Right in My Backyard: Communities Wrestle With Growth

Every town planning exercise seems to start from this inalienable truth: Don't touch established single-family neighborhoods. And with so many other places that need to be redeveloped — from dead and dying shopping malls, to vacant village center buildings, to brownfield sites next to train stations — why even go there?

But some cities are going there, and successfully. In Surrey, a thriving first ring suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, planners and stakeholders at a recent workshop ended up allowing a substantial amount of new development in existing neighborhoods. It fits with a trend already happening in brick and mortar in this part of Northwest Canada.

This design workshop, the Surrey Sustainable Urban Infill Design Charrette, brought members of the community together to ask the important question: How would this area accommodate growth pressures that could potentially double the town's size over the next two decades? In keeping with many planning exercises, the workshop participants placed many new homes and businesses along corridors with existing or planned transit lines. But in contrast with many such exercises in the U.S., they also located about one-third of the growth in existing single-family neighborhoods. This came to be known at the workshop as "invisible densification"

Why "invisible"? Because the growth was so incremental, so context-sensitive, that you could only find it by studiously examining each lot in each residential neighborhood. These new units took the form of apartments over garages (sometimes called "granny flats"), subdivisions of oversize houses and small-footprint homes along the lanes that run down the middles of many of the blocks.

The attendees were able to do this no doubt because they drew on the example of neighborhoods in the Vancouver region where such invisible densification is already taking place. These areas have found ways to accommodate the high demand in Vancouver for in-town living, while at the same time respecting existing residents' desires to preserve their neighborhood's look and feel.

Some of the prettiest neighborhoods in the city, such as Kitsilano, feature quaint old brick and wood houses that, inside their walls, almost invisibly incorporate three, four or even five households where once was only one. Such changes have sometimes occurred without official approval, but without significant controversy either.

"The Vancouver region is a decade or two ahead of other parts of North America in accepting the presence of 'illegal' suites," said Patrick Condon, organizer of the workshop. "In the City of Vancouver alone, there are over 50,000 'illegal' suites. Were it not for their presence, affordable housing for working families would be rare."

But the other reason attendees were wiling to do this is because it was already happening informally. This was not a government-led initiative. In fact, government has often played catch-up. The City of Vancouver, for example, ultimately legalized secondary suites in 2010, as did other towns and cities in the region. Condon noted that cities are beginning to legalize the construction of additional homes in neighborhood alleys, or "lanes' as they are called in Vancouver.

Part of the driver at the workshop in Surrey was a commitment by the region to reduce greenhouse gases, which cause global warming, by 80% by 2050 — a target not dissimilar to those adopted by several cities and towns across the New York metropolitan region. At the end of the planning workshop, an analysis of the proposed changes found that it would result in a substantial reduction in emissions, mostly by decreasing the distances people had to drive in their daily lives.

The tri-state region could learn from such an approach. Residents in existing neighborhoods often oppose easing government regulations, such as zoning, to allow increases in residential density. But it's possible for more housing opportunities to be added in subtle ways which can actually improve overall quality of life. More density can mean more housing options for empty nesters and young professionals, new rental income for existing single-family homeowners, more transit options and livelier neighborhood shopping spots because of the arrival of new members of the neighborhood.

It might not be appropriate for every neighborhood, but it is a viable option that many communities might choose if they knew more about success stories elsewhere.