Getting established suburbs to build denser housing

A new study suggests higher levels of housing density in older suburbs could provide a lot of affordable housing:

But according to a report released today by urban housing economist Issi Romem of Buildzoom, many urban cores are actually developing and densifying. And lots of housing continues to get built at the suburban periphery. Romem argues that America’s real housing problem—and a big part of the solution to it—lie in closer-in single-family-home neighborhoods that were built up during the great suburban boom of the last century, and that have seen little or no new housing construction since they were initially developed…

The reality is that most of the housing stock and most of the land area of America’s metros is made up of relatively low-density suburban homes. And a great deal of it is essentially choked off from any future growth, locked in by outmoded and exclusionary land-use regulations. The end result is that most growth today takes place through sprawl…

But if America’s dormant suburbs are a big part of its housing and growth problem, they can also be part of the solution. Relaxing zoning rules in these neighborhoods would spread population growth more equitably and sustainably across a metro, relieving the pressure of rising housing prices and gentrification around the urban core, and unsustainable growth at the periphery.

“The dormant suburban sea is so vast that if the taboo on densification there were broken,” Romem writes, “even modest gradual redevelopment—tearing down one single-family home at a time and replacing it with a duplex or a small apartment building—could grow the housing stock immensely.” Many of these suburbs are located relatively close to job centers or along major transit lines. They are the natural place to increase density.

While this may be true, I tried to think of the incentives for suburbs in between cities and the growing metropolitan edges to do this. Here is my quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  1. Population growth is often associated with progress or a higher status. More housing means more people.
  2. New residents could help provide a new energy, particularly if they are higher-income residents who can contribute monies to the community.

Cons:

  1. Changing the existing character of a suburb, particularly for denser housing, is often met with opposition by existing residents.
  2. New residents mean new demands for local services.
  3. Denser housing might mean cheaper housing and this means attracting fewer higher-income residents.
  4. Why should we build denser housing if other communities around us are not doing the same?

Based on my quick lists, I do not think too many individual established suburbs will be jumping on this bandwagon. Even higher-income suburbs that would build higher-end dense housing would face opposition from residents who prefer the exclusivity of single-family homes.

The main thing that could break this logjam would be pressure from above – think the federal or state government – or groups of suburbs making decisions together to build denser housing. Still, these efforts will have to overcome those who will want local governments to stay their own course.

New record set by the number of skyscrapers built in 2017

Skyscrapers have truly spread around the globe in recent years:

The current global boom in tall buildings shows no signs of slowing. In its annual Tall Building Year in Review, the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) found that more buildings 200 meters tall or greater were finished last year than any other year on record.

A total of 144 such structures were completed in 69 cities spread across 23 countries, part of a wave of tall towers, the fourth-straight record-setting year in terms of completions. Last year’s new tall towers set records across the globe as well: new tallest buildings took shape in 28 cities and 8 countries…

The U.S. completed 10 such structures, including four in New York, two in Chicago, and the record-setting Wilshire Grand Center in Los Angeles. This new class of skyscrapers forms the bulk of North America’s 17 new towers, representing 10.4 percent of the worldwide total.

But as has been the case for years, Asia, specifically China, was the center of the action. Chinese construction projects added 76 new skyscrapers, representing 53 percent of the global total. The city of Shenzhen, which added 12 new buildings, accounted for 8.3 percent of the worldwide total, more than any country outside of China.

While these buildings may be constructed in some places because of high densities and a need for interior space, I suspect the status factor is big here. Being able to project an impressive skyline is a nice feature for today’s big city to have. To be a major city in the eyes of the world, skyscrapers help. Buildings alone cannot catapult a city to the top of the global city rankings but they can certainly make an impression on residents and visitors as well as provide space for new bustling activity.

