Cities Need More "Gentle Density"

Promo image. Watch out for those transients!/ Sherwood park Modern Towns

All over North America, battles are being fought over density, over the resistance of existing homeowners toward allowing more people to live in their neighbourhood. They worry about medium density and high density, but planner and consultant Brent Toderian suggests there is another term and perhaps another way: Gentle Density. He defines it in a recent article:

Gentle density is attached, ground-oriented housing that's more dense than a detached house, but with a similar scale and character. Think duplexes, semi-detached homes, rowhouses, or even stacked townhouses.

In short, it’s “gentle” because the actual impacts of adding such housing choices, if designed well, are minimal – although you wouldn't know that by the controversy that can be raised in some communities.

We have been discussing this on TreeHugger for a while; I call it the Goldilocks Density; Danile Parolek calls it the missing middle. But in Toronto, one group fighting it called it Density Creep.

We had some fun with this a few years ago, given the silly name and the fact that they were fighting what seemed like a perfectly reasonable project. They were protesting stacked townhouses (a building form with one unit on top of another) because they might only cost $ 500,000 in an area where the average house was over a million bucks, and therefore might attract transients. (This is Toronto, so you can double those numbers now)

The project was sent off to the Ontario Municipal Board, an appointed panel that usually approves just about any height or density busting proposal that crosses its desk. Yet somehow, this one was too dense and got rejected. According to the CBC, the decision says that the neighbourhood is "overwhelmingly made up of single detached house forms and characterized by extensive greenery....A single four-storey building facing Keewatin Avenue would represent an appropriately modest intensification that would be compatible with this neighbourhood.”

keewatin southside

The south side of the street via Google Street View/Screen capture

The fact that the second row of townhouses were behind the first and would barely be noticed, or that this is what is across the street, hardly “single detached house forms and characterized by extensive greenery” doesn’t seem to matter. What does is that single family house owning NIMBYs rule the roost, which is why most of Toronto’s development is concentrated in the parts of town where there were no houses, former rail and industrial lands.

sherwood park housing from above

Sherwood park modern towns/Promo image

This project was definitely Goldilocks Density and I suspect Brent would call it Gentle Density. But as he notes,

When we listen carefully, the opposition to such a mix usually isn’t about planning principles – it’s more often about politics fuelled by financial self-interest (the perceived impact on property values) and "not in my backyard" sentiments.

If we want to get serious about addressing our big challenges, we need to seriously rethink how we discuss and address change in our communities. Ironically, gentle density could help strengthen and stabilize our neighbourhoods far better than trying to cast them in amber would.

Call me a Gentle Density Creep if you like, but we need a lot more family housing in our cities, and it doesn't all have to be in towers. We need more gentle density, and we needed more projects like this. Thanks, OMB.