February 02, 2015

5 Ways to Add Density without Building High-Rises

by: Taz Loomans


Portland and many other cities around the country are facing the problem of adding more housing and infrastructure as more and more people move into the city. In short, they are being forced to densify, to fit more people into a limited amount of space. Portland has an urban growth boundary, so density is a specially pressing problem in the face of a projected population boom of 725,000 additional people in 20 years. The threat of people moving in with nowhere to house them has led to large swaths of the historic fabric of urban neighborhoods to be destroyed and replaced with modern midrises and high-rises that are often out of many people’s price range. It’s led to people being displaced from their neighborhoods either to make room for new buildings or just simply by being priced out as densification has brought gentrification along with it. Cities have done a poor job in adding density in a gentler, kinder way that has fewer consequences to their existing character and existing populations, which are the reasons why people are moving there in the first place. A great example of this is Vancouver, BC, which has increasingly become a sea of anonymous glass and steel high-rises in lieu of the quaint, diverse and beautiful city it was known to be. Another example is how high-rise development is threatening to destroy the walkable and historic downtown arts district of Roosevelt Row in Phoenix, AZ.

The thing is, high-rises aren’t the first thing cities should look to if they want to densify. There are a lot of options that can add to, not take away, from its organic vibrancy and sense of community. Counterintuitively, densification can be isolating rather than connecting. You’d think that adding more people to a smaller place would automatically mean more social cohesion. But high-rises have the exact opposite effect. Piling people into tall buildings separates them from the street and from each other, creating silos of isolated people looking at other people from a distance. It doesn’t have to be that way. Cities don’s have to be isolating. There are ways to add density and at the same time build community. Here are 5 ways to do just that:

1. Make Single-Family Houses into Community Houses

There are lots of gorgeous mansions and large single-family homes lining the streets of Portland and other cities. One way to add density is to make these single-family houses into community houses that are home to several people/families instead of just one family. This is not uncommon here in Portland. Many who own a house rent it out to several people to help pay their mortgage, or one main renter will then sub-lease a house to other tenants to help pay the rent.

The benefits of this living arrangement are many. First, it preserves a city’s older fabric by saving large old homes instead of tearing them down. Second, it’s a great way to form community in an age where more people are single than ever before. Third, it decreases the carbon footprint of a large home as the amenities in it are shared by many, not just by one family. For example, one kitchen ends up serving the needs of many people. In Portland, you are only allowed to have 6 unrelated people living in one single-family house. But this code needs to be updated because there are large homes in Portland, that if well redesigned, could house many more people comfortably.

Single-family homes can easily be retrofitted to accommodate more people. In a multi-story house it helps to have a toilet room on each floor and it’s even better if there is a shower on each floor too. Some Victorian homes come with two kitchens, and these homes are great candidates to become community homes. Sometimes adding a closet to a den or a library room will make it into an official bedroom whereby you can house another person or couple in the house. Making sure you have enough egress windows and doors in a single-family house is also very important when turning it into a community house.

2. Accessory Dwelling Units

An Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) is a second house in the yard of a single-family house. Because the main house probably takes up a lot of room on the lot, the second house is usually smaller and is a great opportunity for a tiny house. Single-family homes often sit on large lots that are taken up with nothing but grass. A better use of large or medium-sized single-family lots is to put more housing on them. By adding ADUs to them, you can double the density of a city without having to tear down any existing homes and at the same time keep the urban fabric at a human scale. Plus, you create community by putting two different households in a closer setting where communication and sharing is encouraged. One of the biggest benefits of ADUs is that it allows traditionally high-end neighborhoods to be accessible to lower-income groups of people. For example, perhaps a wealthy couple in their mid-50s owns a large home in the posh Irvington neighborhood in northeast Portland. But if that home had an ADU, then a young couple who is just starting out could also benefit from the beauty and amenities of this fantastic neighborhood at a much lower premium than having to own or rent a huge house in that fancy neighborhood. ADUs can be rented at reasonable rates because of their size giving a way for a wider range of people to enjoy an established neighborhood. Plus, ADUs are a great way for owners of single-family homes to make passive income from their property.

