How to City Build and Be Smart About It

In one of two stories about density, writer Knute Berger looks at its complexity.

Nick Hanauer, the multi-millionaire who helped get Seattle minimum wage workers a raise to $15 per hour, has insisted he did not act out of altruism. Rather, the effort was in his own self-interest. He believes our economic system works best if the rewards are spread more evenly. He has spoken of capitalism by paraphrasing Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy: that it’s the worst system there is, except for all others. Striving to fix capitalism’s excesses is an exercise in self-preservation for millionaires, as well as the rest of us.

Our flawed economic system also drives growth and development. People are attracted to Seattle by the scenery, yes, but mostly by jobs, and jobs they hope will pay them enough to make a life for their families. But there are flaws in how it works. Income inequality, gentrification, the lack of employment stability or employer loyalty are all downsides. When we talk about growth and density we’re also talking about the fact that city building is an imperfect expression of an out-of-whack system that exacerbates inequities between classes and generations.

While growth brings the excitement of the new, it is often biased against other positives, such as helping generations sink deep roots in one place. The real estate business is driven by “highest and best use,” a concept that puts market value above community value.

All this is to say that density, the buzzword, should not be a stand-in for the real issue, which is how do we build better, fairer cities? Too often we get wrapped up in the minutiae of zoning. We fight over micro-housing, or backyard cottages, skinny houses, or six-pack town homes, rather than the common good. Activists have been guilty of drawing battle lines as if we’re all divided into one of two opposing camps: The NIMBY who stands against all progress for selfish reasons; and the Densinista who believes there is only one way to live and that’s as a bike commuter living in a high-rise.

Some density advocates argue for removing most restrictions on urban development—height limits, for example—in order to improve affordability. In short, supply and demand should rule. I think this approach would damage valuable parts of the urban fabric and marginalize greener approaches, like adaptive reuse of existing structures. On the other hand, I agree that we’re often too restrictive and proscriptive about what should be built. Part of the dismay some feel at seeing so many cranes sprouting everywhere is that they are busy raising sterile, cookie-cutter buildings.

Can we incentivize innovative design? Can we take and encourage more risks?

Can we take and encourage more design risks? Can we increase options for smaller developers and homeowners—people with real social investment in the outcomes?

I understand that densities will increase in Seattle and that more multi-family housing is needed. But we also have to get better at making sure that infrastructure, like schools, develop along with the growth, that public subsidies for affordable housing increase, and that transit service works. We desperately need a tax system that is more progressive and less reliant on development to generate revenues so that growth isn’t paid for by the folks who can least afford it.

In the 1950s, Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the ultimate density tool when he imagined a mile-high skyscraper that literally could put a major city in a 584-story box. That, he argued, would provide the ultimate protection for the countryside by stemming the tide of sprawl. The opposite strategy, however, was pursued after World War II, fueled by the federal government’s policies to move industry, especially the defense and tech industries, to the suburbs. The Puget Sound region has long strived to find a middle ground between those visions, a metroplex that respects nature. Add to that the mission of building a more diverse, socially just community and we’ve given ourselves a challenge worthy of our best efforts.

Density is only one small piece of the puzzle.

Read what writer Charles Mudede has to say on the subject of density in Sharing Is At the Core of Density.

  • Knute Berger

    Knute Berger is the Mossback columnist for Crosscut.com, editor-at-large of Seattle Magazine and a regular news commentator at KUOW.