Two Things Americans Say They Don’t Like

Sprawl and Density.

This quip goes a long way towards summing up the gestalt of the Urban Land Institute’s Reality Check event, held April 30th on the UW Campus. See the Seattle Transit Blog for a detailed account of the event.

ULI’s Ed McMahon made the above quip in his keynote address, and it was later repeated by Mayor Nickels during a panel discussion. And it’s an excellent one on many levels. It pokes fun at wanting to have it both ways, how we want to have our cake and eat it too; It gives people credit for understanding the downsides of sprawl, while also acknowledging those who are wary of density; It tacitly indicates the need to educate people how density can enhance livability; and finally, it communicates ULI’s main message: stop building sprawl, and bring on compact development.

Growth is coming. The demographers are eerily precise in predicting it, and are telling us to expect 1.7 million more people in the region by 2040. The ULI Reality Check forced the participants to face this reality, and to grapple with where all that growth will be best accommodated. ULI’s end goal is to build consensus that compact development is not only necessary, but also desirable and profitable.

The many benefits of compact development have long been recognized, and were first officially sanctioned in the State of Washington with the 1990 Growth Management Act. In more recent years, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions has been increasingly recognized as yet another advantage of compact development. The Seattle Reality Check was the nation’s first to include GHG emissions analysis for the development scenarios generated during the event. The team led by Mithun performed the analysis for three of the scenarios on the fly, and presented results showing significantly lower emissions for the densest development.

My two takehome points from Reality Check:

1.) The density debate is over. The ULI crowd ain’t no marginalized tree-hugging eco-warriors.

2.) GHG emissions will be a major factor in future development patterns for decades to come.

21 Responses to “Two Things Americans Say They Don’t Like”

  1. vanderleun

    Actually, it would be much more accurate to say that one American doesn’t like density and the other America doesn’t like sprawl.

  2. Dan Staley

    Dan’l: plz change the color for hyperlinked text – not contrasted enough with the normal text.

    The mother in law likes to watch those HGTV shows about houses. Recently they went to Europe to do their choosing-3-places-to-buy thing. The mother in law was surprised at “how small” these places were. I said our places were much, much smaller before WWII, remember?

    How easily we forget. Our once-great wealth is the reason for the sprawl, nothing more. Had we not been the lone industrial power after WWII to make and accumulate this wealth, we’d never had spread out and made huge houses like we did, as it takes great wealth to do so.

    Now, we can listen to Kevin Phillips and Michael Klare regarding what is happening to our wealth and the resources its based on, or we can continue to deny what’s happening.

    We had a similar conference here in March with the RMLUI, and Chris Nelson laid out the future projections: only ~25% of the new housing stock will be for the iconic Donna Reed -Ward Cleaver SFR home.

  3. Joshua

    Hmmm, that seems a little too black and white to me, Vanderleun. I think it’s more accurate to say that Americans fall along a spectrum, with “understands the full implications of density AND is willing/excited to embrace it as a lifestyle” on one end, and something like “says ‘fuck you, I’m keeping my sprawl'” on the other end. Along the way we’ll find people who say they love density and live in a 5000 s.f. home and own three cars, and someone who likes the idea of density but has 4 kids and nowhere near the income to support a lifestyle that involves living downtown.

    Here’s a question: How many of us (“us” being design/development professionals who preach the gospel of density) would actually be willing to forego our single family homes and move to condos? How many of us have actually given up our cars? How many of us would embrace a development for low income/homeless that goes up next door and lowers our home value? I’m venturing a guess, but I have a feeling that the number is low (kudos to all of you who can honestly say “yes” to all of those – I’m not one of you). Or, more accurately, we fall on a spectrum, and hopefully moving the right way.

  4. John

    All these predictions about incoming millions are self fulfilling predictions made by people who stand to gain from development. The people who benefit from all the new development are developers “smart” or sprawl/dumb or whatever,…. well….and construction workers, architects, planners,….but we can find better work for them that is not growth dependent. Our society is too dependent on growth for growth’s sake.

    All developers should pay system development charges that reflect the true social costs of their developments (roads, schools, fire, police, libraries, parks, etc…) If developers cannot pay the true costs, then we don’t need their developments. We can also tax new development to pay for low income housing.

    SE Portland

  5. Joshua

    John – I can’t tell if you’re kidding or not. Is there irony in your electronic voice, or are you really serious? My fingers are twitching with a response, but I desperately want to believe in the rationality and benevolence of most bloggers at hugeasscity.

    John, please say it ain’t so!

  6. Matt the Engineer


    How do you make developers pay anything? The costs are passed on to the new homeowners. And the new homeowners can and do pay the social costs – they pay taxes just like you do.

    And yes, we can tax new development (or old development for that matter – why should you get away tax-free?) for low-income housing, or any other new social program you want. I’m not sure why this is a related issue.

