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The term ‘Missing Middle’ is now in common use in major cities across the country in discussions around densification, housing choice and affordability. It was first coined by American architect Daniel Parolek to describe “a range of multi-unit or clustered housing types, compatible in scale with single-family homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.

By Shirley Shen

Evergreen’s Toronto Housing Action Lab Research and Report

According to Michelle German, Manager of Evergreen’s Toronto Housing Action Lab, the ‘missing middle’ is already negatively impacting the city in a variety of ways:

“From a social perspective, a market that no longer provides housing opportunities for everyday households risks robbing the city of its vitality, creativity and opportunity. Future generations will seek to live elsewhere and newcomers will face discouraging prospects.”

In 2017-2018, Evergreen convened a working group to identify the issues arising from the ‘missing middle’ in Toronto and to report on potential solutions. The Working Group identified three reasons why attention should be paid to the missing middle now:

1. Many families renting in Toronto are living in housing that does not have enough bedrooms for their size and makeup.

2. Middle income wages have not kept pace with the cost of housing – both rental and ownership options.

3. Many middle age households can’t access the ownership market – so are staying longer in the rental market creating stagnation and record low vacancy rates.

Evergreen’s report was published in August of 2018 and is  available here.

The following year, Vancouver architects began a similar investigation, in this case the aim being not only to propose new guidelines to promote Missing Middle forms of development, but also to offer design solutions.

The Urbanarium Design Competition,  Vancouver

In 2018, led by architect Bruce Haden, the Urbanarium held an open design competition to develop and present options for addressing Metro Vancouver’s affordability and social health challenges. There were four study areas in Vancouver, Port Coquitlam, Burnaby and Surrey, with each entrant being assigned one area at random. 

Each study area was around four blocks in size and competitors selected one-or two single-family lots to design, providing some contextual assessment based on the study area and municipal plans and by-laws.   

Competitors were required to address affordability, sociability and design excellence. Central to their work was the creation of pro forma including revenue, land costs and construction value. 

There was a strong consensus amongst the competitors around the required changes in municipal policy that would support the creation of a much greater range of housing options in current single family neighbourhoods. The four winners presented their prposals to staff around Metro Vancouver, including Vancouver, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody and New Westminster as of September 2018.

Heaccity Studio Winning Entry

Increasing affordable housing in Metro Vancouver requires the provision of additional units that break  from existing models of  development and financing,  while shifting the constrictive culture  around tenure and  ownership.

We proposed a zoning amendment for the ‘buffer zones’ – the first three blocks flanking arterial roads  – between mixed use / commercial zones and single-family neighbourhoods. Signaling the residential renewal that will help house future generations in an affordable manner, our proposed zone “R-5R” would specifically address the land value speculation that has arisen along with densification. In order to ease the transition of R5 zones, guidelines would cultivate a new typology that can both co-exist with detached homes, and support the formation of  a cohesive community.


1 Allow Innovative Zoning Policy

Long lots mean that building mass can be split up  and pushed to the lot lines, reclaiming underused green spaces for community connection. This results in a productive rethink of yards, setbacks, and laneways.  Following on the familiar house plus laneway house model, R5-R regulations would facilitate the next stage toward urbanization, while preserving the open and green character of the existing neighbourhood. This approach allows for increased households per lot while preserving outdoor space.

2 Incentivize Shared Ownership Models

R5-R prioritizes small-scale, owner-occupied developments by allowing relaxations and density bonuses to non-profit co-operatives. These Micro-Ops (non-program, non-subsidized co-ops) would free households from individual mortgages, pool equity, and share amenities.

3 Village Structures

Each property can also join a co-operative “Co-Block” structure, transforming each block into a self-sufficient village. This village-ing model allows Co-Blocks to pool development fees locally for immediate upgrades block by block. 

Co-Blocks can form circles or ‘parties’ to implement new amenities, share responsibilities, and work towards common goals. For example, the ‘green party’ tracks energy efficiency, waste reduction, and water consumption, while the ‘garden party’ tends and harvests block-wide planter boxes for distribution amongst the Co-Block.

See the HaecCity Studio submission and link to it somewhere on our web site.

You can find the submission as a pdf file here.

Shirley Shen is Principal of Haeccity Studio Architecture in Vancouver.