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In support of inefficiency

Crosscut writer Boting Zhang on how Crosscut and the Seattle process create messy, real city density.
Crosscut writer Boting Zhang

Crosscut writer Boting Zhang

In discussing the merits of urban growth, we sometimes forget to distinguish between two very different kinds of density: efficient and inefficient density.

Contrary to some expectations, only inefficient density will result in the long-lived, rich cityscape described by urban advocates.

Efficient density is a simple population count that aims to reconfigure Lego bricks from a gas-guzzling sprawl into a slender urban footprint. Efficient buildings are developed on large lots, with complexity minimized in favor of profit. Efficient density stands in sterile contrast to our city’s chaotic backdrop, provoking a fear of change and loss.

Inefficient density, on the other hand, builds for unique communities. Developers of inefficient density define success not only by profit, but also by the enthusiastic write-up of that new sandwich shop; by the number of people chatting on the sidewalk; by the excitement of filling in a niche previously underserved; by the ego boost of attention over a project’s originality or community engagement.

Jane Jacobs, who pioneered the urban mantra of “eyes on the street”, believed that her greatest legacy would be not her frequently cited musings on urban planning, but rather her discovery of the “conflict between efficiency and development.” In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs observes that messy, inefficient cities, with a large number of small enterprises that branch into new opportunities, succeed. Unified, efficient cities eventually fail.

So how does Seattle ensure its fair share of inefficient density?

In our survey of 2012 electoral candidates, many touched on the value of the much-maligned Seattle Process. Despite its many failures in execution, the Process has an important understanding at its root: The beauty of our healthy city, in all its messy glory, would be sanitized and degraded if planning were efficiently executed by a small handful of arbiters.

None of the efficient means of collecting data — demographic charts, income distribution, job growth, test scores — can stand on its own to tell a convincing tale of how we are doing as a city. As citizens, we track our progress as a city not by what the numbers tell us, but by gathering the anecdotes of our collective experience into an intuitive composition that reflects the living, breathing city itself.

Journalism such as Crosscut's catalogues our complicated civic chatter about what we want our city to become. It documents our feedback on the change we see, compiling our successes in the least efficient way imaginable — story by laboriously written story, disseminated for individual consumption.

From the multitude of news readership, questions, solutions and dissent emerge on a small scale.

Crosscut's reporting helps to humanize the development of our city and to draw out the underlying desire of many of our local developers to do good, to make places for people. Crosscut nourishes our homegrown talent, connects people and ideas, and helps to trumpet the work of those among us who succeed at the creative endeavor of positive change. It is a key instigator in the construction of a messy city, a representative mouthpiece for the very inefficiency that will ensure the longevity of our city.

And just as Seattle needs Crosscut's support, Crosscut, a nonprofit media organization, needs yours this spring.

Crosscut is in the middle of its spring membership drive and we need your support to continue bringing you strong reporting on important local business, policy and cultural issues. Click here to donate to Crosscut.

Boting (Bo) Zhang works at Beacon Development Group, an affordable housing consulting firm. Her interests center on the effects of development in culturally rich communities. After two years managing the Chiiori Project, a tourism development organization and guesthouse in rural Japan, she enrolled in the University of Washington to complete a Master’s of Landscape Architecture toward community-based design. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering from Yale University.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Apr 8, 9:10 a.m. Inappropriate

Bo Zhang sounds a valid warning that supporters of the current Seattle waterfront redevelopment plan should heed. We are allowing a New York architect to "sanitize" the "messy glory" of our waterfront, thus removing its essential charm. Forget creating another concrete field of bad dreams at huge public expense.Let the private developers large and small work their magic and let's have a waterfront neighborhood that we can all enjoy.

Posted Tue, Apr 8, 10:38 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree, Crosscut's reporting helps to humanize the development of our City as far as it goes. But thus far, its writers remain unwilling to take on the "big money" that has held its citizens hostage from Seattle's beginning. Many urban journalists like to quote Jane Jacobs these days as the patron saint of neighborhoods and promoter of the "eyes on the street" collaboration. But they should really be talking more about the arch demon and demagog, Robert Moses -- the man who really drove Jacobs to Canada. I'll agree with Zhang, Seattle's development is inefficient, a mess. But that doesn't mean it is equitable or "by the people." More often, it's a product of privilege without talent. So, we do not need more of the same, skill-less, cheap, ugly inefficiency. We need first to get rid of the "Power Brokers". Then we need to invite the expression of an authentic architectural talent sensitive to real environmental and human needs.

Posted Tue, Apr 8, 11:58 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an interesting way to express the urban puzzle. Very good, but Ms. Zhang should differentiate between the (economically enforced) efficiency of the individual buildings to the wildly differing efficiency of the larger pieces… streets, parks, shorelines, transit. We're lucky; we have Elliott Bay, which no one can build on (thus inefficient) and some lakes, which can't be built on… much.

kieth

Posted Wed, Apr 9, 10:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I, for one, support the entire spectrum of inefficiency and at all levels, to include the local, state, and federal messes located in King County, Olympia, and Washington D.C. respectively.

Djinn

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