When we moved into our house 10 years ago, no one on our street had kids. Now, there are eight on our side alone.

My daughter lurks at the bottom of our neighbors’ front stairs, hoping she can round up a gaggle of kids. But figuring out where they can physically play outside can be awkward. Some of us have small decks and front yards, but they’re high off the sidewalk and not quite childproof for younger siblings. Our narrow street gets a lot of cut-through traffic. And our back yard was laid out by someone who clearly had more interest in pruning than kids.

As I’ve said before, my holy parenting grail is finding places where your child can play happily and safely while you can keep a half eye on them AND get something social or useful done. In the earlier part of the 20th century, we used to build housing that facilitated this. It’s courtyard housing, with densely clustered homes or apartments built around common open spaces.

Then zoning codes started requiring off-street parking along with new housing, and neighborhoods started getting asphalt and garages instead of nice spaces for people. (This analysis of courtyard housing in Portland offers more of that history.) It hasn’t been impossible to build courtyard housing, as this modern townhouse development on Seattle’s Capitol Hill demonstrates. But the developer back in 2005 had to get 11 separate variances from the zoning code to be able to do it.

Many discussions about making urban areas more attractive to families eventually work their way around to courtyard housing. It’s a housing type that offers greater density than a single family home on one lot, but can retain the “feel” of those neighborhoods and offer common space that serves families with children.

Yet it can be tricky, impossible, or uneconomical under typical Northwest zoning schemes to build courtyard housing. It’s difficult to fit housing, mandatory parking spaces, and open ground on small urban lots. And even in jurisdictions such as Portland and Seattle that have changed zoning codes to encourage courtyard housing, it’s confined to very small portions of those cities.

In 2007, Portland saw that nearly all the new housing being built in the city were dense multifamily apartments or condos, and that single family detached homes were increasingly unaffordable. Worried that those options might not serve the needs of future families with children, the city sponsored a Courtyard Housing Competition, which invited architects to design innovative courtyard housing projects without being constrained by existing zoning laws.

City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition, by Steven Bull, James Steel, and Dan Rusler

Image by Steven Bull, James Steel, and Dan Rusler, via City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition

The goals were to design infill development that 1) meets the needs of moderate-income families, 2) provides open space that serves multiple needs: kids play, socializing, parking, and minimizing polluted runoff and, 3) blends well with surrounding homes and streets.

It gave architects the option of designing for two sites—an inner Portland 100′ x 100′ site that could fit between 4 and 10 homes oriented around a shared courtyard and a larger Eastern Portland 95′ x 180′ site with between 7 and 17 homes. Then, based on the winning designs, Portland adjusted its zoning codes in an effort to encourage more courtyard housing.

Courtyards that work for Portlanders

The word “courtyard” tends to conjure up the idea of green space flanked by buildings, like the apartment complexes commonly built from the 1920s to the 1940s. The Portland competition certainly allowed for this option, and some architects choose to situate the housing around “common greens”—or shared ownership parcels designed exclusively for people—and put parking spots around the perimeter of the site.

But many of the designs used an updated interpretation of the courtyard, one in which the central common area serves multiple needs of urban living rather than functions as an walled-off refuge. The entry below, for example, incorporates a play area, a driveway accessing garages, bike parking, a public garden, cistern, recycling and compost area, seasonal stream, stormwater bioswales and a DIY bike repair shop in the courtyard.

City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition, entry by Amit-Price-Patel-and-Kevin-Markarian

Image by Amit-Price-Patel-and-Kevin-Markarian via City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition

City of Portland Housing Competition, entry by Amit-Price-Patel-and-Kevin-Markarian

Image by Amit-Price-Patel-and-Kevin-Markarian, via City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition

The judges generally preferred designs with “shared courts” where cars are allowed to briefly drive through or park in the common space. The argument is that it makes little sense to dedicate valuable urban land to be used exclusively for cars (think parking spaces or driveways), which sits empty much of the time.

