‘Hidden’ density seen as good idea
Infills provide more home space
Though “density” can be a dirty word for many, I was intrigued when I received an e-mail with the subject line “hidden density” from Brent Toderian, a former planner with the City of Calgary who is now director of planning for Vancouver.
The e-mail went on to explain that hidden density was a nickname for Vancouver’s EcoDensity Initiative (2006 to 2008) to encourage laneway housing. It relates to the fact that laneway development doesn’t signif icantly change the way detached singlefamily housing looks from the street because it is using the garage space for modest residential development.
Toderian didn’t stop there; he also threw out terms like “gentle density” — which refers to lower-scaled, ground-oriented density forms like row houses — and “invisible density” such as secondary suites.
He provided some photos of the more than 100 laneway units built so far in Vancouver.
I have to admit I was impressed. Imagine inner-city laneways full of funky little cottages instead of being a sea of blank garage doors and blue and black garbage bins.
Could this work in Calgary? Is it already happening?
I identif ied two quick barriers for Calgary:
Snow — What would we do from November to April, when our back lanes are full of snow? This is not a problem in Vancouver.
Dirt — All laneways would have to be paved because the homes are built right at the edge of the laneway. I can’t imagine Calgarians being keen to live on a dirt laneway.
I contacted Laurie Kimber of the City of Calgary to f ind out how its new land use bylaw deals with hidden density opportunities.
I was surprised to learn that the City of Vancouver planning department may have learned something from Calgary’s laneway housing rules approved in 2007.
Calgary’s bylaw allows for “secondary suite– detached garage” and “secondary suite– detached garden,” which are more commonly referred to as a garage suite and a garden suite, respectively.
In established areas of Calgary, landowners have the choice to retain their existing older house and build a laneway house — either a garden suite or a garage suite — or build a pair of semi-detached dwellings.
There are about 30,000 parcels of land in the developed area of Calgary that meet the minimum parcel area requirements of 400 square metres to build either a garage suite or a garden suite.
It is likely the majority of these would also meet the minimum parcel width requirement of 13 metres.
This means that there are many existing opportunities for landowners to choose their own method to increase density on their parcel: either remove the existing house and build a pair of inf ills, or retain the existing house and build a garden suite or garage suite.
The decision on which way to go often depends on the age, size and condition of the original house, as well as factors such as ease of installing new servicing.
Kimber also informed me “there are other areas of Calgary where we have laneway housing: Garrison Woods, Garrison Green and McKenzie Town to name a few.
“In Cranston, Saddleridge and Kincora, council has approved 119 hectares of land which potentially could allow thousands of garden and garage suites to occur, depending on the eventual parcel size chosen by the developer.”
In Calgary, garden suites and garage suites are allowed in almost all new low density residential districts, as well as secondary suites, as long as the parcel width is at least nine metres.
This led to a discussion of Calgary’s long-standing (since the 1970s) inner-city inf ill housing development.
This is the practice of removing one small bungalow and creating two new two-storey houses. It may not exactly be hidden density, but it doesn’t signif icantly change the streetscape.
“Since 2002, Calgary has averaged over 600 inf ill homes per year.” says Kimber.
He went on to say that “inf ill houses are usually much larger than the smaller bungalows they replace — and so, in addition to the doubling of the number of dwelling units, the larger floor space of an inf ill house can accommodate larger households as well.”
I can certainly vouch for this.
I have lived in an inf ill community since the early ’90s and I have witnessed many young families moving into my neighbourhood.
Hidden, gentle and invisible density does not replace highrise and midrise density, but it is part of the spectrum of housing needed to create a diverse, viable and sustainable urban city.
It will appeal to a select group of homeowners and non-traditional developers.
It offers the opportunity for families to age-in-place — in other words, provide an independent home for young adults, aging parents and /or caregivers.
Inf illing density also allows the overall character of the neighbourhood, as viewed from the street, to be more or less preserved.
In addition, it permits inner city schools, community centers, churches, retail businesses and parks to remain healthy and viable.
While Vancouver is often viewed as being an early adopter of new urban development policies and planning, I think a case could be made that Calgary — given its different geography, economy and demographics — is just as strategic in developing policies and plans that reflect our unique sense of place.
Vancouver director of planning Brent Toderian is a former planner with the City of Calgary.
Calgary has averaged more than 600 infill homes per year since 2002, says Laurie Kimber of the City of Calgary.