Urbanist creed: What do we want for the places we live?

Cities are our best chance, but we need to determine what kind of lives we want in them.

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Despite Seattle's run of boom years, it's never aimed to be a get-rich-quick town, and it shouldn't now.

Cities are our best chance, but we need to determine what kind of lives we want in them.

Some of us believe cities are the best chance we have for a better future.

I think urbanists need a creed. Creeds can be statements of religious belief and a litmus test to judge an individual’s orthodoxy. But I prefer to think of a creed as more like a symbol, something by which can identify like-minded individuals in a crowd. Those of us who, intuitively and rationally, believe that cities are better than large plats of big, rambling, single-family homes connected by publicly subsidized roads need an inclusive symbol to rally around. Urbanists, at their core, think living in a city is better for people and the planet. We’re convinced that living in cities can be a corrective for 60 years of damage done to our climate, water, and air by dependence on cars.

And urbanists are communitarian, holding that close proximity to one another boosts our best human characteristics: creativity, compassion, and conservation. We come from all across the economic spectrum ranging from homeless advocates to urban planners. But we all want to make our cities better and have idealism about where we live.

Part of the urbanist agenda must be a radical rethinking of land use in Seattle. The Seattle City Council has been very incremental when changing the zoning code when it has been willing to change it at all. And it isn’t just about height, bulk, and scale either. It’s about welcoming new growth into the city with open arms, not constraining new development so that it ends up being more expensive and limited in its scope.

We need backyard cottages, corner stores, courtyard housing, and, yes, more density. This is bound to create some discomfort. Seattle can lead the region with bold thinking and action on land use. But that’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Urbanists need something to bolster them for that struggle.

I'm sure there will be charges of elitism or classism about an urbanist creed. And there will even be those who will assert that such a statement is proof that there is more emotion behind our views than evidence. But think of this as the analog to one of my favorite paeans to country life, Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive."

I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk till dawn
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke too
Ain’t too many things these ole boys can’t do
We grow good ole tomatoes and homemade wine
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

Because you can’t starve us out
And you cant makes us run
Cuz we're them old boys raised on shotguns
And we say grace and we say 'Ma’am'
And if you ain’t into that we don’t give a damn

We’re from North California and south Alabam’
And little towns all around this land
And we can skin a buck; we can run a trot-line
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

Now these things are not about being divisive. We’re all Americans after all. We’ll always need farms and agriculture. And people should be able to live wherever they choose. But there are values that we share and some we don’t. Identifying them and talking about them can help us learn more about each other. Urbanists could benefit from Williams’ creed (especially the part about making wine, and saying grace and 'Ma’am'). And I think, sometimes, sharing what makes us different can actually bring us closer together.

But mostly, those of us who do believe in cities need something to measure policies and to hold our officials and ourselves to the values we hold most dear. A creed can be like a measuring stick for values and it can also be inspirational, giving a group a vision of the future. Whether the issue is land use or transportation, tax policy or civility legislation, an initiative or a candidate, a creed can help answer, “Does this policy or proposal fit with our values?” We don’t have to choose between values and scientific evidence — we can have both. Values shouldn’t be exclusive to conservatives; I think it’s time urbanists claimed ours.

There have been many great efforts to create creeds for urbanism, like the Congress for New Urbanism’s Charter of the New Urbanism. But the Charter is a bit too wonky I think. So here's my suggestion for our region’s urbanists. Hopefully it spurs debate amongst those who consider themselves to be urbanists, those who question the concept, and some edits.

The Problem: It is sprawl. The pattern of small numbers of people living far from one another and connected by expensive roads contributes to our most significant resource and social problems. Sprawl contributes to obesity and bad health outcomes; it creates air and water pollution, it is an inefficient use of land and energy, and it tears at the social fabric by alienating people from one another.

How we want to live: Human beings crave connection. We seek each other out. We need each other. Our region’s future is in its people, and how we build and weave our lives together. How we live together in private and in public is largely the consequence of our use of space and how it is used and organized.

While we do crave togetherness we also value our time alone — our privacy. But privacy is not a wall, or technology, or even physical separation from each other, but rather having discretion for each other within a community.

People also value variety, opportunity, and choice. Our cultural preference is to be able to move freely about our neighborhoods and city and choosing where we live and how we get around is important to us.

The future of our region is in cities. We believe that city life — lots of people living close together — is healthier, creates less damage to our air and water, is a more efficient use of land and energy, and fosters social cohesion and community.

We believe that the division between public and private realms is conceptual not physical, and that we can build cities that allow every resident or visitor to move between these realms at will, affordably, and with ease. We further believe that a family's home is the family members' castle, and they should be given as much choice as possible about how they organize their living space to support their livelihoods.

We believe that aggregating the way we meet our basic needs — eating, drinking, housing ourselves, clothing ourselves, and entertaining each other — makes common sense, is more efficient than land use policies that separate use, and will build stronger connections between people of every race, class, sex, and orientation.

We believe that living close together and meeting our needs close to home makes getting around easier. By bringing the things we want and need closer to where we live we ensure less time traveling and more time living.

Finally, we believe that many of our region’s greatest economic an social problems — poverty, crime, homelessness, poor academic performance—can be significantly and positively impacted when people live closer together because, if nothing else, our proximity to each other makes the suffering of our fellow person intolerable.

We believe in building cities that are close knit, efficient, and that is sustainable and self sufficient.

And we believe now is the time to get started building the cities we want to live in.


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