The Missing Middle Is Another Model for Providing Dense Family Housing

©. Opticos Design

Brandon Donelly writes in his terrific urbanism newsletter about how most people still want to raise kids in a house (not an apartment).

This isn’t a big sample size, but the trend appears more or less flat. 89% of respondents who already have kids are already living in a ground-related unit. And when people were asked to project where they would like to be living once they have kids, 83% said they want a house or townhouse.

Brandon mentions townhouses, but I think really ignores the fact that there is a whole world of built form between detached single family homes and apartments. Daniel Parolek of Opticos Design calls it The Missing Middle:

Missing Middle is a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living. These types provide diverse housing options along a spectrum of affordability, including duplexes, fourplexes, and bungalow courts, to support walkable communities, locally-serving retail, and public transportation options. Missing Middle Housing provides a solution to the mismatch between the available U.S. housing stock and shifting demographics combined with the growing demand for walkability.

The major benefit of missing middle building types is that they get higher density by stacking smaller units in ways that maintain connection to grade.

Most Missing Middle housing types have smaller unit sizes. The challenge is to create small spaces that are well designed, comfortable, and usable. The ultimate unit size will depend on the context, but smaller-sized units can help developers keep their costs down and attract a different market of buyers and renters who are not being provided for in all markets.
missing middle building types

© Daniel Parolek

Daniel Parolek writes from California, but there are versions of these all over North America.

sherwood park housing from above

Sherwood park modern towns/Promo image

The fight over density creeps in Toronto is about stacked townhouses, which are becoming very common in the city.


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

In Montreal, they get extraordinary densities with their unusual stacked units with exterior stairs, over 11,000 people per square kilometer. It is some of the most desirable housing in the city, and full of kids and families.

Missing middle housing can be built at lower cost and greater net efficiency than apartments; with their exterior stairs, Montreal units are almost 100% net usable space. Even with the stairs inside, it is more efficient than apartments with corridors, elevators, and fire stairs. It can be built out of wood instead of concrete. It's done in a lot of cities:

Missing Middle building types create a moderate density that can support public transit and services and amenities within walking distance, and make up some of the most popular up-and-coming communities in Denver, Cincinnati, Austin, and San Francisco.
bain avenue coop

they do the missing middle in Toronto very well already/ City of Toronto archives/Public Domain

Missing middle housing can be inserted into current development patterns, even suburban culs-de-sac. No doubt the neighbors will go nuts like they did in Toronto, but the fact is, in many cities like Toronto and San Francisco people cannot afford the single family house anymore. Promoting higher density duplexes, quads and maisonettes could provide grade related family friendly housing at more affordable prices to a lot more people. We need a lot more of the missing middle.

Once again I will try to make the point about the Goldilocks Density, that we don't have to put everyone in forty storey towers to make housing affordable. In many cities, the 16 units per acre that you get out of the missing middle is just right.

More from Daniel Parolek on the Missing Middle.