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Are medium-density neighborhoods the answer to community planning in the future?

May 13, 2020

By Joe Polacek and Beth Elliott

A stronger connection to nature and sense of community will play a big role in future communities

As urban planners, we’ve seen several trends in our community during this pandemic. Even in these tough times, we’ve been reminded that people can still get excited about nature, whether they are going to the park or even just down the street. People are also still committed to their local community—seeing neighbors from a safe distance or enjoying takeout from a local restaurant are important to them.

How will these trends impact the future of planning? We anticipate that the need for nature and a feeling of local community will lead to an increase in the amount of medium-density developments in the future. It’s something that has been missing from a lot of cities as developments have primarily taken the form of low-density subdivisions at the edge of the metro and high-density buildings in city centers. 

At the beginning of the 1900s, people that lived in cities were usually in highly dense environments without the parks and green spaces we’re now accustomed to in cities today. As many authors have written about lately, the flu pandemic of 1918 was one of the factors that led planners to more thoughtfully locate parks throughout their communities. After World War II, people were attracted to the space offered affordably in low-density subdivisions. Decades later, the Great Recession caused large shifts of the population to downsize to dense urban core areas where they could walk to the nearest restaurant or museum. And yes, they also have wanted to be able to walk to the nearest park. Now, people are looking for an option that is somewhere in-between. 

The “missing middle”

Each market turn, demographic shift, or natural or health disaster has resulted in new ways of viewing the future of our cities. During this cycle, we anticipate that people are going to be looking for housing that’s in the middle – sometimes referred to as the “missing middle.” This increase in demand is largely going to be a result of two amenities that medium-density communities can offer: connection to nature and connection to community. People will increasingly look for housing in vibrant and walkable communities that also has great access to parks and private yards. 

These two things might have seemed mutually exclusive before: you could either live at the center of town, or you could have great access to parks. But we can have both of these spaces at once. In fact, we’ve seen cities developed densely while prioritizing connections to the outdoors for a very long time—Minneapolis, Minnesota is a prime example.

People will increasingly look for housing in vibrant and walkable communities that also has great access to parks and private yards. We’ve seen cities developed densely while prioritizing connections to the outdoors for a very long time – Minneapolis being a prime example.

Minneapolis has an award-winning park system—our parks are everywhere. There are large regional parks dispersed throughout the city, and then there are also small block-sized parks in every neighborhood. We can thank the visionary planning in the 19th-century for ensuring that there was a park within a 10-minute walk of every resident in the city. 

Today, we are looking for the same things in housing: A connection to nature and connection to community. The pandemic has exacerbated that demand, and we anticipate a sharp increase in the demand for medium-density housing in the coming years. 

The development along the Greenway in Minneapolis, Minnesota is a mix of low-, medium-, to high-density residential located at an intersection in the city’s bicycle network.

Medium-density neighborhoods of the future

Housing trends have been shifting toward ‘downsizing’ for some time now. A smaller portion of the population is looking for large houses at the edge of the metro, and a larger portion is looking for housing that is reasonable to maintain and within neighborhoods where you want to walk places and access multiple modes of transportation. Within those criteria, there’s a wide range of housing types to satisfy demand. We’ve seen an increase in areas that have a mix of apartment buildings, townhouses, and single-family homes both near established city centers and in new developments in low-density suburbs.

The pandemic has made it clear how important it is for us to get outside. We go crazy without it. This experience of social distancing is showing people the differences between poor outdoor environments and good ones. We’ve seen roads opened to pedestrians and air quality improved. We want to be able to get outside without requiring to get in the car.

Medium-density communities can provide what’s increasingly in-demand: access to nature and access to community.

Demand will increasingly be for communities that are close to nature as well close to people, as well as the amenities those both provide. The pandemic has also reminded us how important it is for us to see people, such as friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers. An increasingly larger portion of the population will be looking for housing in the next few years that is in close proximity to other people. The stores and restaurants those people run will also take higher priority – shopping local has also become an increased priority through the pandemic. 

Working on projects that are denser with both connections to the outdoors and connections to people and culture is also nothing new to Stantec. The Mueller Redevelopment in Austin, Texas is a great example of our work. The development included a range of housing types—from six-story apartment buildings to single family homes—and the entire neighborhood is designed to make walking, biking, and getting outside inspired and comfortable. Some neighbors own their own homes with communal parks and small yards, others live in apartment buildings with large balconies hanging from the side. Everyone has great access to the outdoors.

The Mueller Redevelopment in Austin, Texas is a neighborhood with a mix of single-family, townhouse, and multi-family residential within walking distance of markets and restaurants.

The medium-density neighborhood offers housing with good connections to neighbors, surrounding neighborhoods, and expansive food options that Austin has to offer. Neighbors see other neighbors from their front porches or while passing by on comfortable bikeways. Mueller supplies easy ways for people to see people and easily walk to the store from their homes—basic pleasures that people are valuing higher in times like these.

Seeing the big picture while focusing on details

We’re going to see more people moving into smaller homes with smaller yards—or no yard at all—and that population density will require a greater attention to detail. Those details, experienced by a greater population, will receive greater scrutiny and opportunity for excellence. Beauty in water infiltration ponds, texture of an intersection crossing, and architectural form will all be looked at by more people every day. 

The result of this demand for medium-density housing? Our clients will also need increasingly robust infrastructure that is resilient to change. This was a significant priority in the Mueller neighborhood, as these projects will function through catastrophic events while also supporting infill and redevelopment. This infrastructure will function for many years and serve users travelling at different speeds and in many directions. It’s going to be these dense, robust, and resilient systems that serve our communities with a growing diversity of low-, medium-, and high-density housing stock.  

As designers, we have the opportunity to flex with the details. How do impervious surfaces meet pervious surfaces in ways that protect nearby green spaces? How does it feel to step from the sidewalk onto the road to greet a neighbor across the street? What is the viewshed of a user walking through an alley to a nearby lake?

As we design more medium-density communities, we can put ourselves in the minds of the users—imagining people enjoying their neighborhood and its connection to both nature and community.  

  • Joe Polacek

    An urban planner with a focus on community engagement, Joe works to serve our clients and communities with solutions that deliver what people want and need.

    Contact Joe
  • Beth Elliott

    As the downtown planner for the City of Minneapolis, Beth has spent 15 years working on capital and facilities planning, in-fill development, historic preservation, and public participation methods.

    Contact Beth
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