Op-Ed: Balconies, a Key Addition to Our Post-Pandemic Urban Infrastructure

New metropolitan renters and owners will spike demand in balcony design and construction
John J. Metro

For urban dwellers fortunate enough to have balcony access, coronavirus stay-at-home orders have yielded a different experience than for those without them. These suspended outdoor terraces alleviate concerns of navigating slender hallways, stairwells and dreaded elevators — not to mention touching buttons and handles along the way — all to gain access to fresh air. They are private outdoor oases that serve, to a certain extent, as mental health prescriptions, and fulfill the inherent public voyeur nature within us. Although rooftops have aggressively replaced balconies over the past decade, private outdoor terraces are due for a major comeback.

The coronavirus pandemic placed billons of people across the world, including 95% of Americans, under lockdown. These measures have presented two options: risk exposure to the disease through accessing public outdoor spaces, or accept prolonged social isolation and the mental health strain it can cause. This is a double-edged sword, especially for the elderly. Thus, in the post-shutdown world, new metropolitan renters and owners will spike demand in balcony design and construction.

The disparity between the new hunger for balconies and the current supply is large. Across the 15 most populated metropolitan areas, only 62% of renters have access to a “balcony, patio, deck, or a porch,” according to the 2017 American Housing Survey. Even when dwellers have access to balconies, not all are functional due to spatial limitations.

Developers generally build balconies in three different sizes. The smallest, Juliet “faux” balconies, are most common in European cities, but can also be found in North American urban developments. These are generally accessible by window and large enough for a single individual to stand. Conversely, proper balconies are about 6 feet wide and can comfortably fit several chairs, small tables, and perhaps even a grill, if permitted. Of course, then you have everything in between. These typically appear spacious from first view, but you’ll quickly learn how tight these spaces are when attempting to maneuver around a chair or guest.

The size variance of these outdoor spaces is often the result of restrictive zoning laws within the locality. Most urban zoning regulations enforce a maximum allowable square footage a developer can get “for free” before counting toward the site’s maximum density. No developer is willing to trade internal living space for an external terrace. This is why balconies often receive the most limited buildout.

Revitalizing development, adding livable space

And this is why common areas, including rooftops, courtyards and other amenities, have sprung up in new developments. Replacing private balconies, these communal spaces have created a new standard. According to the National Apartment Association, in a survey of several U.S. cities, such spaces are among the top amenity offerings that property owners have added or upgraded over the past several years.

To revitalize development and precipitate the reemergence of balconies, city bylaws must be amended to incentivize larger balconies, while also serving other goals. Under such revisions, developers would be able to expand the amount of exempted balcony space if they could demonstrate that their design improves the development’s livability, enhances the structure’s architectural interest, and heightens the property’s green infrastructure performance. For this third point, balconies can help lower energy use by providing “passive shade” that can naturally cool down homes.

As urban planners brainstorm and develop post-pandemic urban infrastructure, development goals to improve balcony availability should be as important as discussions regarding reshaping street usage and sidewalk widths. These important elements, which are often overlooked, can make cities more livable.

We must rethink how we use every square inch of urban space. If we’re going to accept balconies as more than just added market value and consider them a function of city living, it is necessary to make them more widely available and size-appropriate. It seems that there is no better time than now to implement such changes. Over the past three months, we’ve learned that balconies serve a greater purpose than a few extra feet on the side of a wall.