Abundant Middle Housing
Four weeks ago, I left Seattle to take a job in Germany. It was not a spur of the moment thing, my wife and I have been talking about doing this for <checks notes> 15 years now (I cannot believe it’s been that long since we lived in Freiburg… Wow). The last few years have been pretty good for our family, however quality of life in Seattle took a big turn for the worse with the election of Mayor Durkan.
There are a couple of reasons we moved, but two of the big ones are housing costs (mercer mega block’s RFP was published almost a year ago, still no award), and the lack of safe streets. The latter is a big one for us, we are a bike+transit family, and my wife has been hit twice, assaulted, screamed at, mansplained ad nauseum, and berated while riding. We also have two young kids who are big into biking, and with Seattle’s ‘Climate [In]Action Mayor’ actively killing safe streets and bike projects all over the city, we knew things wouldn’t be getting better any time soon.
I previously worked in Germany, met my wife in Germany, lived in Germany as a kid, studied German in high school and college, and my professional interests as an architect (official now — whoa) revolve around things that one can pursue here, but by and large, not so much in Seattle: social housing, baugruppen, passivhaus, and mass timber construction. So, when the opportunity came to work abroad again, we did some ROM calcs and decided to dive in head first. It is a good opportunity for my professional development, yes, but also to live our values, step out of the rat race, and slow down while our kids are still young. The city we moved to is incredibly accessible by bike. There are car-free trails that go on for miles. Trains galore. You definitely don’t need a car here (which is good, we don’t have one).
But that’s not even the big take away for me.
The big take away is that there is no single family zoning here (Zero is, in fact, the correct amount of single family zoning — there is no single family zoning *anywhere* in Germany. Or Austria. Or Japan…), and more impressively, there don’t seem to be very many single family homes here, either. You can’t walk a block without running into missing middle homes. In fact it isn’t actually missing here, it’s absurdly abundant. What is missing middle housing? It is duplexes, triplexes, rowhouses, apartments, garden courts and similarly sized housing required for a minimum of density to enable walkable neighborhoods. And it is *everywhere* here.
From the Altstadt (historic core of the city) to the outskirts — 2-to-4 story multifamily buildings are the norm, and it feels quite comfortable. Schools and parks aren’t surrounded by acres and acres of luxury detached homes —rather, nearly all of the parks and schools are surrounded by multifamily housing. Sadly, this isn’t standard practice in US cities like Seattle.
Despite all the horrors of buildings touching, bike lanes, and pedestrian zones — life seems to go on. A triplex being built next to a detached home is just a way of life, it’s not an existential threat to the neighborhood. Turns out, when your city is zoned to allow a diversity of housing types (as opposed to the straitjacket of exclusionary zoning), it is quite possible to have moderately dense, walkable, bikeable neighborhoods where all your daily needs are readily accessible (OK, it’s Germany, so most things are closed on Sundays… But still).
And did I mention the bikes? Seriously, the entire city can be navigated by bike, and almost all of it can be done without much interaction with automobiles. This is in large part owing to a density that enables such a lifestyle. If it were all detached houses, the city would consume 6 times as much space, and it would take over an hour to bike from the outskirts to the core. The cross section of cyclists is incredible: kiddos, students, parents, workers, immigrants, bosses, and the elderly. It’s an efficient way to get around the city — it’s a little faster than transit (given the historic road layout), significantly faster than walking, and a fraction of the cost of driving.
A hundred years ago, neighborhoods and homes like this were legal everywhere in cities like Seattle. It’s time to remove the straitjacket of ‘one size fits few’ single family zoning. It’s time for Abundant Middle Housing.