3. Duplex, Three-plex, or Fourplex Apartments

Instead of jumping from single-family homes to building high-rises or even mid-rises, there are a lot of steps in between for adding density. Duplex, three-plex and fourplex developments are often overlooked as great solutions for density that also maintain the livability of a city. Again, building a duplex instead of a single-family house instantly doubles the density. Plus, these developments keep the feel, scale and benefits of a single-family house while being multi-family. For example, you have access to a yard for gardening or just hanging out on summer days. And more often than not, duplexes, threeplexes and fourplexes have front doors that lead right out to the street level, unlike in high-rise or midrise developemnts where you have to take the stairs or elevator down to the street, which ends up killing street life and squelching a sense of community.

4. Tiny House Communities

A new trend that is just emerging in Portland is the idea of building a community of tiny houses on a single large lot. So instead of doing what has traditionally been done – building one large single-family house per lot, this allows several households on one lot. This is a great, community-scaled and human-scaled way to add density. The name of the game is shared amenities. You can build one building that can serve as a shared amenity for the whole community, not unlike in cohousing. The one building can have showers, a kitchen, a media room, laundry, bike storage and other storage that are shared among the tiny homes. This frees up the tiny homes to be tiny. Essentially, each tiny home can have as little as a bed and toilet, though some tiny households may opt to have more. This is a very exciting and potentially excellent solution to Portland’s density problems.

5. Shared Urban Amenities

Recently I heard a story from a colleague who travelled to Morocco. She told me that Morocco has shared amenities built into their urban fabric in addition to things like laundromats, which we in the west are used to. She encountered bakeries that baked bread for people who did not have ovens in their homes. People would bring their kneaded and prepared dough to their local bakery to be baked. And the bakery soon became a neighborhood hub where people ran into each other and shared stories and updates. She also said that the communal baths in Morocco were a well-used shared amenity. People who may not have showers or bath tubs in their homes could use the communal baths, which were also a hot spot for the community to get together and talk. Providing shared amenities like this on an urban scale not only helps build community and cohesion among people, but it allows individual homes to be smaller, which allows greater density. With shared urban amenities, not every home needs to have its own laundry machines, its own oven, or even its own shower facility. Not having these facilities in-house may be a big leap for many, but for those who are willing to sacrifice them for more affordable housing, then it’s a nice option.



Photo Credit: Photo by the author.

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9 Responses

  1. adventure! says:

    Good ideas! When I moved to Portland fourteen years ago, I was amazed at the dearth of multi-family housing here in Portland. I came from New England where even the small factory towns have plenty of multi-family houses (and I should know, since I grew up in one!) I know that there was more multi-family houses here in the past, but a lot of them were located in so-called “blighted” districts that saw the wrecking ball in the name of “urban renewal”. (See South Portland and parts of Albina).

  2. Beatrice Moore says:

    All these are great ideas; however In all the articles and responses I have seen on FB about the Roosevelt Row issue, I have seen nothing that addresses the underlying, root problems: the existing zoning (and over entitlement in Phoenix of zoning years ago); the impact of Proposition 207; and the greed (or even current day construction costs) that lead to the desire to build mid-rise and highrise. In my opinion, the reason many of these new projects are cheaply built is that, since they are actually sitting in a location that is designated for much higher height, they are seen as somewhat of an interim use, until in say 15 years, the market, and downtown expansion, is ready to support a higher project. Food for thought: the city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Urban Form overlay, which has no teeth and is made up of suggested uses, no actual regulatory strength. We are seeing the override of that document by developers right now right and left. I have heard no realistic solutions, based on existing conditions and regulations, to this problem of teardowns. Consider this radical approach: all those artists or property owners who would like to see Roosevelt Row maintain it’s existing small scale buildings and vintage fabric, go to the city and ask to DOWN ZONE their properties to the height they currently are! Or are those folks also waiting for the day when they will sell to a developer trying to accumulate parcels for their next mid-rise or high rise project?

  3. Jacob L says:

    The ideas proposed here are all very nice and positive steps towards more density and less strictly regulated cities, but have real problems that make them at best a small piece of the full solution in larger metropolitan areas.

    1. None of these solutions actually add that much housing to pre-existing neighborhoods. It is usually not economically feasible to tear down a single-family home and replace with a 3-plex, except in neighborhoods with extremely high housing costs. ADUs are more economically feasible, but even if they were implemented on every plot in a SFH neighborhood, they would only provide for a ~25% increase in housing space. In Berkeley and Santa Cruz, two relatively good examples of the feasibility of ADUs, even in the neighborhoods with the most ADUs, less than half of lots have them. So ADUs will never be more than a 10% solution.

