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Rethinking the backyard from Seattle to Toronto

RobCasey iphone lorens house by Rob Casey on

The Urbanist recently published a guest post, called Let Us Build Backyard Cottages, that sounds a lot like a post I wrote a few years ago, called Why It’s Next to Impossible to Get a Laneway House Built in Toronto.

It’s the same story: buy house; see opportunity to build low-cost well-designed backyard cottage (or laneway house); discover the countless obstacles in front of you; give up until the land use policies become more favorable.

Here’s the Seattle version of the story (via The Urbanist):

I bought my home in 2014 with the intent of building a backyard cottage on the property. The property is a mere 4,080 square feet, with a large flat backyard that is mostly wasted space. The plan was to buy a small, prefabricated, and super-insulated (to Passive House standards) house. We would install it and move into it while we brought the main house up to Passive House standards as well, adding insulation and ventilation. We would then move into the main house while my parents (who are currently living on the East Coast, and want to move closer to us) move into the backyard cottage.

Unfortunately, Seattle’s backyard cottage requirements proved too onerous for us to move forward with building one. The requirement of an additional parking space was a bit irritating (especially considering that my family lives car-free near the future Roosevelt light rail station), despite the fact that we do technically have two parking spaces. But more frustrating than that, it was the owner-occupancy requirement that made us scrap our backyard cottage plans.

What I find interesting about all of this is that the same narrative is happening in multiple cities, from Seattle to Toronto. That, again, suggests to me that change is likely inevitable. Especially since Seattle seems further ahead in this regard compared to Toronto. Change is happening.

Of course, there are differences between accessory dwelling units (what The Urbanist wrote about) and independent laneway housing (what I wrote about). But I would classify them as being in the same family of urban change.

Most North American cities are clinging to a specific kind of single family housing typology. I can appreciate why. But I believe that there will be a tipping point.

I’m not sure that this year will be the year. Which is why I didn’t include laneway housing in my list of 10 city building predictions for 2016. But I think it will happen in the shorter term.

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