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In support of inefficiency

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.

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