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C200: Density and Community

2011 April 5
by Richard Conlin

< On E Pike St between 11th and 12th Ave on Capitol Hill, two new mixed-use residential buildings that replaced parking lots integrate well with the existing urban fabric; photo: Dan Bertolet - click to enlarge >

Choices about reducing carbon are shaped by public policies.  Carbon emissions are lower in communities that are compact and that provide access via transit and non-motorized travel among jobs, homes, and commercial and recreational activities.  Density by itself, however, only works with community.

Seattle has already taken great strides in developing communities that are compact and sustainable over time.  We are also in a great position to move further in this direction, but it will take careful and thoughtful public policy to ensure that we hit the sweet spot that matches denser communities with high quality of life.

Like most American cities, Seattle lost population between 1960, when it had 557,000 people, and 1990, when it had only 516,000.  Most of Seattle is zoned for single family residences, and, except for downtown, most of the rest was dominated by low rise apartment and commercial buildings.  Seattle never suffered wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods – population loss mainly reflected smaller household sizes, with most dwellings still occupied.  With a downtown that never totally lost steam, and a network of thriving neighborhoods with modest commercial hubs at their centers, Seattle was well-positioned for success when the City’s leaders embraced the principles of Washington’s Growth Management Act and a more urban community.

Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in 1994, projected adding 72,000 households over the next 20 years, and called for a major reinvestment in downtown neighborhoods, allowing greater height and encouraging more residential development.  And it called for developing the centers of most other neighborhoods into ‘urban villages’ with several stories of housing-over-storefront buildings.

Change alarms many people, and this was no exception.  Many residents felt their single-family neighborhoods were at risk, and embraced a nostalgic vision that rejected the new plan.  Resistance peaked in 1994-1996, when neighborhood meetings drew hundreds to attack City leadership and opposition leader Charlie Chong won a special election for an open Council seat vacated by one of the advocates of the Comprehensive Plan.

Fortunately, there were many who were attracted by this vision, and Mayor Rice’s administration came up with an ultimately successful way to attain it.  The Mayor and Council approved giving 37 designated centers for population growth the opportunity to develop neighborhood plans.  Communities got guidelines for participation, a toolbox of ideas, and money to hire their own planners.  They were asked to decide whether they could meet their assigned growth targets, what land use changes they would need to do so, and what other actions would ensure continued neighborhood livability.

The response was extraordinary.  While there were a few rough spots and conflicts, given the opportunity to calmly look at how new density would impact their communities, 20,000 people participated and every one of the neighborhoods accepted the growth targets and zoning changes needed to accommodate them.  This was an extraordinary victory for growth management — and for the Seattle process when run properly.

Neighborhoods also came up with an agenda for the City:  some 7000 recommendations for investments, policy changes, and actions.  For the last ten years, the City has worked to fulfill these expectations, and has successfully accomplished the majority, focusing on the highest priorities.

The lesson is that density can work, that people will accept it, and that thoughtful engagement and responsive government make the difference.

Seattle now has 55,000 residents living downtown.  Most neighborhoods have reached their growth targets, and some have exceeded them.  There has been no resurgence of NIMBYism – in fact, communities continue to embrace change, especially those that are now receiving or will soon receive light rail service.

As Seattle thinks about its next moves towards building communities that are not auto-dependent, adding the next increment to our population, a lot will ride on how neighborhoods are engaged in the discussion.  Some additional land use changes will be needed – but most of them will increase density on property already zoned for mixed use of multi-family.  As neighborhoods found out in the earlier round, there is neither need nor reason to focus on single family areas – density works better in areas that already have some development.

Additional heights?  In some cases.  Generally, once you get over a few stories, additional heights don’t add much to the vitality of the street environment or community, and there are limited areas where tall buildings really work.  But in most urban villages, 6 to 8 story buildings work from a street and community perspective, and add significant housing and support for neighborhood small businesses.  Some cities that are models of dense urban development – like Paris and Copenhagen – have managed density and transit very well with heights limited to 6 to 8 stories.

The bottom line:  there is a remarkable amount of density that can be accomplished while making communities better places to live and without arousing significant neighborhood concerns.  These neighborhoods will need parks, libraries, and other community facilities.  And they will need jobs and businesses, and developers that are willing to make investments, and transportation networks that provide workable alternatives.


Richard Conlin has been elected four times to the Seattle City Council, and currently serves as President.  He was one of the founders of Sustainable Seattle, and a participant in the neighborhood plan process – before being elected and Chairing the Committee that oversaw the approval process.