An Open Letter To The Livable Seattle Movement

Dear Liveable Seattle Movement People:

Thank you for paying attention to what’s going on in our city. I agree with you that we need to be thoughtful about development and growth. At first blush, there would seem to be much we agree on regarding urban livability and sustainability. But after taking a close look at your literature, I have actually found quite a lot with which to disagree. In particular, I believe that several of your claims regarding the negative impacts of density are both intellectually dishonest and morally irresponsible. Until now I’ve been inclined to just ignore you. But apparently there are many Seattlites who listen to what you say. So alas, I am compelled to take the time to write this (sigh… precious time I will never get back…).

Let’s start with your paper entitled “Seattle Housing Capacity Exceeds Three Times Anticipated Growth.” Is 3X capacity that unusual for cities, and is it unprecedented in Seattle? I believe the answer is no to both of those questions, so why all the excitement? Is this a brand new discovery that all the planning policy wonks have missed, or perhaps are even trying to hide? No, I think not. I suspect that you’re excited because you are opposed to pretty much any upzoning in Seattle, and you believe that this so-called “overzoned” situation is the perfect logical justification of your position. You believe you have struck gold. And you believe you can even further bolster your position by arguing that overzoning is not only unneeded, but harmful, claiming that “overzoning contributes to lack of affordable housing and sprawl.”

So then, how in the world could allowing more people to live in the city possibly contribute to more people living outside of the city (i.e. sprawl)? The primary explanation you give is that when higher density housing is built, families with children who don’t like that type of housing are forced to go find what they want out in the burbs. This can happen, but it is not nearly the whole picture. The gaping flaw in your argument is that it neglects to account for the people who do end up living in the higher density housing. If zoning were such that new high-density housing could not be built, then all those people would end up competing with families for low-density housing, because that’s all that would be available in the city. This would reduce availabilty, drive up prices, and force far more people to seek housing outside the city — in other words, it would increase sprawl, not reduce it.

Still you conclude, “Ironically, attempts to concentrate densities end up driving sprawl. This can be seen in the large population increases in suburban areas.” Yes, density causes sprawl, and ignorance is strength! Can you not see the mathematical impossibility of your theory? And sorry, but there is a large body of research demonstrating that growth management (which almost always means increasing density in centers) reduces sprawl. (The Sightline Institute would be a good place to start doing some reading.) So where is the evidence for your theory? Or are you just making stuff up?

In your Multifamily Zoning Update document, you make analogous claims about density causing sprawl, but this time townhouses are the main boogeyman. Your criticisms of townhouse design are spot on, and there is wide agreement in the community that we can do better. But as long as people are living in these townhouses, however badly designed, they are reducing sprawl, not creating it, contrary to what you claim on page 18. Your bogus arguments about sprawl do not serve you well in supporting your case for better townhouse design.

One recurring theme in your discussion of multifamily housing is a concern for accommodating families with children. For example on page 12 you write that room for kids is “in short supply these days.” I’ll ignore the the vague and dubious nature of that quote and grant you that it’s a valid concern. However, it’s a concern, I believe, that is getting more attention than it deserves, not least because siding with the nuclear family is always a political winner. The reality is, in King County as of 2006, only 28% of all households include children under 18 years old. Across the U.S., the trend toward fewer families with children can be expected to continue. So then, roughly three quarters of housing need not be designed to provide for the special needs of children.

Seattle is loaded with single family homes already. As more multifamily housing is made available, we can expect to see households without children (e.g. empty nesters) downsizing from their single-family homes to multifamily housing. This will take demand pressure off of single-family housing, which will increase the affordability and availability of single-family homes for families with children. Yes, there are cases when new multifamily buildings take out low-density housing. But again, because more housing units are created, the net effect is to reduce overall housing demand. And don’t forget — only about one fourth of households have children.

Now back to your 3X Capacity paper. You claim that another problem with overzoning is that it leads to unfocused development, citing a Michigan State University research paper. But this paper is concerned with how overzoning in rural areas causes sprawling development in rural areas. By my interpretation it says nothing about whether or not overzoning in an urban area might lead to sprawl outside that urban area. Why do you quote from this irrelevant paper?

Perhaps it is possible, as you state, that overzoning could lead to more scattered density within the city, but it’s not clear what you even mean by that, and it’s not clear how or why it would be a problem. Could you please give a Seattle example of the sort of “pockets of density” you are so concerned about?

In my reality, upzoning in an urban area doesn’t scatter growth, but is rather a strategy to focus growth in desired areas. By your logic, if and when Seattle upzones South Lake Union, because the City will then be more overzoned, growth will become more unfocused. Do you really believe that the SLU upzone will not result in focussed growth in SLU?

Regarding infrastructure, again, I don’t see how overzoning can be a very important factor. Seattle, like most cities, has been overzoned for decades. New infrastructure is required when a city grows — whether it’s overzoned or not. In a developed city like Seattle, which would cost more, infrastructure for one highrise, or infrastructure for 20 lowrises? I don’t know the answer to that, and I suspect you don’t either. Can you please provide some evidence for your claim that “there is no way City budgets… can provide the infrastructure”? In spread out rural areas, it is well established that unfocused growth leads to higher infrastructure costs. As with your unfocused development argument noted above, here again you appear to be confused about the differences between urban and rural conditions.

