Dense housing that complements suburban open space


For many residents of Minnetonka, a suburb in the southwest metro of the Twin Cities with ample lakes, wetlands, and woodlots, the rural character of their community is a defining characteristic.  At the same time, the community has watched with some concern as new buyers looking for mid-priced homes pass over Minnetonka for bordering communities that are more affordable.

To explore options for mid-priced housing that doesn't conflict with Minnetonka’s natural open space and beauty, the City is partnering with the University of Minnesota’s Resilient Communities Project (RCP).  Each academic year, RCP partners with one community to work on a broad range of solutions that address community-identified sustainability needs.  Graduate students from a course at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs taught by Professors David Hollister and Lauren Martin worked with the City to research how to create a greater diversity of housing options via small-lot development.

How do you create successful, new, more dense development in a suburban area with traditionally large lots and plenty of natural areas between homes?  The difference between an attractive but dense suburban development and a costly flop, the students suggest, hinges upon designs that build upon established values in the community, such as preservation of natural areas and open space.  The team also noted that successful developments around the country have all involved residents meaningfully in the development process.

As the team investigated options, the students increasingly felt that traditional suburban design would conflict with the desire to maintain open space and natural areas that exist in Minnetonka.  Minnetonka’s minimum lot size is usually a half acre, and the city has preserved a high proportion of its natural wetlands. New suburban small-lot developments in Minnetonka have been able to deliver housing at mid-level prices.  However, the team found that if these developments continued, they would likely conflict with residents’ fear of losing the rural and natural character of their community.

So how to maintain the characteristics that large-lot owners value on a smaller lot?  The team recommended an “intentional design approach” that fulfills values of privacy and attractiveness while emphasizing use and flexibility of green spaces.  Re-thinking streets can also be a means of adding value to the community.  “Narrow streets have an aesthetic benefit, they create more space for play, and unconventional paving or other design cues indicate that the street can be used for play and other uses,” explained Joseph Giant, another graduate student on the team.

Several recommendations focused on improving the transitional space between homes, and making sure all space is well-used.  Creed noted that, “Transitional space shouldn’t be ignored in a smaller lot. Instead you are using landscaping and built elements to define spaces that are more useful.”  Other recommendations included deep and narrow lot design to minimize streetscape and maximize privacy.  Locating garages toward the back of the house minimizes their dominance, while sinking them partly below driveway level also increases privacy by raising the first level of the home.

The team also suggested that the City and developers could increase residents’ understanding about new approaches to mid-priced, dense developments by engaging residents early in the design process, and involving them throughout.

Barrett Colombo is a program associate for the Resilient Communities Project

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