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.