On an October night, a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), refugees, and small business owners joined a Zoom meeting to testify at the Denver Planning Board public hearing. Up for discussion was a neighborhood plan that included a strong language favoring single-family zoning. One after the next, the speakers argued racial origins of this zoning and pleaded for more inclusive housing options. This was the first time that an underserved community spoke up against single-family zoning in the city’s policies. As a result, the board voted to eliminate the specific “Single Unit” language from the document.
Everyone wants to live in vibrant healthy neighborhoods. Placeswith access to parks, grocery stores and restaurants; connected by safe streets lined with trees and sidewalks where children can ride bikes to school and seniors can meet for coffee. Places with good schools and jobs, housing choices, and opportunities to start a business. Neighborhoods where people can thrive regardless of who they are or where they come from; where a person’s identity does not determine their outcome.
Unfortunately, our nation has a long history of exclusionary land use policies that prevented nonwhite and non-traditional households from owning or renting homes in desirable neighborhoods. We also have a track record of public process that kept these demographics from participating or having a voice in city planning decisions. Many of these practices are still embedded in current zoning maps and culture and it will take time to reverse them.
For communities to be inclusive they need to provide diverse housing options for different demographics and income levels. In a complete neighborhood, a waiter should be able to live near the upscale restaurant where they work. A daycare teacher should be neighbors with the children that they care for. And doctors and nurses should all be able to live in the same community. The housing options should include the entire range on the “housing continuum” from homeless shelters, affordable rental housing, market-rate rental housing, first-time homeownership, and long-term homeownership.
Inclusive neighborhoods also have to be developed around a complete transportation network. As a third of our population does not drive (including people who are too young or too old to drive, have a disability, or cannot afford a car), creating walkable communities is a foundation to providing access to opportunity. Traffic safety (often called Vision Zero referring to the goal of zero fatalities and serious injuries) means that pedestrians and people in wheelchairs should be given priority over other modes as these are the most vulnerable street users. Frequent and reliable transit and protected bike lanes can connect people to schools and jobs reducing the need for driving.
Creating inclusive communities requires a policy framework that allows for diverse housing options everywhere, particularly in desirable neighborhoods near jobs, services and public transit. Comprehensive plans, neighborhood plans, and zoning reforms are strategies that cities use to address housing shortages and allow for inclusion of a variety of housing options. Some recent examples of comprehensive zoning changes include Minneapolis eliminated singlefamily zoning and allowed three-unit dwellings everywhere in the city. Portland passed a Residential Infill Project reform that allows up to four units, and an additional two if they are affordable. Cambridge passed a zoning overlay that permits affordable housing developments of up to seven stories in all zoning districts. Getting involved in the conversations about land use and advocating for equity and inclusion in our own “back yards” is a good way to advance local policies.
While policy change is a complex, multi-layer process that requires collaboration of politicians, advocates, planners, developers, architects and community members there are building blocks and approaches that we can implement, immediately on a smaller scale to start reversing the history of segregation.
Accessory Dwelling Units, also referred to as backyard cottages, or granny flats, have been around for a long time but are experiencing a renaissance. Accessible from an alley, often located above a garage, they add rental units to singlefamily neighborhoods, allowing for more income diversity and additional supply of housing. ADUs are a great starter home for younger demographics and are also an opportunity for “aging in place” as older couples look to downsize but still want to remain in the neighborhood they have grown to love.
Cooperative housing, also referred to as co-living or groupliving, is gaining momentum as an entry level homeownership tool. People have the opportunity to buy “shares” of a mortgage and benefit from increased property value without the burden of owning the entire home.
“Gentle density infill” is a great tool for introducing more housing options into single-family neighborhoods. Small condominium or apartment buildings with four to 20 units fit in with traditional homes in terms of scale and neighborhood character but bring more efficiency to the land use and allow more people to live in desirable areas near jobs, services, amenities and transportation.
Adaptive reuse of structures such as shopping malls or office buildings present opportunities for creating housing near job centers. Redevelopment of school sites (school districts are often large landowners) can lead to public-private partnerships. As sprawling, single-story, outdated school facilities are replaced with multi-floor structures they can free up land for faculty housing.
There’s much work to be done to undo past injustices and reverse the system of segregated communities. But as designers and developers of the places people call home, we have an important role to play. Through partnerships, we can deliver mixed-income developments that provide a safe, healthy and comfortable home for people of all walks of life. The buildings and developments we are working on today will shape places where future generations will live. As architects and planners, we have an amazing opportunity and the responsibility to design the more inclusive and equitable future that we all want.