When Density Meets Community

In Seattle, cutting carbon while increasing quality of life.
Seattle Density, photo by Michael Coghlan

Photo by Michael Coghlan.

Seattle hopes to become the world's first climate-neutral city. It's no small task: The City must account for, and reduce, the carbon footprint of everything from transportation to trash for hundreds of thousands of people. City Council President and YES! Magazine board member Richard Conlin is blogging about the city's efforts.

Choices about controlling carbon emissions 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. New York is the classic example—with great transit connections and many multi-family dwellings, New Yorkers emit much less carbon than other Americans, while enjoying a generally good quality of life.

Density by itself, however, only works with community. Low emissions without high quality of life is not an appropriate answer. Poor, dense urban areas in lower income countries do not have high carbon emissions—but they are not ultimately sustainable, and their residents will strive for better lives regardless of the cost in carbon.

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.

Density only works with community. Low emissions without high quality of life is not an appropriate answer.

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 the wholesale abandonment of neighborhoods that many cities experienced; 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 decided in the 1990s to move toward a vision of 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 Norm Rice’s administration came up with an ultimately successful way to attain it. The Mayor and Council approved a program that gave 37 designated centers for population growth the opportunity to develop neighborhood plans. Communities were given guidelines for participation, a toolbox of ideas, and money to hire their own planners. They were asked to determine whether they could meet their assigned growth targets, what land use changes they would need in order to do so, and what other actions would ensure continued neighborhood livability.

Density can work and people will accept it—thoughtful engagement and responsive government make the difference.

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 7,000 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.

Bikes image by BastianHow To Make Biking Mainstream: Lessons from the Dutch

As Seattle thinks about its next moves toward 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. Managing heights is of concern—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. And it is a great way to reduce carbon—a way that Seattle can continue to lead on.

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 real alternatives to using automobiles. I'll discuss these issues in my next blog post. 

Up next: Transportation, Economics, and Dense Neighborhoods.

Richard ConlinRichard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.


  • Read more from Richard Conlin's blog about Seattle's efforts at reaching carbon neutrality.
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