Successful medium density in North America 2013

Back to Resources

April 2013 saw Beacon leading a study tour of successful medium density developments in Victoria BC, Seattle and Portland.

The 15 participants represented a range of central and local government, housing developers, group builders and others with an interest in housing development, from across New Zealand.

The schedule was a busy one which took in a wide range of housing developments and neighbourhoods illustrating innovative housing solutions to increased density of existing neighbourhoods, adaptive re-use of commercial and other buildings, and new developments which ranged from small cohousing developments to much larger mixed use and mixed housing developments.


Parallels and differences

There are so many parallels between these cities and New Zealand.  All three cities are expensive housing markets where market models have successfully delivered to the middle and top end of the market but where delivering affordable housing is a real need.  All three cities are struggling to cater for growth in housing demand. All three cities face challenges with an ageing local population, Asian migration and young families struggling to enter the housing market. All three areas are seismically challenged and are particularly nervous after following the Canterbury quakes and aftermath.

Where New Zealand differs markedly is that Victoria, Portland and Seattle have been active for over 30 years in the non-market / non-state provision of affordable and supportive housing both to buy and to rent. Increased densities in these cities have come through a number of parties working successfully in partnership. This includes local government, developers, state agencies, not-for-profits and various funders.  A primary aim is to make it easier for developers and builders to meet housing demand for affordable ownership and lower cost rental apartments.  Policies have been introduced to increase density of existing and new neighbourhoods in ways that foster increased quality of life and local liveability.  On offer are a range of initiatives which include secondary suites in larger dwellings, laneway homes, garden suites and incentivising developers to seismically retrofit heritage buildings while providing additional residential units.

Similarly there are innovative funding mechanisms where developers, alongside not-for-profits, can access council housing funds (who use targeted rate type mechanisms to grow housing fund reserves) which provide leverage to access federal funding (through IRS tax credits) and market funds.


Affordable housing

  • Little distinction between quality of affordable housing, rental and  condominiums on open market
  • Really get the need for quality when building affordable housing. Quality and affordability go hand in hand.
  • Many examples of developments providing affordable housing alongside other residential and mixed uses.

Involve communities

  • Recognise - homes and neighbourhoods are the hard infrastructure for city life.
  • Range of structures developed via activism eg advocates and supporters for first home buyers, Citizen Review Committees,
  • Participation - bottom up planning, Citizen’s Review Committees, NDAs within an agreed framework.
  • Demonstrate, Demonstrate, Demonstrate.

Potential for invisible densification

  • Invisible density - using what is already there in innovative ways (laneway housing, secondary suites, converting non residential buildings. Providing incentives and creating simple processes to both encourage and enable
  • Work with what is already there - use existing resources differently, ‘invisible’ density, linked to hierarchy of transport
  • Seismic upgrades linked to increased residential

Mixed use design

  • Step the change - achievable scale; work together with others; research, measure and promote combination of 2-3 storey with higher, set back from road. Craft first 10 metres etc, work with existing neighbourhood.
  • Mix it up - mixed use, mixed income, mixed ownership §Balance accessible shared and open space with density.
  • Attention to detail - craft the first 10 metres; include art, education, events in public space.

Leveraging resources

  • Council leading by leveraging resources of others and civic buildings including housing.
  • Funding - federal, state and city with corporate, philanthropic and range of organisations e.g. NDA, PDA, CDC, Land Trusts

The Beacon Blog

Read Nick Collins’ blog

Roof garden, US

High Point

Croft Townhouses