Compared to your treatment of sprawl, your discussion of affordability and overzoning has more merit, though not much. It is true, as you say, that overzoning can lead to speculation and artificial price increases during building booms. But I think you have to look at this in the much bigger context of how cities develop, and the system of capitalism that drives development. As cities grow, land becomes more valuable and speculation happens. This is the way it has always been, even before zoning existed.

The question is then, can zoning mitigate speculation? The short answer would seem to be yes, on a site by site, highly localized level. But when you consider the situation regionally, things become more complicated. Because, given the population increases that know are coming, if you limit growth in one place, it’s going to pop up somewhere else, especially during booms. And if you are limiting growth in an urban center like Seattle, it’s most likely going to be driven to places where it is less environmentally sustainable (i.e. sprawl in the exurbs). As I see it, land speculation is clearly the lesser of those two evils. And in any case, any artificial price increases will be temporary, as all bubbles burst eventually.

You are also correct to point out that in upzoned areas the cheaper housing is more likely to be redeveloped, and that this can result in a localized loss of affordable housing. No doubt affordable housing is a huge issue in Seattle and in pretty much all big cities — the laws of supply and demand make it so. But limiting growth to preserve affordable housing will have the opposite effect overall, because it will limit supply and drive up prices everywhere else. All said, the only effective means we have to ensure that enough affordable housing will be provided in Seattle is government subsidy.

Now, back to your multifamily paper to address one more issue: parking. You write on page 15, “when the City allows a developer to build a building without enough parking to serve its occupants, they go take parking from the next door neighbors.” Are you saying that there are outlaw renegades who park in their neighbors’ driveways? No, though you don’t state it explicitly (because it would sount too petty?), what you’re saying is that on-street parking will become tighter. First, just to state the obvious: Seattle residents do not have a God-given right to convenient street parking. Now, as with much of your writing, there are tibits of reality here and there: yes, many small businesses rely on street parking for their customers. But what it comes down to is that in any dense city, street parking is extreme rarity. It’s not going to matter how many underground garages we build. So the choice becomes: (1) dense city, or (2) convenient street parking.

Small independent retailers have no problem thriving without street parking when population density is high enough, because people walk. And their leases become cheaper when they don’t have to cover the cost of structured parking in their buildings. Housing is also less expensive (and can often be better designed) when it’s doesn’t have to include parking. Requiring parking is blatantly contradictory to your concerns over declining affordability.

Yes, yes, we all understand that people own lots of cars, they rely on them and enjoy them, that we don’t have a widely viable mass transit alternative, and that cars aren’t going away any time soon. But we simply cannot continue to build our city for cars (I don’t have to further explain, do I?). The weaning from car-dependence will be painful to some in the short term. But in the long term, it will save far greater pain for everyone.

All in all, my sense is that your general position on urban development lacks an appreciation of both the demographic and economic processes that are fundamentally responsible. In short, you are misplacing the blame on density. We know growth is coming. You seem to not want it to come to Seattle, so then, where should it go? What is your alternative that is more environmentally and socially sustainable than densifying existing urban centers?

Ultimately, it is the economic engine of job growth that is driving housing demand, which in turn provides economic opportunity for developers. But these developers aren’t operating in a vacuum. They aren’t going to drop housing down in any random place the zoning allows it. So for example, a developer would be unlikely to put a new mixed-use building in an isolated “pocket of density” because it would not be a viable retail location. Likewise, dense housing doesn’t simply appear on a given site when it is upzoned. Most developers are very careful about choosing locations that will be in demand, and these locations tend to be where there is already plenty of action (i.e. density), like on Capitol Hill.

In the end, I have to ask: It seems to me that when all is said and done, you are in favor of stopping growth in Seattle — so why don’t you just come out say it? You won’t be arrested! Perhaps there is a good argument to be made that Seattle is already too big, that we should put growth in second tier cities, or even build brand new cities from scratch. The issues are mind-bogglingly complex and there are tons of possibilities. Surely we density cheerleaders need to be challenged, but what you’ve offered so far fails miserably.

I want to finish by expanding on my initial accusation of moral irresponsibility (since I think I’ve already pretty well covered the intellectual dishonesty bit). We are facing an unprecedented global crisis in both resource consumption and global warming. There is overwhelming evidence that dense urban development is a key strategy in mitigating this crisis. So in my view, by publicizing specious and demonstrably false critiques of density, the Livable Seattle Movement is being morally irresponsible. It’s analogous to the global warming deniers, when one piece of contrary “evidence,” whether ill-founded or not, can quite effectively muddy public perception and significantly set back progress.

It also reminds me of a typical Republican political strategy, in which simple sound byte arguments are made that appeal emotionally and seem to make common sense, such as “we’ll reduce taxes — it’s your money, after all!” Livable Seattle’s charge that density is beating up on children has a similar quality. And as I’m experiencing first hand (i.e. writing this letter), once these myths are put out there, it takes enormous amounts of energy to correct public opinion. Case in point: Is anyone still reading this?

