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Vancouver, Ottawa, Edmonton: How 3 cities are tackling the missing middle

In Toronto, we talk a lot about the “missing middle” – the concept that there is a lack of housin...

In Toronto, we talk a lot about the “missing middle” – the concept that there is a lack of housing options falling somewhere in between detached homes and mid-rise and tall buildings.

This is an issue in Toronto due in part to the city’s longstanding history of promoting policy that “protects” low-density neighbourhoods filled with single-detached homes.

Such policy greatly restricts the development of any other higher-density form of building. It also limits our ability to create more housing stock in established neighbourhoods with good connections to transit, amenities and services.

But, this is not a problem exclusive to Toronto. Cities across Canada are facing similar challenges and combatting them in different ways, from which Toronto could learn.

Vancouver: Quick action ideas

Vancouver is another large Canadian city with a missing middle problem. The city is working on a few large and detailed programs, like the Vancouver Plan that will provide an actionable road map for Vancouver on many fronts, including its housing future.

However, while long-term plans like this are being finalized, the city is also addressing this type of housing through “quick action ideas” meant to mobilize change efficiently and creatively.

One example of a quick action idea is a secured rental policy that allows rental rezoning in some low-density areas close to transit and amenities. This policy makes rezoning for rental multiplexes, townhouses and mid-rise buildings easier and faster and adds important rental units to the housing market.

A second example of Vancouver’s quick action ideas is the approval of triplexes and fourplexes on smaller lots and up to six-unit multiplexes on larger lots in low-density residential neighbourhoods.

This provides the proper encouragement so teardowns of single-detached homes are replaced by multiple-unit dwellings, instead of new single-detached homes.

Beyond policy, Vancouver-based organization Urbanarium hosted a missing middle design competition in 2018. The purpose of this competition was to develop innovation solutions to the city’s missing middle problem.

Participants tackled one of four sites and came up with proposals that would address Vancouver’s affordability and social health challenges. The final result was an inspiring collection of designs and five recommended policies that could expand missing middle options throughout the city.

Ottawa: The 15-minute neighbourhood

Ottawa’s  strategy is focused on increasing the supply of larger units in 15-minute neighbourhoods.

Ottawa has experienced urban sprawl as young families have left small units in search of big backyards and more bedrooms in the periphery of the city, explained Royce Fu, Planner III, research and forecasting, City of Ottawa.

In response, the city’s missing middle solutions aim to provide new options for those who may wish to return to urban centres, to areas where most day-to-day needs are within a 15-minute walk from their home.

The 613 Flats concept provides a vision for what these larger units could look like. “613” references Ottawa’s area code but also alludes to a suggested configuration for larger, family-friendly units – six rooms in total, one bathroom, and three bedrooms.

There are multiple typologies this concept could be presented in, but all would help transform existing lots for gentle, but increased density.

Ottawa’s unique focus recognizes missing middle housing located in undesirable areas comprised of studio units is not a real solution. The city is currently drafting a new Official Plan in which it intends to encourage more multiple missing middle solutions like 613 Flats.

Edmonton: The Infill Road Map

In Edmonton, the city launched the Infill Road Map in 2018 to address the missing middle issue. The purpose of this program was to welcome more people and new homes into Edmonton communities.

It identified strategies for adding more medium and high-scale infill and laneway housing throughout key areas in the city.

These ideas were then later implemented in the city’s zoning by-law in 2019 and promoted via a design competition.

Key changes included an increase in the scale of housing allowed between different zones, the allowance of secondary and garden suites in low-density neighbourhoods with single-detached houses and the introduction of density minimums in some zones.

Next steps for Toronto

The City of Toronto has been making some headway as well through the Expanding Housing Options in Neighbourhoods program.

This has helped with things like permitting new types of accessory housing, including garden suites (as council discussed recently) and coach housing. However, much more work is still needed.

Addressing the missing middle in Toronto will require a comprehensive and widespread approach.

It will mean convincing residents in quiet, low-density neighbourhoods that more housing options and more density is good for the whole community. It will require more flexibility from the approval system to allow innovation and creativity to flourish.

Addressing the missing middle will not happen overnight, but if we can take hints and lessons from other cities, then maybe solutions will be a little bolder and come a little faster.

To stay abreast of this issue in Toronto, Columnist Naama Blonder has created Missing Middle TO on LinkedIn.

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