to support those businesses, you need a dependable large supply of consumers.  Walkable places therefore tend to have higher housing density than less-walkable nodes.

Most cities and many urban residents believe that the only way to increase density in an area is to add high rise buildings.  Although perhaps a quick and efficient way to add people, high rises and even mid-rise structures often stand in stark contrast in an existing community of ground-oriented dwellings.

City planning departments and civic governments could do more to promote what I call stealth density.  That is, density that you can’t really see from the street–it flies under the radar, so to speak.   In Vancouver some older neighbourhoods evolved their stealth density quite by accident.  Big 1910 era houses in the 1970s and 1980s were converted into multi-suite houses with the garage often becoming a “coach house.”  Having a number of small units allowed more households to move in as well as created a variety of housing price-points to suit an economically diverse community.   Even as some gentrification has come, many of these homes retain multiple suites as the owners need “mortgage helpers” to cover Vancouver’s $million+ home prices.  San Francisco appears to have similar neighbourhoods of multi-household homes.

The result are communities with a high density of people supporting local businesses.  Ground-oriented neighbourhoods can have walkscores near 100 (my home is a 98).

To their credit, the city of Vancouver planning department is now encouraging multi-suite properties, particularly the installation of “Laneway housing” in some districts.  And in Seattle “Backyard Cottages” are being tried in some districts.

But, there is a lack of awareness about how much density this can actually bring.  If each city lot housed 2-3 households instead of one, you wouldn’t need to build as many high rises to achieve similar goals.  And there is something very community-oriented about having everyone having a front door near the ground (even if the suite stretches up 2-3 storeys).

Maybe a solution for the future in many communities lies in looking at spontaneous stealth density in the recent past.

6 comments

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  3. Global Urbanist says:

    Athens vs. Hong Kong

    The end result of stealth density can be seen in the inner-city suburbs of Athens that have the highest population density in Europe (Kallithea, Ampelokipoi). They are safe and vibrant communities who view wealth as having a single detached home with a yard. The subdivision of property makes it almost impossible to consolidate lots for larger buildings beyond the 5 – 10 story average. Due to the unstable financial history of Greece, intensification took in small increments with simple residential projects (adding floors, building in the yard).

    Hong Kong’s financial strength and property rights system that allowed to tear down the old for the new produced very ambitious residential skyscrapers.

    If you are ambitious and looking for the most opportunity, then Hong Kong’s dynamic neighbourhoods seem appropriate. If your interests diversify beyond ambition, then the Athens neighourhoods may be more appealing. Both forms of intensification work, but I agree that North American zoning culture is does not welcome intensifying neighbourhoods. For some reason they would rather see them abandoned (i.e. Detroit).

  4. That walkscore calculator is borked. It is missing data. I live downtown and it’s giving me a 91, because it is missing transit stops, major grocery stores, bars, parks, etc. Not that 91 is bad, but it does seem off.

  5. Wendy Waters says:

    Hi Andrea,

    Walkscore is based on google maps, so sometimes google isn’t up to date. When Walkscore first came out, my house was a 78 because of all the missing data points. But over time, these have filled in. Although sometimes google and walkscore mis-interpret what a business is (call some place a pub when it’s a coffee bar, etc.), it’s getting pretty close.

    Although I’m sure a few businesses are missing, especially newer ones, it wouldn’t surprise me if Coal Harbour doesn’t score much above a 91. It’s great on parks, seawall, ocean access, etc. but fewer business amenities (retail, restaurants, etc.) than say Robson St., Pacific Blvd (Yaletown), or Commercial Drive.

  6. Mark says:

    You can argue that fractured multi-generational families and economic homogenization are two of the causes of any number of societal ills in the U.S. This seems to be a great way to add diversity to neighborhoods and keep families together, but in a more American style with individual living space still a priority.

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