Increasing the density of London’s suburbs

The mayor of London recently released a new planning document for the city and it includes more housing in the city’s suburban areas:

Often, [suburbia] stays under the radar of urban theorists and policymakers. But it is emerging as a major untapped resource and, therefore, a battleground in the struggle to find somewhere, anywhere, to put new housing. Last week, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, revealed his draft for the new London Plan, the document that will guide the planning decisions of the city’s boroughs. He wants – and who wouldn’t? – more housing, more of it affordable, well designed and energy-efficient, complete with spaces that encourage walking, cycling and the use of public transport. He has limited powers – he can’t, for example, ordain the large-scale public housing programmes that even the estate agents Savills now thinks are necessary – but he can manipulate the planning system to promote some kinds of development over others.

His eyes alighted on the suburbs. Between the First and Second World Wars, while London’s population increased by 17%, its land area doubled, a reflection of its rapid suburban expansion at a much lower density than its historic centre. In theory, this means that if suburban densities could be nudged up, very many more homes could be accommodated within London’s boundaries. As Professor Tony Travers, of the London School of Economics, says, Greater London could house 20 million people if it was all built to the same density as the inner borough of Islington.

So Khan wants to encourage, within 800 metres of transport links, developments that provide more housing in the same space. In doing so, he hopes to encourage smaller-scale developers and lower-cost housing, in contrast to the luxury towers promoted by his predecessor, Boris Johnson, in the name of meeting housing needs. This might mean building on gardens or building at four storeys instead of two.

He has, say Tory opponents, “declared war on the suburbs” and will make them “overcrowded and harder to get around”. Yet making suburbs denser could make them better. In principle, having more inhabitants means more life in town centres and high streets, which makes shops and businesses more viable and makes it easier to sustain such things as local bus services.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Building suburbs to higher densities is a popular idea among a number of architects, planners, and urbanists in the United States for many of the same reasons but opposition from established suburbanites can be fierce as increased density is perceived to threaten a suburban way of life (more land, more driving, more exclusivity in terms of class and race).

I wonder if the solution in the London area is in the part cited above: keep the higher densities to mass transit nodes. Plans do not necessarily have to include higher densities everywhere in suburbs; rather, transit-oriented development could concentrate more and cheaper housing in locations where new residents can easily access mass transit options for the entire region.

Regulate McMansions in order to provide more housing

Expecting population growth, Portland, Oregon is looking to limit house sizes:

The zoning changes are in the planning stages, and it won’t be until early next year that City Council will vote on whether to approve the changes.

New zoning laws could limit the size of homes, allowing single-family homes to be half the size of the lot. A standard lot in Portland’s inner eastside, which is primarily zoned for single-family homes, is 5,000 square feet. The proposed zoning code would limit that home to 2,500 square feet…

The city says it’s heard complaints over so-called “McMansions,” or homes that are much larger than the rest of the houses in a neighborhood…

The new zoning proposal also calls for increased flexibility in building duplexes, and on corner lots triplexes could be built. The city says increasing density will give families more options where to live.

This is an interesting approach to regulating McMansions. Rather than emphasize their poor architecture, excessive use of resources, or threat to neighborhood character, instead stress that the land could be used for more housing units. And because Portland has both stricter development boundaries regarding its metropolitan region as well as expectations for population growth, zoning for higher density could make sense. It would be interesting to see if this approach cuts down on criticism that property owners should be able to do what they want.

There are probably already a number of McMansions in the Portland area but it is interesting to contemplate a major city or region without any McMansions.

Not so fast: turning suburbs into cities

One way to revive America’s cities may be to adapt to increasing densities in Americans suburbs:

But this analysis also misses something important. These trends don’t just represent people’s moving decisions — they also represent changes in the places themselves. If enough people move to a low-density area, it becomes a high-density area.

People are pouring into Dallas and San Diego. So unless those cities continue to sprawl ever farther out across the countryside, the new arrivals will increase density. People will want to live close to their jobs instead of enduring hour-long commutes. Apartment blocks will spring up where once-empty fields or single-family homes stood. Today’s fast-growing suburb is tomorrow’s urban area.

In other words, the great urban revival might not be ending, it might just be relocating. Instead of piling into existing cores, Americans might simply be creating new ones across the country. And if each of these new cities creates the productivity advantages enjoyed by places like San Francisco and New York City, this could be a good thing for the economy.

This is an intriguing concept: some suburbs, because of their popularity, willingness to build taller structures, and population size, might become like cities. This has already happened to some degree in a number of suburbs across the country.