At the same time, it’s vital to make clear that people and safety are given first priority in the shared spaces (by using things like brick, permeable pavement, trees, and landscaping to slow the cars) and to incorporate some car-free space. This top-prize winning design has a permeable pavement court shared by cars, bikes, outdoor grillers, and kids playing jump rope and foursquare that dead ends into a people-only green space.

Portland Courtyard Housing Competition, by Keith Rivera and Kristin Anderson

Image by Keith Rivera and Kristin Anderson, via City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition

Minimum parking requirements remain a significant barrier to courtyard housing, and so many other sustainable solutions. So one no-brainer solution for cities is to simply stop requiring it. Developers know what customers want, and they should be able to decide whether their target market values open space, lower rents, and car-lite living or whether they will demand (and pay for) a covered parking space next to their kitchen for unloading groceries, kids, etc.

In fact, Portland doesn’t actually require parking for smaller multifamily projects in areas of the city well served by transit. But for the purposes of the competition, the judges still required one parking space per unit since that’s a tougher design challenge. And the city wanted smart suggestions for incorporating parking in cases where the market still demands it.

City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition, by Steven Dangermond and Christopher Keane

Image by Steven Dangermond and Christopher Keane, via City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition

Courtyard code changes

To make these innovative designs possible, Portland had to change its zoning code (p. 5). It legalized shared courts, private street tracts that don’t have a traditional road, curb, and sidewalk configuration (p. 22, 42, 46) but are surfaced with paving blocks or bricks to indicate the space is mostly meant for pedestrians. The city expressly allowed  residential parking in shared courts, as well as accessory structures like shared garages, gazebos, garden sheds, play structures, and bike parking in the commonly owned tracts.

The code changes also allowed higher roofs, reduced setbacks, and closer garages around the internal courtyard area, but not on the areas fronting neighborhood streets and adjacent homes. Planners also nixed internal sidewalk/pedestrian circulation requirements that really don’t make sense on smaller, infill sites.

  • It also turned out that some of the most popular courtyard configurations (like situating 6 units on a 100′ x 100′ lot) had too many homes to be legal in the city’s R3 zone and too few homes to meet minimum density requirements in the R2 zone. The city addressed that problem by allowing a more flexible range of housing units on lots with a shared court or common green.

    But where to find land?

    Since the competition, Portland hasn’t tracked how many new courtyard housing projects have come online. And because the code changes coincided with a recession and a widespread housing downturn, it’s difficult to say how effective they’ve been.

    Anecdotally, said Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability planner Bill Cunningham, there’s interest from nonprofits and the city’s more progressive, green developers in creating shared spaces that build community. And some new courtyard projects have been built (here, here, here and here.)

    City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition, by Emily S. Kociolek, Krzysztof Kociolek

    Image by Emily S. Kociolek, Krzysztof Kociolek via City of Portland Courtyard Housing Competition

    Still, Cunningham said, one of the complaints he hears is that the demand for courtyard housing with urban amenities is strongest in Portland’s closer-in neighborhoods. Yet those areas tend to be split between single dwelling zones, where courtyard housing still isn’t allowed, and denser multifamily zones where a courtyard project wouldn’t be cost competitive with larger apartment or condo buildings. It’s also easier to find larger lots in Portland neighborhoods that are farther from the urban core, but that’s not necessarily where the demand is.

    Similarly, Seattle also overhauled its multifamily and townhome codes in 2010 to remove barriers to building cottage and courtyard housing. But those housing types are also confined to lowrise residential zones, which only account for 10 percent of city land.

    So there’s simply not a lot of land available in the US Northwest’s major cities where courtyard projects are legal AND might make economic sense to build. (On this Portland zoning map, it’s R3 to R1 in light blue, and on Seattle’s map, it’s the Lowrise zone in light khaki.)

    One way to create more family-friendly housing would be to allow low-density courtyard or cottage housing, along with tandem housing and duplexes and triplexes, on appropriately sized lots in the single family zones that make up the vast majority of residential land in Northwest cities. Fortunately, Portland has begun to show how creative designs and thoughtful code changes can accommodate future families while remaining sensitive to those who already live here.

    Note: Images from the Courtyard Housing Competition used with permission from the City of Portland.