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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.

18 Responses leave one →
  1. TLjr permalink
    April 5, 2011

    “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.”

    I think Mr. Conlin must have intended to post his one four days ago.

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      April 5, 2011

      How so? Density leading to sustainability is about as fundamental as sunshine leading to warmth. Every family that moves to a townhouse within walking distance to their jobs is a family that isn’t moving to a sprawling home and driving to work.

      • Dan Staley permalink
        April 6, 2011

        How so? Density leading to sustainability is about as fundamental as sunshine leading to warmth.

        This is only partially true, wrt per capita carbon footprint. We know from several recent studies that wealthy Western city dwellers consume more, including space conditioning. That pushes up their carbon footprint, as does the numerous electronic devices that city dwellers consume (surely there is an app for that).

        That is: transport is only part of it. The higher consumption from the wealthy offsets less transport emissions. Currently dense western cities (esp in N America and AUS) require wealth to consume the housing product. Wealth = more consumption.

        • Matt the Engineer permalink
          April 6, 2011

          [Dan] I’m not sure the study you linked to is terribly valid for the US. They’re comparing urban Helsinki at 659 sf/home to rural Vantaa at 784 sf/home. Here in the US suburban or rural living is double that and beyond. The Fins live in smaller homes and drive much less than us Americans.

          “Western city dwellers consume more, including space conditioning” That’s quite a stretch if you’re just using the study you linked to. Again, look at the square footages involved. Housing in Finland is very dense even in rural areas, but not so in the US. Energy consumption comes down to 3 main factors: where you set your thermostat, your building construction, and the surface area of your home. The first two are effectively the same between building types, but the surface area varies dramatically. A 700sf condo might have 530sf of wall area (assuming 2 walls exposed, and a square footprint) whereas a 2,000sf ranch-style home would have 1,790sf of wall area and 2,000sf of roof area (assuming a square footprint and flat roof). That’s about 7x the heat loss (and heat gain if air conditioned).

          “transport is only part of it.” Obviously. But suburban homes take more resources in terms of roads, sewer, electrical infrastructure, lighting, heating, air conditioning, etc. And just looking at transportation, the study you linked to lists 1.27 ton CO2-ekv/a for Helsinki vs. 1.38 for Vantaa for private transport, and roughly identical public transport figures. This seems to indicate that the Fins take public transportation quite a bit even in rural areas – either that or city dwellers in Finland drive almost as much and as far as rural dwellers (certainly not true in the US).

          I think the best lesson to draw from that study is that the Fins do suburban/rural right. They live densely and don’t drive much. If Americans did the same we’d be much better off.

          • Dan Staley permalink
            April 6, 2011

            Matt, the added consumption of goods and electricity by urban wealthy is the point. I am quite aware of shared walls being more efficient for space conditioning, and the older attempts to quantify per-capita emissions like the Vulcan maps. I’m saying the added factor of consumption wrt counting the carbon footprint of production is an interesting wrinkle that needs further reflection and discussion.

            And I completely agree with the efficiency outcomes in your last statement. I’m sure there will be a good fraction of people who will move to smaller digs when energy prices become permanently much higher (despite our wars for energy supply, a la Michael Klare).

          • Matt the Engineer permalink
            April 6, 2011

            [Dan] I’m still a bit confused on that point. Yes, someone living in Seattle will use far more energy from gagets than someone living in the slums of Delhi. But do they use more gaget energy than someone in Kent? My personal experience shows those outside the city tend to have more gadgets (game systems, number of computers, etc.), but I don’t claim to have data on that. Also, is it a given that city dwellers are more rich than suburb dwellers? And is this relevant to the discussion of density – if you take the same family and put them in the city rather than the suburbs do they become more rich and use more electronics?

            Lastly, I’m not thrilled with the conclusions of your linked study on this point. They made their conclusions using only 6 data points. 6 data points were fine when trying to determine city vs. rural lifestyles, since that’s all the data they had (since they studied 6 communities). But each of their subjects must have had an individual income, and breaking their data out by income rather than city would have shown much more clearly whether there was a correlation between income and energy use.

