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Dispatch From The SPC: The D-word

2012 January 10
by Leslie Miller

Note: This post is part of an ongoing series of dispatches from the Seattle Planning Commission.

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A couple of years ago we were spending the holidays at the home of my brother Erik. My youngest son, Romeo, was and is a pear fiend, and was delighted to spy several perfect specimens arrayed on the counter in his uncle’s kitchen. Romeo ate his fill that first day. The next day, however, Romeo watched in horror as my brother collected the remaining fruit and removed it to the cutting board, knife in hand. The pears hadn’t really been purchased for the fruit bowl, you see; they were destined for use in a salad to accompany dinner. Little Romeo was dismayed. Unable to envision the collective bounty of the pear salad to come, all his four-year-old mind knew was that his uncle was swiping his fruit. “Please, Uncle Erik,” he crooned in true Dickensian fashion, “don’t take away my Christmas pear!” Romeo’s Christmas pear has become the stuff of legends in my family, but musing over the incident this Christmas got me thinking about something else a little Dickensian in nature: the d-word. Density.

You see, when SPC member and Public Health employee Kadie Bell Sata wrote a post here a few months back called Density is Good for Our Health!, the Planning Commission heard about it. Don’t use the word “density,” opined some knowledgeable people who actually agreed with Kadie’s point. It’s an unfriendly word. Why not call them “diverse communities” instead and avoid all the conflict? It was friendly, well-meaning advice and we understood the rationale behind it. Mention “density” and the conversation is over; let the ranting begin. It also acknowledges that not all dense communities are award-winners. And it is true that dense communities can be diverse—socioeconomically, racially, culturally—as well as architecturally, in terms of scope and scale.

Diversity is good, but in this context it’s still just a euphemism. We voluntarily and necessarily use the d-word when we want to describe more people living on less land (which may involve the m-word: multifamily). Instead of talking around the d-word, I’d like to put it out there, loud and proud. Instead of obfuscating our meaning, let’s be un-Seattle about this and talk it through. Let’s explore the term in all its permutations—good and bad. In plain terms, what does density mean, and maybe more importantly, what do we fear density brings?

I already brought up Dickens, so let’s start there. Think nineteenth-century London, full of belching smokestacks, yelling merchants, and crippled, begging children. Carts clog the streets while the draught horse droppings lend a sour odor to the already foul sewers lining the thoroughfares. Dark, shadowy corners hide would-be thieves and murderers. The city is dense, dirty, dangerous, and frightfully downtrodden. Hyperbolic? Of course. But in terms of fears, is this so far from the vision conjured by the d-word during land use hearings? Is it any wonder this bleak image can’t gain traction, especially when compared to a turn-of-the-century castle rimmed by bucolic, rolling fields, ahem, I mean single family?

It’s a new year, folks. Let’s close that book and modernize our vision of what density—and cities—can and should look like. If we do, we might get to envisioning the thoughtful, dense communities we’d like to see, including a little Italian place just around the corner, more families close to the school down the street and the park two blocks over, a shared garden, wide sidewalks and common spaces where you can eat your lunch on that special sunny afternoon. A place where houses with picket fences and an occasional cottage and Craftsman duplexes and sleek mixed-use projects with fro-yo shops on the first floor combine to support an eclectic tangle of people that keeps Seattle, Seattle, just all grown up. It’s time we stop stuffing fruit in our pockets. Maybe, just maybe we can learn to share our salad with everyone at the table, while still treasuring our lovely, traditional Christmas pears. If a four-year-old can do it…

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Leslie Miller is the Chair of the Seattle Planning Commission. She has experience in community organizing and outreach, specifically related to growth, equitable development, and transportation. Community work has included three terms as president of the Southeast District Council and current SEDC Outreach and Membership Chair, plus involvement with the Rainier Othello Safety Association, Othello Park Now!, Othello Station Community Advisory Team, South Precinct Advisory Council, and the Othello Park Alliance.

 

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