Some city planning experts believe that gentle density can mitigate housing crises, even in the hardest-hit areas, while preserving neighborhood character and even increasing property values. The appeal of this type of development is that it allows for compromise between suburban stagnation and urban gentrification (plus the name is fantastic in an Eighties jam-band sort of way). But how exactly does it compare to medium density? And let’s also consider the inherent controversy that comes with allowing many small construction projects to move a wave of newcomers into a residential neighborhood.
Gentle density -- the concept
Devised for minimal impact on a neighborhood, gentle density housing is ground-level, small-scale attached housing often connected to existing single-family homes -- and almost always on land formerly zoned for detached single-family houses.
The term was created by Brent Toderian, a Canadian city planner and thought leader who champions affordable housing innovation and other "issues of advanced urbanism."
By name and by nature, gentle density isn’t something you'll necessarily notice on the uptick, even if it’s happening all around you. It attempts to build on unused square footage in a single-family residential zoned neighborhood, instead of tearing down all the single-family homes and building multistory towers.
Types of housing that qualify
Townhouses, row houses, triplexes, and small-scale ground-oriented condominium developments all could be classified within gentle density development. However, the type of gentle density development that’s really taking off in California and other staunchly suburban states is the relaxation of single-family zoning that allows single-family homeowners to build additional accessory dwelling units (ADU) on their properties.
How does gentle density impact a neighborhood?
In short, gentle density development increases available housing units but spreads those newly available units across a larger area than high-density would. The effect of an increase in gentle density housing is ideally subtle and quite positive in the sense that it increases available housing with minimal disruption to the fabric of a neighborhood.
When a neighborhood is experiencing development for higher density or medium density, everyone knows immediately because highrises are going up in lots where single-family homes or freestanding retail buildings used to exist. With gentle density development, most homes will remain, but the homeowners themselves might be busily working on home additions that will ultimately increase property values. Some lots might see duplex or triplex development, but there won’t be high rises.
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.