What housing trends or buzzwords is gentle density related to?
Missing-middle housing used to mean multi-unit housing that could support increased population density at an affordable price point in walkable city areas. These days, the "missing middle" is all the people that could benefit from such housing, but in many cases they can no longer find it in the urban core. It has also come to be sadly self-evident: Missing-middle housing is in extremely short supply, and there are many conversations going on about how to bring it back. Gentle density is one of the most often proposed solutions.
This is another way to make use of unused land in developed neighborhoods, but the key difference is, infill development might take place on lots in neighborhoods zoned for mixed use or commercial.
This is the antithesis of gentle density and is typically focused on rezoning and rebuilding to bring the highest number of housing units to a neighborhood in an urban core. High density is needed in many cities, but it has many detractors.
You often see the "Not In My Backyard" hardliners referenced in the same paragraph as gentle density, because in theory, this is a development style that should appease them -- although in practice, it often doesn’t. Even minimal impact on a neighborhood is too much for some anti-development activists.
Benefits of gentle density
Not only does gentle density confine development to other homeowners’ backyards, it preserves the look of neighborhoods by allowing homeowners to build onto their own homes, although not to an extent that requires rezoning. It's also good for the neighborhood, because more square footage of living space on a property increases a property’s value -- and increasing the value of several properties in a neighborhood lifts the potential appraisal value of all homes in the neighborhood.
Problems with gentle density
Even if it may be spread across several lots and independent property owners, gentle density development is still development. It brings noise and some disruption into the neighborhood. It brings construction crews into homeowners’ backyards. And ultimately, it turns residential neighborhoods that were formerly exclusively single-family into neighborhoods with townhouses, triplexes, and other small-scale multifamily buildings. One type of gentle density development -- the type that California’s new legislation broadly encourages -- allows pretty much any single-family homeowner to become a landlord of an ADU…or two.
Examples of gentle density in action
The concept of gentle density was born in Vancouver, Canada, where Toderian served as city planner. In the United States, Minneapolis became a poster city for gentle density development when it outlawed exclusively single-family zoning in neighborhoods that had always been single family previously. More recently, California introduced sweeping legislation to combat its housing shortage by allowing gentle density through permitting all single-family homeowners to build ADUs on their property, regardless of zoning. This has created a major spike in home additions all around California, although the temptation of quick Airbnb profits has been squashed by Covid19 and government crackdowns.
Gentle density: an imperfect but smart compromise
The idea of gentle density hasn’t been around very long. It was coined in response to a very modern problem: the dichotomy between depressed urban areas and transportation-challenged, white-picket-fence suburbia. While any sweeping city planning changes or new regulations will inspire backlash, these are the types of experiments that city planners need to engage in, if communities want to fight homelessness without allowing skyscrapers on Main Street.