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.