  2. Matt the Engineer permalink
    April 5, 2011

    I like this approach in general. Keep density at our urban villages and expand as needed. Each time you want more density, raise the heights at the main street by a few stories, and raise the heights of the surrounding 2 streets. Rinse and repeat. We keep the NIMBYs happy with their suburban-style single family homes, and keep those that want to live in a city happy by building urban environments. And we keep everyone happy by not changing too much at once in one place (I bet it’ll take decades for South Lake Union to feel like it has a soul).

    The missing piece are those ammenities you mentioned. We’ve re-built quite a few schools in the past decade, but I’m not sure we’ve added many (actually, didn’t we just close a bunch down?). We’ve certainly lost quite a few since that 1960 peak.

    It’s great that we’ve started on light rail. But perhaps we could connect some of the dis-connected neighborhoods more quickly using cheap and fast urban gondolas until we can afford better long-term transit. Just bring one stop per urban center, and people can walk from there.

  3. Wells permalink
    April 5, 2011

    “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.”

    This bottom line is blurred by a vision that superimposes developer-investors over communities. “Workable alternative transportation networks” looks fuzzy too. What are these “other” neighborhood facilities? Why would an elected representative wish to avoid “arousing significant neighborhood concerns?”

    The foundational text of the Charter of New Urbanism states: “We advocate the restructuring of public policy and development practices to support the following principles: neighborhoods should be diverse in use…” It’s important to note that the text begins with the term “diversity” (diverse-use) and does NOT include the term “density”. Considering Seattle as a metropolitan region constrained with nightmarish cross-county traffic, the “remarkable amount of density that can be accomplished” (and more important, diverse-use, diversity), is in the suburbs. Public policy that ignores this fact is following ruthless market principles, not the principles of New Urbanism sustainability.

  4. Cascadian permalink
    April 5, 2011

    How are we supposed to take calls for a reduction in auto-dependency and carbon emissions seriously from someone who is leading the charge to build a freeway through the heart of downtown? I like most of what you say but that’s quite a sticking point.

    • Dude permalink
      April 5, 2011


    • Highways equal carbon emmissions equals Conlin is a hypocrite permalink
      April 6, 2011

      He can rock his uptight Seattleite fleece vest and sandals/wool socks all he wants but Conlin is part of the problem Seattle has been facing ever since we voted down Forward Thrust light rail and voted for the CAP Initiative. Go back to 1985 Richard, you’re not helping.

    • How dumb does Conlin think we are? permalink
      April 6, 2011

      Well, I *was* dumbfounded when I saw Conlin mention reducing carbon emissions, transit, and communities… as he simultaneously pushes for a brand new highway that would undercut each of those things.

    • Wells permalink
      April 7, 2011

      The concept of economic diversity “that can be accomplished” being greater in the suburbs than inner-city Seattle, addresses the substance of why the bored tunnel is counter-productive for land-use and development. It’s an attempt to maintain currently overwhelming cross-county commute and general travel. The lack of economic diversity throughout the county induces this intractable travel. Without the means for cross-county travel, suburban communities would be forced to diversify their economies beyond sprawling, inaccessable housing compounds and strip malls lining high-speed boulevards. Conlin and crew practice the market principle of development where investors expect high returns, and they support building highways that induce long-distance travel that clogs I-5 and overruns surface streets everywhere.

      In other words, the surface boulevard option would discourage cross-county commuting and induce diverse-use development where it’s needed most, in the suburbs. Extending Link LRT to Federal Way would spur redevelopment of their spit hole commercial center, but Sound Transit responds to the whims of the well-to-do and puts the needs of most Seattlers last on the list.

  5. dan cortland permalink
    April 9, 2011

    Does Mr. Conlin endorse the expansion of the Convention Center? Is the CO2 generated by all those CC visitors’ flights to this corner of the country included in the City Council’s calculations of how sustainable Seattle is and will be? Is the CC considered by the Council to be a green business?

    • Matt the Engineer permalink
      April 10, 2011

      Considering the existing options for convention centers, we might actually save a bit of energy here. Dallas used a huge amount of air conditioning energy when I went there, Chicago had banks and banks of idling buses and taxis because it’s nowhere near the city, and they’re even building convention centers on cruise ships (that use about a gallon of fuel per inch). At least it’ll be downtown, on the light rail line, and accessible to Portland and Vancouver on a reasonably fast heavy rail line.

      I’m not totally sure I’d be in favor of it (because convention centers can create urban dead zones when not in use), but I’m not sure I buy the anti-green argument.

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