Medium density that works well - study tour 2015

Back to Resources

In July 2015 Beacon led a group of 20 New Zealanders on a study tour of Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.  The goal of our tour?  To experience successful medium density solutions in both suburban and inner city settings.

Participants came from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and represented: city councils (Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin), central government (EECA, MBIE, CERA, HNZC), health (CDHB), architects (Chow Hill), developers (Fletcher Living, Creating Communities, Tamaki Redevelopment Company) and education (Unitec)


Why Vancouver, Seattle, Portland

New Zealand can learn a lot about meeting housing demand and addressing affordability from the variety of approaches to increasing density in Vancouver, Seattle and Portland.

These cities share our challenge of meeting growing housing demand and addressing affordability.  Two million more people are predicted to live in the greater Seattle area in the next 10 years, and 1,300,000 more people expected to arrive in Portland by 2035. In Seattle over one household in six spends more than half their incomes on housing.  An average two-storey house in Vancouver is so unattainable, people could find themselves spending 90.6% of their pretax household income on home ownership costs.

The difference is, these cities have already taken steps to address these issues.  Some strategies have been successful, some less so.  It’s true that no single city is going to provide all the answers, but there is plenty to be learned.  Here are four key things New Zealand should take on board.


1.     Make the most of opportunities - they lead to success

Some of the most successful medium density developments we saw were the result of one-off opportunities and serendipitous events.  A prime example is Vancouver’s Southeast False Creek development.  This brownfields site, originally an industrial park, and the 2010 Olympic Village, is being developed into a mixed-use community with a total population of 13,000 people, with a focus on residential housing.

Vancouver styleVancouver has worked with its constraints and opportunities to develop an approach to density, known as ‘Vancouverism’.   This style is reflected in a built aesthetic of 15-40 storey towers, with a minimum separation of 24 metres to preserve views and privacy.  Around the base of each tower is a podium lined with three storey townhouses or retail/commercial offices.  From a street level, this preserves a human and relatable scale to street views and experience.

Vancouver’s planning system is based on the idea that growth leads to growth; cost charges and development levies support amenities, the same amenities attract people to developments.  Vancouver took the opportunity after the World Expo ‘86 to rezone large areas of vacant waterfront land previously occupied by railroads and industry.  As these were converted to high density residential, development levies paid for a range of public amenities and infrastructure, without calling on taxpayer funds.

20% of units are built as social housing (paid by the City) and 25% are designed for families.  Despite limited land, the downtown peninsula will add another 50,000 people, more than doubling its downtown population.


2.     Explore new ways of intensifying neighbourhoods

All three cities are struggling with intensifying existing neighbourhoods. The ‘missing middle’ is a recognition that many people still want to raise kids in a house, and densification needs to explore diverse housing options (including duplexes, triplexes, and bungalow courts) of varying affordability, designed to fit alongside existing stand-alone housing.

One different approach is that of pocket neighbourhoods which can consist of new developments or can be achieved through careful retrofitting of existing houses.  Seattle allows double density if houses are smaller, share a common area, and are not dominated by cars.  Pocket neighbourhoods form small community of 6-8 neighbours with some shared facilities and appeal to an untapped market of people wanting to downsize.  Similar clustered housing options include regular homes redeveloped into co-housing through to purpose-built mini-villages. 

New developments are also offering shared communal spaces and facilities. Grow Community in Bainbridge, Seattle, is a very successful development focused on creating a connected urban neighbourhood which offers houses on separate titles while maximising effective use of communal space.    


3.     Consider long term rental  and different models of tenure and community

It was noticeable that all three cities focused on affordable rentals, rather than affordable home ownership, guided by a ratepayer base that understands the importance of providing affordable housing for vulnerable citizens.  Affordable rental is funded at local, state and federal level through complex arrangements of tax credits, significant value trade-offs, and planning policy. The Seattle Housing Authority provides long term rental housing and assistance for 29,500 people on 400 sites.  80% of clients have an income less than 30% area median income, and rent is no more than 30-40% of income. And Government is not the only investor; shrewd institutional investors are behind numerous large scale rentals.

Also evident were the different ownership structures which were used for affordable rentals, including co-operatives and leasehold structures that enabled a greater variety of housing tenure and choice, as well as longer and more secure tenure.  This helps to build a better sense of community where renters don’t feel that their residency is only temporary and at the whim of the landlord.


4.     Always consider transport infrastructure and housing together

The benefits of transit oriented development are fast becoming appreciated, and we saw many examples where transport options and developments were proceeding hand-in-hand.

The Cambie Corridor Plan in Vancouver is a land use policy which will guide future development along Cambie Street. The plan focuses on integrating development with transit and enhancing the existing neighbourhoods along the Corridor while supporting the City’s goals of environmental sustainability, liveability, and affordability.

Tour group 2015

Tour group 2015



Pocket neighbourhood

Pocket neighbourhood



What our participants said

“Great people, great time. Great selection of experts. Professionally interested in everything we saw as there is no silver bullet. Tour invaluable for informing all advice I give in the future. “

“Learnt lots through networking. “

“Good to hear journeys as well as outcomes. “

“Three city mix was great. Learned lots but there is no A+B=C - more complicated than that!“

Check out this Campbell Live item on Seattle

High Point