The missing middle

There’s a great hashtag that’s been going around focusing on the missing middle in housing. I’m really excited about it because it captures an issue that I’ve been trying to piece together for a while. I don’t like the way we build housing in Canada and frequently find myself frustrated by it. Now that I have more education about the issue I am better able to explain my objections but for a long time they were clumsy and imprecise. When complaining about the plague of new suburban developments filled with wide low single family homes it helps to have tools to say what the alternative is.

If we want to make our case and have it seem non-threatening to non-urbanists and people just wanting to live normal lives we need to provide them with something that seems nice and non threatening, it’s a great way to start a dialogue.

The big problem we have in Canada, and I say this from a Calgary perspective, is that we build two main types of housing and they are the two extreme ends of the housing spectrum. We build low wide single family homes with big garages in segregated use communities with big lots. We probably have enough of these to last us a lifetime and don’t need any more. There are other ways to build single family homes that are a lot better but we rarely do them — tall narrow homes with smaller yards like we built them back in the day or you see in Lower Mount Royal and Bankview.

Then we build towers filled with micro condos. In some places they have a purpose. I like having a city centre with tall towers and found it weird in Edinburgh and Copenhagen that there aren’t any really tall buildings. Outside of the Beltline and Downtown we really don’t need tall towers. That’s not the place for them. There are lots of ways to get density without building towers. We’ve become stuck in this mode that I’ve recently been seeing called podium and tower urbanism. I don’t mind towers but I don’t want them everywhere.

Instead of just building towers with micro condos in the centre and bad single family homes everywhere else we could be building lots of other types of housing, housing that is the mainstay in other parts of the world. Brent Toderian calls this gentle density and it’s what you get in lots of parts of Europe like Copenhagen or Edinburgh. Perimeter block apartments are a common form of housing and multi-family is a great option for the wealthy and middle class. I loved the row house I lived in in DC and wish it was easier for people to buy something like that in Canada.

Here are a few examples of the tweets.

It’s really about designing for choice and affordability. I worry about the way we build single family homes. It has a huge environmental cost, makes for bad public spaces, makes for unhealthy car dependent communities, and costs more to furnish, build, maintain and heat than other housing options. I also don’t think most people want to live in a 300 square foot condo, it’s certainly not for me. Join the conversation and let’s get stuck in the middle. Goldilocks will be there.

I’m thinking of doing some photos of middle housing in Calgary so stay tuned. Don’t know if it’ll happen because it’s living in the idea pile waiting to be turned into something and there is lots of competition but I see examples around all the time.

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