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Creating 'people places'

An architect and former City Council member argues for compact urban design, but not at the expense of livability. Density doesn't have to be a dirty word.
Townhouses in Seattle's Pinehurst neighborhood. (Peter Steinbrueck)

Townhouses in Seattle's Pinehurst neighborhood. (Peter Steinbrueck) None

Ashcroft Cottages in the north Green Lake neighborhood of Seattle. (Peter Steinbrueck)

Ashcroft Cottages in the north Green Lake neighborhood of Seattle. (Peter Steinbrueck) None

Townhouses in a Seattle neighborhood.

Townhouses in a Seattle neighborhood. Mason Steinbrueck

Our region is struggling to meet housing needs in an environmentally responsible way while maintaining affordability and quality of life. With passage of the statewide Growth Management Act and establishment of urban growth boundaries, we have been searching for successful ways to contain growth within existing urban areas. Western Washington is expected to grow by 1.7 million people and 1.2 million jobs by the year 2040. Where and how will all those newcomers live? Nationally among cities, Seattle — the most populous city in our region — ranks low in population density and is zoned predominately single-family (more than seventy percent of its land area). As green as we consider ourselves, we are still an auto-centric culture that enjoys a relatively low-density, suburban lifestyle.

At a workshop sponsored by the Urban Land Institute, 256 regional civic and political leaders, architects, planners, and developers gathered to consider growth scenarios for the four-county areas of King, Pierce, Kitsap, and Snohomish. Their assignment: Place mounds of Lego blocks, representing anticipated jobs and population growth through 2040, over a map of Western Washington. It was a painful yet revealing exercise as participants, struggling where to place Legos, made tough choices about which areas should accept more growth. Towers of Legos toppled over the urban cores and established neighborhoods of Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Bremerton, and Everett, but no one proposed starting new cities, nor dared to blanket rural and unincorporated areas with new development. It became very clear: to accommodate new growth, we face tough choices.

The word density is a statistical term used to quantify the number of people per square mile in a given area. Density does not measure design quality, sense of place, living standards, or quality of life. Yet members of the building community use it endearingly, as though density were something good for us, like medicine.

Have you ever seen citizens living in a single-family neighborhood accept greater density willingly? To the general public, the reality of increased density often breeds resentment and fierce opposition — especially when people are told they must accept more of it. There is an almost universally held fear that density brings in ugly, out-of-scale buildings, traffic congestion, loss of parking, an influx of low income residents, increased noise, and so on. "Not in my neighborhood!" they say, even in transit-supported, mixed-use corridors such as Highway 99 between Everett and Seattle.

Smart growth advocates and designers should show, with concrete examples, how compact communities can be made more walkable, livable, sustainable, and beautiful. People can make better choices if shown contrasting examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly. We can build in a compact manner, but show what creates a sense of place and community rather than how many housing units can be packed onto a single block. Architects are best able to articulate such a vision and, through appropriate design, create better models. Perhaps we stop using the term density altogether, and do more to create places that people want.


Editor's note: This article was reprinted with permission from the inaugural issue of the American Institute of Architect (AIA) magazine, Forum, which Peter Steinbrueck guest-edited. Steinbrueck will speak at the Design for Living: Doing Density Right forum later this month.

Peter Steinbrueck, FAIA, served on the Seattle City Council from 1997-2007. He served on the board of AIA Seattle, and was a founding board member of Futurewise (then 1000 Friends of Washington).


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 9 a.m. Inappropriate

Transparency before density: A few years ago a Canadian land use planner and academic decided to take an introspective look at the density choices his professional colleagues made in their own living patterns. What he found was rather revealing: most opted for large houses on big lots. And when they did choose denser living (an in-city condo or apartment), they often also owned a second rural get-a-way.

This suggests that a good place for the 256 regional civic and political leaders, architects, planners, and developers to have started, before they piled legos to descern where the rest of us are going to find our future sense of place, would have been to disclose their own personal housing patterns (and indirectly their carbon footprints). A little up-front transparency might have helped them understand how the rest of us mortals decide to organize our lives.

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Transparency before density: Don't know if architect Erick Villagomez is the Canadian you had in mind, but he does a great job of explaining the
flip side of EcoDensity.

The biggest disconnect around here is how we are ever going to get to this form-based code, also referred to as a design code. No dispute that codes design buildings. The question is who should be designing design codes.

Planners claim capacity-based "development" standards are outdated, but planners are unqualified to design buildings (nothing personal), therefore unable to do anything but complicate and confuse all but the large scale developers who step over the confusion and negotiate for whatever they want, e.g. buying upzones. Two city documents not mentioned elsewhere can be found here. I was pleased to see the GSCofC correctly objecting to the Council about "selling zoning," but the problem is with organizations who have encouraged state legislatures to all but mandate the practice.

The confusion seems to where zoning stops and design standards begin. Zoning entered the scene as restriction of uses, back when factories and residences were walkable or but a carriage ride apart. Today, one finds more and more mixed use zones that contain a high and growing share of urban housing (Seattle's urban village strategy).

Design standards entered the scene at the same time,
but from the looks of them through time, I'd say architects were once much more participatory then they are now.
afreeman

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Transparency before density: I'm sure a lot of people do as you say, but in fact you'd also find a large number of developers and architects living in Downtown Seattle, many times what the odds might suggest.

mhays

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 2:48 p.m. Inappropriate

All Wrong: The growth estimates for Seattle are all wrong. If anything, it will lose population. The high growth came at a time of low housing prices, when people could sell a house in CA and spend 1/3rd of it for home in WA. Now WA is among the highest in America. There is no more job growth in the sense of a job here is worth less than elsewhere because of high cost of living. The whole veneer of Seattle being "cool" became stale years ago...all that's left is basically a big cow town with rotten weather.

jabailo

Posted Thu, Sep 11, 9:43 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Transparency before Density: mhays wrote:

"I'm sure a lot of people do as you say, but in fact you'd also find a large number of developers and architects living in Downtown Seattle, many times what the odds might suggest."

That may be true, and there is one sure way to find out. Let them disclose their living patterns including their second houses. Addresses, of course, can remain confidential.

Posted Fri, Sep 12, 3:40 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: All Wrong: People have been saying that for decades, and we've had, if I recall, exactly one year in modern history when our metro population didn't grow, nearly 40 years ago when the SST collapsed.

Seattle remains moderately priced for a coastal city, we have our most diversified economy ever, and we've maintained our quality of life in many people's eyes. Personally I think this city gets better every year.

If our population stopped growing, housing prices would fall relative to other cities, and the situation would be inclined to self-correct.

In terms of the population within the Seattle city limits, trends suggest continued growth here too. King County's growth management is working fairly well in guiding growth to infill areas. An increasing percentage of the population is adopting urban living as a lifestyle choice. People are valuing proximity to work a lot more due to fuel prices. Downtown Seattle continues to grow as a job center. Both baby boomers and their kids, the echo boomers, are, en masse, approaching the ages where many move to new homes, and often they're choosing urban locations. And so on.
mhays

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