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.
Crosscut archive image.

Townhouses in a Seattle neighborhood.

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.

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.


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