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Not in Your Back Yard: Canada Fights About “Coach Houses”

We're going to have to get serious about urban infill if we're going to make our cities sustainable. Vancouver had a great idea along these lines....

We're going to have to get serious about urban infill if we're going to make our cities sustainable. Vancouver had a great idea along these lines. In July, the city council passed a bylaw allowing homeowners to convert stand-alone garages into new rental units.These so-called "coach houses" make a lot of sense. By using former car space to make denser residential neighborhoods they help solve two city efficiency problems: They put pressure on people to move away from cars and towards mass transit by providing an economic incentive for people to give up their garages and they also provide for more housing near urban centers, shortening the distances people need to travel.These coach houses (or lane houses) can also be pretty attractive. GOOD recently did a piece on LaneFab, one company designing and building particularly nice ones.But the plan is having a hard time branching out into Vancouver's neighboring cities. In the City of North Vancouver, the effort to allow these "coach house" developments stalled in the city council. Evidently, people are worried that allowing coach houses will destroy sprawling single-family residential neighborhoods, which is, of course, exactly the point. This is from a letter to the editor from the local North Shore News:Coach houses could be built in any single-family neighbourhood anywhere in the city. This change would be the same as duplex zoning in effect. There will be two separate houses on one lot. Coach houses will increase crowding, noise, vehicles, waste and demand on services.This concerned resident is right, of course, that there will be more waste and demand on services in that area. But there will be fewer vehicles and a lower demand on services per capita, which is really the measure that matters if you're thinking about the health of a city as a whole.Another recent letter to the North Shore News argues for reevaluating the coach house question in North Vancouver:The North Shore is going to densify. The only question is how this densification is going to happen. It's a fair bet that most of us would be against expanding up into our mountains. It's like the starving man starting to eat himself-a short-sighted solution leading to an undesirable end. But buildable land on the North Shore is all but gone and we're stuck with few options. We can go up, of course, and this is a reasonable solution in some cases, but densification by building towers is very different than the densification created by low-rise structures knitted more tightly together.Picture the brownstones and townhomes of a New York City streetscape or the classic Montreal walk-up duplexes and triplexes that meet the demands of cities with rapidly growing populations. The sense of community and neighbourhood created by these low-rise models are far more intimate, and in my mind far more successful, than the general anonymity of tower living.The author, Kevin Vallely, is right. Densification is inevitable, and it's these kinds of infill projects we really have to fight for.

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