Missing Middle in the Burbs

“We live in the suburbs!” my friend joked one afternoon over drinks in her pretty backyard. In truth, we live in a small community of less than 10,000 people where suburbs don’t really exist—at least not in the same way as where I grew up in the Chicago Metro Region. But my friend and I live on (ahem) cul-de-sacs in a subdivision on the outskirts of town. You heard me right—yes, I am an urban planner that specializes in transportation and I will admit to you here and now that I live on a cul-de-sac, the arch nemesis of all good street network design. My mother teases me about this often—she never thought I’d live in a house with a driveway, let alone on a cul-de-sac.

But we’ll save my critique of my neighborhood’s street network for another blog.

What’s really been on my mind lately is that even though I live in this very suburban-style subdivision on the edge of my community, there is still a surprising amount of housing variety tucked inside. Yes, I live on a cul-de-sac of single family homes, but some are as small as 1200 square feet, and some are double that size. Scattered throughout our neighborhood we have townhomes, row houses, patio homes, and condominiums. Classic Missing Middle stuff. Even so, our neighborhood streets are not overcrowded with parked cars, and it is incredibly quiet.

My neighborhood was built in the 1980’s, in an era when the single-family, cookie cutter subdivision development reigned supreme. Though the homes aren’t brand-spanking new any longer, they’re more relevant than ever. Household sizes are shrinking and our population is aging and, frankly, people both need and want different things than they did 40 years ago. Shouldn’t our neighborhoods be designed to accommodate these varying preferences, rather than just upper middle class families with 2.1 kids?

Here is what I love about this—across the street from me, two sisters bought small homes that are right next door to one another. They grew up a few blocks away, in a larger house where their mom still lives. The whole family could stay in the same neighborhood because it offered a variety of housing. As the mom grows older and perhaps no longer wants a yard, she could still stay in this same neighborhood and purchase a condominium down the block.

I think too often when we talk about Missing Middle housing, we talk about it in the context of incremental infill—small development projects that happen within existing neighborhoods. We encourage communities to think about empty lots in their downtown or underutilized spaces along commercial corridors for this type of development. We don’t often talk about Missing Middle when we are talking about the big housing developments that happen on the periphery of our communities—maybe because we really hope to encourage that all new growth be accommodated where development already exists.

The reality, though, is that in some places, incremental infill isn’t enough to solve our housing crisis—at least not quickly. What about places like my valley where we are literally in a deficit of thousands of housing units? We can’t retain teachers, police officers, EMTs and other public servants. Businesses struggle to expand because there aren’t places for employees to live. People are getting displaced due to escalating housing costs every day. We see the demand for housing, and the fact is that to solve it in a timely manner, there is going to be some growth at the edges of our communities. But that doesn’t mean it has to be the type of cookie cutter, sprawl development that we are used to seeing. We can make it possible for these developments to incorporate housing choice, and ensure that they are designed with a connected street work that offers residents options for how they get around.

My neighborhood is proof that subdivisions can be perfectly appropriate places for Missing Middle housing. Thinking about how we can incorporate housing diversity into these types of developments, as well as within incremental infill projects, is crucial if we want to ensure we are building inclusive communities that meet the needs of all our neighbors.

When we talk about livability, we love to talk about downtowns and walkable urban neighborhoods. The truth is, development continues to happen on the outskirts of our community and likely will continue, even as many communities shift their focus to downtown. How can we ensure that this type of development is also livable? Besides incorporating Missing Middle housing, how else can development at the edges of our community be better?

  • Housing