Yet, just because a location has a certain number of people or reaches certain population densities does not necessarily mean that it feels or operates like a city. We also already have some denser urban areas – see the Los Angeles suburbs which are pretty dense compared to many metropolitan areas – but that does not automatically make them cities or urban. What is required? Most American cities have: a core or multiple cores that are multi-use and include a good number of businesses or offices; a walkability that extends for a good distance (beyond just a suburban downtown or large shopping center) and mass transit options to extend beyond the core(s) – in other words, good options beyond operating a car; a vibrancy and diversity that could range from thriving economic activity to restaurants and bars to filled public spaces; and an identity among residents and others that the area is a city.

Imagine Naperville, Illinois really wanted to become a city. It starts approving dense residential and commercial projects throughout the community. (Just to note: the local government has rejected these in the past.) The population ticks upward past 200,000 or even 300,000. There are still some pockets of single-family homes and vestiges of small-town life. How long would it take for the conditions of a city as discussed above arise? How would the community adapt to having so many businesses along I-88 rather than downtown? Would this limit the number of people who ride into Chicago on the Metra each day? (Naperville right now has the busiest stops in the whole system.) How would a city atmosphere develop? This all would take significant time and effort and perhaps decades before Naperville would be considered from both the inside and outside a city.

I disagree: Loop building boom a sign of “the re-urbanization of America”

An insightful analysis of the high-rise construction boom in Chicago’s Loop includes this claim about what all this new development means:

“It’s the re-urbanization of America,” said John Lahey, chairman of Solomon Cordwell Buenz, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in residential high-rises.

It’s also a shift in the urban map: The once-frayed edges of downtown, home to the poor and working-class, are now the glittering home of the affluent. Rental rates, while less expensive than on the coasts, still leave many priced out. City officials last month proposed a pilot program to generate affordable housing in gentrifying areas of the Near North and Near West sides as well as along Milwaukee Avenue. But changing the trajectory of the marketplace won’t be easy.

This is an interesting claim to make in Chicago. The “Super Loop” is indeed growing in population and tall buildings. But, the city as a whole is not doing so well. See the population loss. See the persistent problems – meaning, decades-long concerns – in numerous poor neighborhoods. See the slow population growth in the suburbs within the metropolitan region and also the emerging presence of urban issues (affordable housing, poverty, exclusion) in suburban areas.

A better description might be this: what is happening is the concentration of wealth in urban cores while outlying areas of cities and suburbs are suffering. The same process is happening in New York City, Miami, Seattle, San Francisco, and other major cities.

Would you rather have more McMansions or denser neighborhoods?

Portland is looking into ways that residential neighborhoods might change:

McMansions could be thing of the past in Portland if city planners get their way.

But densities could also increase in parts of many existing single-family residential neighborhoods.

Those are two of the proposals in the recent staff report of the Residential Infill Project. It includes several recommendations intended to balance the need to create more housing in Portland while protecting the character of the city’s established neighborhoods…

The comments represent a split that emerged on the committee in recent months. As housing affordability has become a bigger issue in Portland, the developers have joined with those concerned about rising home prices and preserving the urban growth boundary to accept size restrictions in exchange for the ability to build more homes. Some called it “the grand bargain” during the meeting.

The neighborhood representatives have argued that even smaller homes won’t necessarily be inexpensive — and could still undermine the character of existing neighborhoods. Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association representative Rod Merrick denied that any bargain had been agreed to.

This is an interesting trade-off. Established residents in many communities wouldn’t like either option as it (1) could significantly change the character of the neighborhood they know and (2) each option has particular downsides (McMansions could be oddly designed and bring in wealthier residents, higher densities could lead to many more residents and different kinds of structures). But, if cities like Portland are serious about affordable housing and don’t want to promote endless sprawl (and Portland is quite unique with its urban growth boundary), density is really the only option.

If I had to guess at the outcome here, the new denser housing will be constructed only in certain places (perhaps in redevelopment areas or in places where residents are less organized) and it won’t be as cheap or as plentiful as needed for the region. Creating more affordable housing is not an easy task…