In 2010 Portland, Oregon made it cheap and easy for people to build ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units — also known as “granny flats”, “in-law apartments”, “carriage houses”, etc — small secondary dwellings that are on an existing property), and to nobody’s surprise, the tiny homes boomed. This kind of housing adds density without changing neighborhood character, lets people live lighter on the land, and helps makes housing affordable both for the renters, and the homeowners who now have a rental income that was impossible before. And they do it all without any public subsidy.
Boulder can do this too.
A bizarre account of the NIMBYs fighting against tiny apartments in Seattle. They fear that small living spaces must necessarily end up filled with sketchy-ass meth-heads. But it turns out they’re more often young professionals, retirees, and other completely normal folk who either don’t want or can’t afford the canonical American Dream of yesteryear… and would rather live downtown and have access to the city.
The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has put together a study of suburban densification strategies called Shifting Suburbs: Reinventing Infrastructure for Compact Development. I haven’t read it yet, but based on my experience of Belmar in Lakewood (which is one of their case studies) I’m not particularly optimistic. Maybe Belmar is better now than it was a few years ago — further built out, etc… but back then it seemed like a weird Disneylandish island lost in a sea of cars. Like a mall on steroids, ringed with parking structures. Dunno. Should be interesting reading.
A good list summarizing the ways in which density is good for affordability, ending with this zinger:
Income inequality is the core reason why housing affordability is such an intractable problem in the United States. In pretty much every other industrialized nation on earth, greater redistribution of wealth helps ease the problem of affordable housing. This includes social investments that significantly reduce other major household expenses, such as healthcare, education, childcare, and transportation, thereby freeing up more income to pay for housing. Here in the U.S, we will be beating our heads against the wall forever trying to provide enough affordable housing to make up for this underlying inequity.
Painful because it’s true.
The city of Melbourne, Australia did a study of various types of urban density (it’s a PDF) to inform their own planning for the development of the Southbank area. The study as presented here is a little bit cartoonish, but they do pull together various quantitative measures of different neighborhoods around the world, which are interesting to compare — from Hong Kong to Barcelona to Battery Park in NYC. Their conclusion: uniformly developed low-rise, 3-8 story buildings can produce as much density as anybody might want (tens of thousands of people per square mile, just look at Paris), and are more conducive to a livable urban environment than towers, and in fact many tower heavy districts aren’t all that dense in aggregate. Parking regulations are key to making good urban space for people, as is the provisioning of social infrastructure (common green space, libraries, good schools) within walking distance. They suggest that densities of 100 residents and 50 jobs per hectare (30,000 and 15,000 per square mile, respectively… wow) represent a threshold at which fully featured urban infrastructure (including public transit) can pay for themselves.
How far will we walk to go somewhere depends on the quality of the walking experience. An obvious conclusion maybe, but one that bears repeating. In central Paris or Rome, folks will regularly walk 5 miles a day, and enjoy it, because the cities are lively and interesting the whole way. I have an elderly friend in San Francisco who regularly walks all the way from the Presidio, where she lives, to downtown (and sometimes back again) for errands, but also for the people watching and joy of it. Density alone is not enough to make a place walkable, and lower density — if it’s interesting enough — can still entice people to wear their comfortable shoes. Good details in the original post.
DR Horton, which has built nearly 20,000 mostly suburban homes across the US, is now pitching cozily downsized car-free living in SE Portland. It’s a development called Division 43, made up of 29 units, in 2-3 story buildings, on one third of an acre, with no on-site parking, and shared outdoor spaces including a garden plot. 350-700 square feet, 1-2 bedrooms and 1-2.5 baths, open floor plans, energy efficient, $120-180k. Sounds pretty awesome. Would be great to see similar stuff available in Boulder.
According to this EPA study, regardless of the type of housing, living in an area with good transit access saves more energy than building a “green home”. Of course, living in a mixed use, transit accessible apartment that’s also energy efficient uses the least energy, but it’s important to realize how limited the potential for cost-effective energy efficiency is in a sprawling suburban context.
David Hembrow looks at the correlation between population density and cycling rate for a range of cities. Or rather, he points out the remarkable lack of correlation. Clearly there’s an intrinsic relationship between population (# of people) the distances people need to travel to access that population, and the density of the population, but even for cities with densities comparable to the US (1000-2500 people/km^2) cycling can be a very convenient mode of transport.
The Goss-Grove Neighborhood is slated to be re-zoned for lower density (PDF) as part of the Boulder Valley Comprehensive Plan update. Goss-Grove is right in the very core of Boulder, next to downtown and CU, intrinsically walkable and bikeable. It should be dense! Residents are unhappy with the low-quality student slumlord apartments. Small, affordable, high quality condos that blend in with 100 year old homes could increase density, without destroying the neighborhood’s feel. Vancouver, BC has done this well.