    2. Your proposals will face political opposition of their own. Possibly even more so, because in order to add the housing necessary to keep costs down, you’d have to implement these policies throughout a greater fraction of the city, because they’re simply less effective at creating housing. Allowing high-rise and mid-rise development in meaningfully large corridors can ease the housing cost pressure on SFH neighborhoods. In many cases, this will be an easier political bargain to make than allowing 3-plexes and ADUs throughout the city.

    The real solution is to encourage a local civic mindset that sees astronomical housing costs as a bigger problem than the evolution of neighborhoods. Urban fabric is not being “destroyed” in Portland — it’s simply evolving.

  4. ml says:

    But the same NIMBYs who object to high rises will object to all of the housing forms discussed above. The whole thing is a no win situation: if developers want to build tall, the NIMBYs cry “gentrification” and “greedy developers”! If they build ADUs or similar housing, the NIMBYs cry “traffic” and “the lower class will move in and destroy my property values!”

  5. […] To see the article, go here: http://bloomingrock.com/2015/02/02/5-ways-to-add-density-without-building-high-rises/ […]

  6. Eli Spevak says:

    Great ideas! Portland has pretty good codes, but more to do on all of them. Like removing the definition of ‘household’ (as Bend, OR – and about a dozen entire states – have done) from the code. Portland already has a pretty good ADU code already, and is currently in the process of updating it – so there’s a chance to weigh in and help with that effort. Until WWII, most of Portland was zoned for low density multifamily housing. Then during WWII duplexes were allowed even in the single dwelling zones due to a housing shortage. Then in 1959 we blanketed most of our city with singe family zoning (R5, R7, R10…) – as cities all over the place. We should be letting homes get internally divided, as you suggest. There’s precedent for this with homes on the historic registry (where it’s legal to divide homes into multiple units), and this could be extended to any home over a certain age or size. Tiny home communities are popping up, legal or not. The Mayor is on board to create a legal path for them, and there’s a strong community of tiny home advocates, but it’s going to take some sustained advocacy work to get the requisite code changes to actually happen.

  7. Z says:

    These are decent ideas, but Japan pretty much has this problem licked. Check out the metro area around Tokyo, Japan, outside of the highrise core, on Google Maps.

    It’s very dense and its is almost entirely single family homes (1 to 2 stories, often 2 stories), small apartment complexes.

    Some of the things they do:

    – Form-based zoning codes instead of use-based zoning codes, which leads to

    – Mixed-use zoning: businesses of all varieties except heavy industrial are intertwined with each other and with residential locations, making many places you want to get to within easy walking or biking distance.

    – Small (narrow) streets: many streets are single lane/one-way, with larger streets being only 2 lane (1 in each direction). Narrow streets and short, porous blocks allow traffic to navigate in many different ways instead of being forced into monolithic boulevards and “stroads” (http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2013/3/4/the-stroad.html). Small blocks that change angles, have stop signs at all intersections, and are narrow discourage fast car traffic which in turn encourages pedestrian and bike use. Note also that rail is pervasive there; the rail system is a huge part of modern Japanese culture, and you can get just about anywhere with it plus walking. The net effect of the narrow streets is that you can fit more homes in a given area versus wide residential streets seen in many US towns and cities.

    – Little or no setbacks: houses are very close together, properties are relatively small, so people use public parks etc more instead of keeping huge back yards (be honest, how often do you even use your back yard, let alone your front yard! It’s mostly a grass-mowing money-sick for many US homeowners).

    While this seems dense, in that same Google Maps view, check out the areas from Street View: you will see few cars, and almost certainly see people walking and/or biking. You will also often see vibrant and LIVING streets – stores open to peopl walking by, versus in the US, where streets have become the almost sole domain of the car, and where pedestrians and bicyclists are in danger and subordinate to cars.

  8. […] Story: 5 WAYS TO ADD DENSITY WITHOUT BUILDING HIGH-RISES Published on Saturday, February 7, 2015 in Blooming Rock var hupso_services_c=new […]

  9. […] Halifax Common Plan.  Despite substantial evidence that high-rises are not the way to add density and that they kill liveability HRM continues to plan for high-rises at “Centres” next to […]

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