Metropolitan plans in Australia over the last decade have increasingly advocated for higher densities to accommodate growing urban populations. Higher housing densities are being supported for a whole range of reasons including to protect precious agricultural and bush land, to reduce sprawl and associated negative impacts such as increased travel times and distances.
However local planning controls, financing and development have not always been able to change as quickly to deliver on these targets, nor have communities embraced or agreed with such plans.
As planners, designers and developers struggle with how to implement alternatives on the ground, particularly in the face of community opposition it is interesting to discover more about innovative options that are out there. Not the ones that deliver more of the same – single detached, double garaged McMansions, or alternatively high rise apartments – but rather the middle ground, developments that not only increase densities, but also bring the benefits of density to the occupants without the perceived negative impacts.
Pocket Neighbourhoods by Ross Chapin (2011) offers some interesting alternatives and includes examples of compact housing developments that provide a sense of community and a link between neighbours through shared common spaces.
Increasing housing choice
One of the featured case studies is that of Kirkland, Washington (East of Seattle, U.S.A.). Kirkland city planners faced the challenge of how to increase housing supply and choice for a growing population while limiting sprawl and decided to invite developers and architects to write their own rules. There were few guidelines, but the main one was a limitation on the size and type of homes, thereby allowing more houses than would normally be permitted in a standard subdivision.
Creating new planning codes
The restrictions were that the city would accept only five applications and had no obligation to approve any of them. The ones that received approval and were constructed would be thoroughly evaluated and considered as the basis for a new planning code.
As a result of this, Danielson Grove was developed (see Pocket Neighbourhoods pages 74-77 for more details, picture below) and was one of only two projects accepted by the City of Kirkland under its Innovative Housing Demonstration Ordinance.
After the two projects were completed the city’s planning department followed up with an extensive evaluation to decide whether the regulations demonstrated should be permanently adopted citywide. The study found that they provided a welcome alternative to the large homes being built and integrated well with the surrounding community.
Benefits of Pocket Neighbourhoods
Due to the homes being noticeably smaller than the average house being built at this time, there was not a perception of higher density, nor was there a noticeable increase in traffic. As a result, most of the standards proposed in these sample projects were adopted in a new housing zone code.
The book also makes mention of two Aussies influential in this area, Paul Downton, co-founder of Urban Ecology Australia and Director of Ecopolis Architects responsible for the design of Christie Walk in Adelaide and David Engwicht and his concept of “mental speed bumps”, activities that naturally slow traffic down.