  7. Joshua

    Ok, I’m going to go with Matt the Engineer and pretend it’s not irony in your post, because I have to say something. Population is going to grow, John. Fact. Babies are cute, and making them is fun. These babies then grow up and need to work, first to support themselves and then to support their families. In our current economy, cities are where jobs are primarily created. People will move to cities so that they can work and make more babies, who will then grow up and need to work. You get a sense for the cycle, right? So there’s no self-fulfilling prophecy – just our current reality.

    Ok, so here’s the thing. If all those people move out of the cities, this will create amazing demands on infrastructure (when people are spread out, it costs more to get lines to their houses, etc), services, and the environment (more driving = more pollution). True social costs, John? True social costs multiply when sprawl happens. So, in keeping with Matt’s post, if we pay our social costs for urban infill development, will you pay yours?

  8. Forrest the Contractor

    I am having a hard time seeing this as anything but the exact opposite of subsidized sprawl. As Joshua pointed out, infrastructure is least efficient and requires much greater resources when spread out over larger areas to service fewer households. The sustainable/green movement taking over right now recognizes this, as do forward thinking planners… Density, I posit, is the Answer to sprawl and poor environmental practices in housing, not the problem.

    I suggest to you that funding for services should be paid willingly by everyone in a community because these are services used by the entire community- administered by the community’s elected representatives. Now, if you want to inflame my leftist rage, start talking about corporate welfare and externalized corporate costs and I’m 100% there…. but as an owner of a small design build firm I feel I’m part of the solution when I promote smaller footprints, technological efficiency, and greater density.

  9. JoshMahar

    I think the main problem in this city is that the density we are building isn’t made as an alternative to SFHs. It’s great that Seattle is pushing towards density but 1200 new high end condos isn’t exactly the answer. The people in these units want high end wine bars, classy hair salons, and boutique clothing stores. A mother walking around downtown and seeing these “amenities” will be turned off by the idea of density because she will equate it with these types of things. Thus, what we have is this concept of density as a place for a certain lifestyle. This is how we get to a place where people are scared that densifying their neighborhoods means replacing their local day care with a pet groomer. A fear of destroying the local character and community of a neighborhood.

    What we really need to do is make our dense areas accessible to a greater diversity of people so that dense urban living isn’t quite as daunting. This will take some serious risks and gambles but we need to start proving that density isn’t always en vogue.

    Look at Rome. Rome is nearly four times as dense as Seattle, and yet, there isn’t a single skyscraper, the boutiquiness is limited to a single district, and neighborhood communities have survived for, literally, centuries.

    Density just means more people closer together. There are absolutely no rules on how that has to be done. Unfortunately Seattle developers can’t think outside the box of “martinis and views”.

  10. John

    I am all for trying to contain growth in urban areas. I am all for density where it is wanted and when it is not unduly subsidized by taxpayers. In the Portland area “densification” is not working out quite as well as the planners and developers suggest. We’ve got oldschool suburban sprawl in an ever expanding UGB. We got crappy infill (“skinny” houses and townhouses) forced on existing neighborhoods that don’t want it. We’ve got gentrification in the close in neighborhoods. Taxpayers are on the hook to pay for very expensive services to some of the “smart growth” (in the South Waterfront area for example). Traffic is getting worse not better. So if we are going to promote density as a solution to large scale environmental problems, let’s do it right and not force it into neighborhoods where it is not wanted. And while we are at it, let us at the same time address the root problem of our environmental crisis—unsustainable growth in consumption and population.
    There are some positive developments in Portland. Overall I think that the Pearl is mostly good, a yuppie ghetto though.
    Kids are cute indeed. I got one myself.
    Sorry to sound so bitter, we are having a bad experience with townhomes going in next door. I guess that’s one of the prices of density though.

  11. Matt the Engineer


    I certainly understand your feelings about the townhomes next door – they’re building them like crazy half a block from my house (ah my poor dwindelling street parking).

    But don’t blame the developers. Your city has zoned this area to allow for structures like townhouses. I’m not sure how Portland is zoned, but I like Seattle’s zoning plan. In general there are lowrise commercial surrounded by multifamily residential, surrounded by single family housing. I assume in the future this will have to be upzoned, with lowrise turning midrise then highrise. The nice thing about a zoning plan is that you can look up what the city has in mind for any given area. I recommend looking up your city’s zoning plan the next time you move to make sure you aren’t moving into a part of the city planned for density, if density isn’t your thing.

  12. Brian

    John’s complaints while heartfelt, do not reflect the current reality. We are a less wealthy nation now. Not everyone can or even wants to live in a large single family house on its own lot. There will be more townhouses and small “narrow houses” in any communities that ignore reality in faovr of catering to small-minded NIMBYism.

    I’m sorry, traditional single family houses are not the be-all and end all of human existence. Traffic is bad in sprawlville, too, as people drive everywhere from their isolated suburban cul-de-sacs to the nearest Costco.

    As a society, we can no longer afford to build the vast infrastructure needed to maintain the low density happy motoring world that John sees as his destinty. Life is full of dissapointments and compromises. Get over it.

