By Byrn Davidson:

‘Single Family Character’ Vs. Functional Front Yards

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One of the unique things about Vancouver’s ‘single family’ neighbourhoods is the fact that we have lanes (alleys) at the rear. Because these lanes handle the parking, garbage, etc., the front yards are often relieved of having to carry any functional duty.  Instead they can be pleasantly landscaped with winding entry paths, hedges, trees, and flowers providing a picturesque setting for their respective homes.

While there is undoubtably a pleasant aspect to these yards, there are also some hidden costs that are not so obvious.

As Vancouver’s residential zones have evolved, first with basement suites, and then with laneway houses, the intention has always been to try and maintain the ‘single family character’ of the existing neighbourhood.

This approach has been couched as ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ density, meaning that the suites and lane houses need to be largely hidden when viewed from the front. This subtle approach to densification is probably a political necessity, but we can’t stop there.

The result of the ‘hidden density’ approach is that all three units on a single family Vancouver lot (the main house, basement suite, and lane house) all end up competing for limited space in the rear yard, while the front yard sits serenely apart.

This is no accident.

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Shared space: the typical Vancouver rear yard will be shared between the main house, the basement suite entry well, and the laneway house.  Photo: Colin Perry / Lanefab

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front-2

This is the same property as the photo above.  The large, and largely formal, front yard isn’t allowed to contribute any functionality to the 3 dwellings on the site.

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The RS zoning bylaws specifically forbids a home from having a second door facing the street. The fear is that the home might start to look like a duplex (heaven forbid!) and so ruin the ‘single family character’ of the neighbourhood.

In practice this means that a sunny front yard can’t also serve as an entry or patio for a basement suite.  Likewise it means that the main house can’t have a second set of french doors opening on to a front porch, yard, or garden.

This is just silly.

In 2009 it was a bold move for the City of Vancouver to allow three units on ‘single family’ lots, but now we need to go further. We need to stop pretending that multi-family housing (not ‘single family’) is our future.  There is no reason to compromise on the livability, equity, and energy efficiency of our dwellings simply to keep up appearances.

If you want a lovely formal front yard.    Great.    Do it.

If, however, you have an extended family that is sharing a small piece of city land perhaps you should have the option to make better use of your property.  If your front yard faces south and you want to make the most of indoor-outdoor living, you should have that option too.

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Current RS ‘Single Family’ policy:
Only one door is allowed to face the street.

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frontyard-proposedpolicy

Proposed policy:
Allow additional doors to face the street so that basements, or main floor living areas can make better use of the front yard.

In the following weeks I’ll be digging into a range of other issues related to our fascination with ‘single family character’ but – to start with – please, let’s have some functional front yards.

Bryn Davidson lives and works in Vancouver. His team designs and builds custom homes for individual homeowners and their families.