Provincetown is one of my favorite places – anywhere. I’ve been going there for almost 30 years; I have watched it change, as places do, and I love it now as much as I did then. But like all communities, it has its concerns and issues. So I was honored to be part of an Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel a few weeks ago to help the town look at approaches to dealing with their housing problems.
Provincetown has evolved from an artist’s colony in the middle of a Portuguese fishing village to a vacation town. Today it resembles a resort community, with much of the housing owned by part-time residents. Like many other resort towns, Provincetown is experiencing issues like trying to support local businesses with a legal, seasonal workforce, and housing affordability and availability for a changing demographic of smaller households. Only Provincetown is so compact, so constrained between the ocean, the National Seashore, and natural resources like water, that it is – as one person referred to it – the canary in the coal mine.
That can be, of course, both a blessing and a curse. For such a small, politically engaged community, there is an opportunity to be creative and lead the way for other seasonal resort towns with new, 21st century ideas and solutions to their shared concerns.
After being there for two short and busy days, my fellow visitors and I heard about a number of constraints, but also a number of real opportunities unique to Provincetown. For me, the most interesting one is that because it was a fishing village pressed between the sea and the dunes, Provincetown is and has always been a community of tiny houses. There are a lot of homes and beach shacks built close together, so the structures that make up the town go from small to really small.
It is possible for Provincetown to add housing and density in a way that is both innovative, and in character with the place. Indeed, there are other, even more dense models on the Cape and Islands that are beloved, like the campground in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. An entire community of small scale, densely packed buildings, it not only houses a lot of people, it creates wonderful, carefree spaces for both adults and children alike.
This tiny/closely-spaced house idea could be applied not only to larger parcels of land, but also to fill in underutilized land, like the otherwise unbuildable edges of roads, parking lots, or playing fields that are distributed around town. There are even models that involve placing tiny houses above parking lots, utilizing space in a resource that is so critical to the life blood of any resort community.
It seems to me that each community has to take a holistic view of their entire cycle of housing needs, and then look for the unique attributes of their community that can be used as opportunities to fulfill those needs. Rather than looking at proposals individually, they must look at them in the context of all the opportunities, and all the concerns, and then decide what works for them (and what does not) based on whether it will help the town move to a comprehensive solution.