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A Nuts-and-Bolts Guide to Density People Actually Want

A new book sees the solution to housing shortages in humble "missing middle" forms.

Houses in Old Louisville neighborhood. EQRoy / Shutterstock.com

Missing Middle Housing: Thinking Big and Building Small to Respond to Today’s Housing Crisis, Daniel G. Parolek, Island Press, 328 pages

Around the turn of the century, my great-grandmother moved to Louisville from the small town of Paris, Kentucky. With my teenage grandmother, her youngest daughter, in tow, they first lived in a divided-up old mansion in Old Louisville, sharing the building with a widow and a young family. Unbeknownst to my grandmother at the time, my grandfather, her future husband, was growing up in a similarly divided-up old mansion a few blocks northeast of her. 

The street they lived on, like the neighborhood writ large, was superficially uniform: a blend of two- to three-story mansions, done up in late-Victorian styles. But the similarities ended there. While some of the houses remained “oneplexes,” many more had been subdivided into duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to house the thousands of rural migrants drawn in by Louisville’s factory work. The less remarkable houses, often on corners and busy corridors, were turned into delis or apartment buildings, and more than a few garages were converted into alleyway granny flats. 

The eclectic mix of housing options meant that, while Old Louisville was still outwardly a neighborhood of turn-of-the-century mansions, it was, in fact, an exceptionally diverse place, with laborers and unreformed hillbillies living side-by-side with dentists and accountants. Any given apartment might not have been so glamorous, but for folks like my great-grandmother, it was their ticket into the city. Old Louisville’s understated density also helped to keep the neighborhood walkable, with residents well served by local shops and services, including regular bus lines to and from downtown. All of this urban life was tucked neatly into the massing of a low-rise neighborhood. 

As cities across the country struggle to add more housing and build walkable communities in the rubble of 20th-century planning, the thesis of Missing Middle Housing is that we have a lot to learn from beloved neighborhoods like Old Louisville. Originally coined by author and urban designer Daniel Parolek, “missing middle” refers to housing that falls somewhere between detached single-family houses and mid-rise apartments, including typologies such as duplexes, cottage courts, townhouses, and fourplexes—that is to say, the “house-scale” multifamily residential that has mostly gone missing in U.S. cities since the advent of zoning. Indeed, it would be illegal to build a neighborhood like Old Louisville in Louisville today. 

The case for missing middle housing is straightforward enough: working with urban planning guru Author C. Nelson, Parolek points the reader to the burgeoning demand for the types of walkable communities that only a reasonably dense neighborhood can provide. The demographics are also on their side. For better or worse, more Millennials are living alone and having fewer children, while Boomers are in the early stages of retiring and downsizing en masse. Whatever your personal living preferences, it’s clear that cities are going to need far more fourplexes and far fewer McMansions in the decades to come. 

When the zoning allows them, developers are eager to build them. But that’s the catch: Zoning rarely allows missing middle housing, hence the “missing” moniker. American zoning has an unhealthy preoccupation with segregating uses and capping densities, which serves to privilege the detached single-family home above all else. No duplexes or live-work units, to say nothing of corner groceries or neighborhood doctors’ offices. Urban density, to the extent it’s allowed at all, is reduced to abstract and arbitrary metrics like “units per acre.” Meanwhile, other than a handful of lazy specifications like setbacks and lot coverage, zoning largely ignores the form that these uses and density might take. 

According to Parolek, contemporary zoning has its priorities backward. If it looks like a traditional house, the author contends, people don’t much mind how many units it contains. It’s a political wager that Parolek makes with no shortage of evidence. Drawing on his work as the founding principal at a planning consultancy, the book is rich with case studies: townhomes in South Jordan, Utah, a kind of Mormon New Urbanist utopia in the suburbs of Salt Lake City; cottage courts in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, a tony Providence exurb. 

Missing Middle Housing is lavishly illustrated with photographs of missing middle housing aplenty, catnip for the Street View-addicted urbanist. Written as it is by the co-founder of the Form-Based Codes Institute, the book is equally rich with numbers. On the lower bound—think duplexes and townhouses—Parolek posits missing middle design specifications as running about 2.5 stories tall, 55 feet wide, and 65 feet deep. At the upper bound—think fourplexes and courtyard apartments—it runs about four stories tall, 75 feet wide, and 100 feet deep. Case studies come complete with a pared-down pro forma, refusing to neglect, as so many design books do, the essential question of whether the dream even pencils. A shallow coffee table book this is not. 

At times, the idea that such detailed design specifications should be neatly translated into zoning gave this market urbanist pause. But one can appreciate that this is the level of design detail that many planners will expect before signing onto a radical program of liberalizing (to say nothing of scrapping) use and density rules. As so many urbanists focus their activism on getting states to make municipalities do the right thing and allow more infill housing, Parolek’s project is to sell a vision for urban growth that low-density towns and suburbs might actually want to buy. 

The name “missing” presupposes a bit of a mystery, one not entirely addressed by the book: yes, zoning makes missing middle housing impossible to build today. But who killed it in the first place? And why? 

When I became a planner in New York City, the city had just spent the preceding two decades replacing many missing middle-style zones with conventional single-family zones. The reasons were often undeserving of deference, including animosity toward newly arriving Hispanic and South Asian families, the modern corollary of the midcentury migrant country bumpkin, with their strange customs and large extended families. There was also a fair share of the hysteria over property values that planners have come to expect. 

But other concerns were more sympathetic, such as the city government’s inability to scale up public services like schools and transit commensurate to growth. Whether regimented massing and thoughtful design can overcome these unresolved governance issues on a mass scale remains to be seen. 

When I told my grandmother that Old Louisville is now one of Louisville’s more posh neighborhoods, she didn’t believe me. “Hm, I would have to see it for myself,” she cautioned. When she and her mother decamped for the hyper-planned suburbs, the gentle urbanism of Old Louisville had fallen deeply out of fashion with planners in Louisville and Washington alike. 

A half-century later, the tables have turned. The low-slung suburb she moved to is now in deep decline, while Old Louisville is a cherished neighborhood protected by every preservation ordinance on the book. In the years to come, it won’t be enough to merely preserve the missing middle neighborhoods we inherited. We will need to build many hundreds more. Toward this end, Missing Middle Housing will serve as a valuable resource. 

Nolan Gray is a former professional city planner and a fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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