    I live in a “narrow” townhouse. It’s maintenance is not any worse than the mythical iconic dream houses nearby. It’s less wasteful than the excessive 3000 square foot traditional homes that middle class Americans delude themselves into believing is their due.

  13. dorian gray

    John. Stay in Portland, and take an econ class -fast forward to the chapter on input output and shift/share analysis. You’ll learn why Russia has so many matrix algebra based economists (and why the ultimately defected). Your theory has been wrong and a slew of totalitarian regimes lay by the wayside after attempting to tell people what they can/can’t do for a living.

    If you really knew the permit process in Seattle, you’d be aware of the fact a transportation analysis is required as part of the MUP and the City does require fees for offsite improvements.

    The prophecies aren’t self-fulfilling. Take a look at one of your cities own econ researchers.
    My generation won’t settle in a city for a job. We move to a city we like and then look for a job. Seattle is #5 in the country with a college attainment rate of 56.3% close in the City.

    I’m not going to touch the tax new development bit of yours. That’s reactionary BS is the NIMBY of the mouthbreathers that know nothing of large scale development. (Hint: pension funds are usually the big investors in the projects. Likely some of your 401k is funding many of the projects throughout the country).

  14. Steve

    It would be nice to see it become easier to convert existing houses to duplexes, providing cheaper, denser housing for our increasingly small households while not disrupting existing neighborhoods.

  15. michael

    “if we are going to promote density as a solution to large scale environmental problems, let’s do it right and not force it into neighborhoods where it is not wanted.”

    John, first of all, thanks. Your comments have stimulated some great discussion.

    Second, in regards to the quote above, density absolutely needs to be done right so that people, in addition to the environment, can reap the benefits. However, I would argue it has nothing to do with whether or not neighborhoods want it. It’s coming-the arguements of NIMBYs are becoming less and less relevant as the reality of climate change and other significant global problems becomes more evident…

  16. Dan Staley


    try this again (preview good):

    It’s coming-the arguements of NIMBYs are becoming less and less relevant as the reality of climate change and other significant global problems becomes more evident…

    This may be due to the fact that I choose to practice in small towns** (where the change is most needed), but I see and hear most of my folks absolutely rejecting anything close to 7-9 DU/ac, prettied-up architecture, proximity of lifestyle centers and abundant parks or no.

    Now, will they change their tune when gas is at $7.00/gal and NG for heating their R-13 walled, cheap dual-pane windowed homes is increasing at 20%/annum? Many will, and a good fraction of these will do it kicking and screaming, causing angst and ennui in our society and in our neighborhoods. We must not only find a way to make neighborhoods more liveable, we must also find a way to smooth this societal transition.

    BTW, two key Denver neighborhoods just rejected zoning changes for increased density [link]. Drive thru any part of Denver and you see protest signs against any rezoning coming out of Peter Park’s re-jiggering of the zoning ordinance [trying to get to form-based code]. Drive thru many suburbs and you’ll see the same thing. Some areas are doing transects and NU developments, but not many. And many folks around here can’t stand NU developments – it was one of the biggest things I had to overcome when vetting my big plan with the public.

    **Maybe not for long – stay tuned.

  17. LisaB

    “How do you make developers pay anything? The costs are passed on to the new homeowners.”

    I have to comment on this one because it’s a common comment that I hear.

    Home prices are absolutely not set by what it cost the developer to build. Home prices are set by the market – by what people are willing to pay. If it unit of a certain type with certain features in a certain area goes for $400k then that’s what Joe Developer will get for it, whether it cost him $100k or $450k to build it. He’d like to pass the cost on but the market will bear what the market will bear. The only really flexible item in a construction budget is profit.

  18. danb

    Joshua @3: Great question. First, I’d like to point out that you might also ask who would be willing to give money back to the general public when, for example, their property value is goes up when a publicly funded park goes in across the street.

    But back to your question: most people aren’t martyrs, so you can’t expect them to give up the freebies they get with lifestyles that have externalized costs when no one else is. If, however, people were paying all those externalized costs, then the question isn’t are you WILLING to give up your house for a condo, it’s can you AFFORD not to.

    The problem, of course, is that it’s pretty much impossible to capture or even estimate all those external costs. So then we have to get beyond materialism and into ethics. And we should. But it’s hard.

    My family of four has one car, I commute by bike, and we don’t buy much stuff. But frankly, most of that has more to do with our relatively low income than with trying to save the planet.

  19. John

    I’m not saying we should keep building single family “large” lots and we are talking about 50′ by 100′ not 10,000 sf+ lots. What I’m saying is that people should have far more say in the rezoning process. People should have a say when their quality of life will be significantly impacted by an adjacent development (especially with regard to sunlight and tree preservation).
    New high density developments should be directed to unused or already trashed urban land like brownfields, parkinglots, railyards, etc… or within urban cores or along mass transit lines.
    It’s funny too how you don’t see the fancy neighborhoods getting densified.

    Proud NIMBY

  20. Paul Krugman Joins Team Density | hugeasscity

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