In the coming months, we’ll be running a series of articles based on the Lab’s 100 Urban Trends glossaries. Each week, our writers will focus on a trend that is meaningful to them, sharing anecdotes, opinions, and real-world illustrations of urban issues that shape our lives. Today’s trend: Density.
A little over two years ago, I saw Jan Gehl speak live in my hometown of Vancouver. The 668-seat Playhouse theater was packed with white-collared urbanists, architects in black-framed glasses, and hipsters. Most had made a point of arriving by bicycle that evening in the name of the rock-star architect/planner famous for the pedestrian and cyclist-oriented design he used to make Copenhagen the beacon of good urbanism it is considered today.
All were waiting with bated breath to hear his thoughts on our fair city—the city that had made its own name in architecture, literally, by densifying its core through residential tower development. When Gehl finally offered his thoughts, in the slow, slightly accented and dry-witted Danish way that he does, they were words I’ll never forget: “Towers are the lazy architect’s answer to density.”
The theater erupted with applause, sending a signal loud and clear to the developers seated in the front row: we love our density, the ovation professed, but you see, there is a better way!
Today, it seems that message was heard. Vancouver, famously dubbed the City of Glass, is slowly and quietly, without much ado, forging its way down from the tower and becoming a leader in creative densification. It presents an exciting and hopeful message to those around the world, particularly in North America, who sometimes—and often rightfully—fear that densification will change the scale of their beloved ’hoods.
My own neighborhood, Strathcona, is a perfect example. It’s the oldest neighborhood in Vancouver, and the last that should ever be marred by towers. With ancient trees lining twenty-five-foot lots that bear a stunning collection of 100-year old “character houses,” half falling apart, and half recently revamped, it is an early-twentieth-century neighborhood at it’s finest: human-scale, walkable, cozy, and quaint.
Around the corner from me, an ancient house sits on piles, awaiting the extra floor that will be added beneath it. Behind it, in the back end of the long and skinny lot, row houses are under construction. Upon completion, the project (now known as Crawford Row), once a single-family residence, will boast six stratified (i.e. condo) units (two three-bedrooms, three two-bedrooms, and one one-bedroom). Yet from the street, one can hardly notice the difference.
A block away from me on my street, another similar project is under way, developed by two local, hyper-engaged Strathcona residents looking to do good for their community and lead by example. By raising, stratifying, restoring, and über-greening two crumbling heritage houses, and adding a coach house in the backyard, Karli Gillespie and Dick Hellofs are increasing the capacity of the double lot fourfold, while cutting the energy use by 75 percent and keeping the neighborhood skyline in tact. One of the main drivers behind such an ambitious project? A will to live small and local, combined with a personal distaste for towers, and a severe lack of in-between options in a hugely inflated real estate market.
“We didn’t want to live in a condo. We feel like people in condos don’t always connect with their neighbors as much. I don’t like towers, and we wanted that access to the outdoor space—more than just a condo patio,” Gillespie told me at a neighborhood café. “I think the connection with the community if you don’t live in a tower is better,” Hellofs, Gillespie’s partner in life and in business, said. “In a tower, you might get in an elevator, you might meet one person in the elevator on the way up or down, and that’s it. But in a community like this, you have to run into your neighbor and you have to speak to your neighbor because you’re going to be walking right by their place.”
The pair wanted to create the feeling of living in and owning a house, without the footprint or price, and with a connection to a community outside of the barriers of traditional communal forms such as co-housing, co-ops, or communes. Thus, their challenge was immense: to construct communal living that didn’t feel too communal. Close, but not too close for comfort. And they went to extreme lengths to achieve this, ensuring that each unit had a private outdoor space as well as access to the communal backyard, and even going so far as to design the units with every single door on a different elevation. They saved livable space by developing a shared mechanical room for hot-water tanks and furnaces. The result? Seven strata units on a 50-by-122-foot lot, all sold out before the project was even completed. The youngest buyer was twenty-one, the oldest, Gillespie’s mother, retired. A family of four will move into the three-bedroom unit, two singletons will occupy the single-bedroom units, and Gillespie and Hellofs will live in the back—a micro mixed community within an already heavily mixed community.
It’s a sort of modernization of density by desire. In areas like Strathcona, density was once the result of necessity (my 1,500-square-foot house was, in the 1960s, occupied by 14 people). Since that time, family and neighborhood demographics have shifted for a number of reasons, thinning the neighborhood out. But new housing forms mean that single-family neighborhoods may now court density of a different kind to accommodate the housing wants of a new population.
True, like any housing in Vancouver, the new units don’t come cheap, though they present options that currently do not exist in the neighborhood, as Hellofs points out: “In our neighborhood, houses are selling for over a million dollars. To find something that’s $400,000, $500,000, $600,000, it’s really tough to do, so I think we’ve really hit a niche market. I think that’s another reason why people are really interested, because it’s an affordable place in an area that’s not really affordable, or not affordable for most people.” (Yes, $400,000 is actually considered “affordable” in Vancouver’s market, and yes, most of us are aware that that is crazy.)
But throughout Vancouver, other forms of creative density solutions are popping up to cater to different markets. Laneway houses, for instance—separate mini-houses that can be slotted into backyards—were legalized in certain Vancouver neighborhoods (with expansions expected soon) in 2009. Since then, nearly 1,000 laneway permits have been handed out, and they have become so popular that entirely new architecture firms, such as Smallworks, specializing specifically in laneway house development, have cropped up. (Examples of Smallworks’ houses are at the top of this post and below.) Unlike Crawford Row and Gillespie and Hellofs’s project, both of which are stratified and saleable, laneway houses, by law, may only be treated as additional personal or rental suites. In this way, they are adding to the city’s grossly depleted rental stock, and also enable members of extended families to remain together longer, while maintaining a certain degree of privacy and independence from one another.
“I think if you do creative density, people will come. I think that they want it. They recognize that they don’t need larger spaces, and the need to be close to one another is coming full circle. There was a time that we separated as communities, and expanded with sprawl, and now we’re recognizing we need each other and that we can really benefit from it,” said Gillespie. “It’s interesting to see the evolution of architecture in our community, and we want to be a part of that.”
To learn more about Karli Gillespie and Dick Hellofs’s work, download this fascinating and comprehensive overview.
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Photos: Christine McLaren; Smallworks images courtesy Smallworks.