One of the ideas moving around city planning circles recently is the “missing middle,” a term coined by Daniel Parolek, an architect and urban planner in Berkeley, a few years ago.
For the past 70 years, it seems, zoning regulations, federal financing, institutional capital, and large real estate companies have combined to build either increasingly large detached single-family houses, or large apartment properties in tower or garden apartment configurations. Whereas in pre-automobile cities and small towns housing types in between – rowhouses, two-, three- and four-family houses, and small apartment buildings with local small time owners, were more common. The one-family rowhouses of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, the Brooklyn brownstones, and the New England triple deckers, large, detached, three-story houses with one unit per floor, are examples.
“It’s a range of housing types that are house-scale, that is very compatible with a house, but they happen to have multiple units inside of it,” Parolek says. “Over the course of the last 20 years, there has been a dramatic shift in household demographics and every time we present these it shocks me a little bit.” Detached, single family houses match the needs of married couples with children, but such households are now a small share of the total, whereas single family homes a majority of the housing stock.
Living in Brooklyn, I was not aware that the middle had gone missing, but thinking about it there is another aspect of pre-automobile development that was important. Both the buildings and regulations (or lack of enforcement) allowed the way they were used to change over time.