So there you have it, Livable Seattle Movement People. As I said, I appreciate that you are paying attention and contributing to the dialogue on growth and development in Seattle. And I hope you don’t take this letter personally. If you care to write a rebuttal, I will post it here.



27 Responses to “An Open Letter To The Livable Seattle Movement”

  1. Renee

    Dan – Can we count on you to be writing a letter of support (maybe testifying) in regard to the draft EIS for the proposed Northgate rezone? Comments are due 6/2.

  2. Renee

    I support the Northgate rezone for many of the reasons that you cite. This is a huge opportunity for to make Northgate more vibrant, to add affordable housing, to make transportation and housing work together, and to make better use of existing urban land. It won’t be perfect, traffic may increase in the short term. But, perhaps with a more walkable community, we won’t need to be driving so much in the long term.

  3. Matt the Engineer

    //All said, the only effective means we have to ensure that enough affordable housing will be provided in Seattle is government subsidy.//

    I disagree. I’d say upzoning can have the effect of making housing more affordable, as supply is increased. Lower quality older housing that people are moving from into new housing becomes less expensive. (but then you’ve used the word “enough” with respect to affordable housing, so you may be correct depending on how you quantify that number)

  4. Adam

    I read it all and I want to thank your for so completely addressing this issues. I’ll throw in my 2 cents however it probably won’t be as articulate.

    It makes me very frustrated with neighborhood groups that support sustainability at one moment but at the same time don’t want anything in the neighborhood to change. Our land use patters are not sustainable, not even in Seattle. If we genuinely want to make this region sustainable the outmoded american dream (i.e. single family houses) has got to go. I know that me saying this will make some people very mad but I”m sorry it is the truth.

    I also wanted to comment on one issues you bring up which is near to my heart. Not only does parking make good design hard if not impossible, it also decreases affordability. Its also funny how the most contentious part of almost any development is if there is enough parking. The most efficient way to stop people from driving is to limit cheap and easy parking.

    Remember that our current environmental problems are essentially cause by poor design and everyone should always keep that in mind. What we have been doing for the past 50 years is not what would should continue to do.

  5. Tony

    There is a false conflict between the advocates of density and the Livable Seattle folks. Each of you has half the picture. I offer as an example a tale of several cities by the numbers:

    Seattle: population density: ~6,000 persons/mi^2

    Vancouver, BC: population density: ~12,000 persons/mi^2

    I lived in Vancouver for a full year while attending graduate school. The city is far more livable and vibrant than Seattle. Transit actually works, walking actually works. There are neighborhood parks and regional parks that put our system to shame including Stanley Park, located directly adjacent to downtown. Imagine if all of south lake union was a regional park and you start to get the idea. While there are pockets of poor architecture and Vancouverites have mixed feelings about the extreme density of downtown, the architecture really puts all but the best of Seattle’s neighborhoods to shame, and it manages to do this while having twice the residential density of Seattle. Oh yes, and there is no freeway in Vancouver. There are multiple freeways that lead TO Vancouver, but every one of them dumps you right onto city streets once you hit the city limits. I have driven in both cities during rush hour, and it is easier to DRIVE in Vancouver than it is in Seattle.

    Seriously, check it out sometime. So Vancouver is living proof that high density and livability CAN go hand and hand. The problem that density advocates face is the operative word: CAN. Density CAN go hand and hand with livability, but it doesn’t have to.

    Another city, by the numbers:

    Miami: population density: ~12,000, the same as Vancouver, but if you said seattle should be more like Miami, you’d be run out of town on a rail, if we had a rail to run you out on. :-)

    Vancouver is livable because it made a conscious choice to be so. Growth management policy in Vancouver can be summed up in four words: high density, high amenity. They have tied amenities (parks, architecture, transit, etc.) to density, rather than letting density do whatever it wants.

    Two more examples, by the numbers: Portland and Detroit, both about 3,000 persons/mi^2, about half that of Seattle.

    Density is neither necessary, nor sufficient for livability. Portland, most agree is more walkabel, especially downtown, despite being half the density of Seattle.

    Density may be good for the environment, but nothing will kill density like a lack of livability. When density is not tied explicitly to the urban amenities that make density livable, then additional density reduces quality of life. Eventually this will cause a backlash, as we are seeing now and have seen in the past (remember CAP?), the environment will suffer as a result. Even if there were no backlash to ugly development, without the urban amenities that make life in the city desirable, you will still never achieve density, because no one will want to live here.

    The livable Seattle folks are misdirected, they are blaming density because that is what they see. We need to see that the two are separate issues. Meanwhile, density advocates need to take up arms to fight for livability, good design, parks and open space, community centers, transit and other amenities that make density both tolerable and desirable.

    It may seem like this is obvious to us, but it isn’t obvious to everyone, and we need to bridge that gap, and calling the other side names isn’t helping, nor is ignoring them. We must reach out and find the common ground which we are already standing on.

    Sorry to sound preachy. It’s 1:15 a.m. and I’m tired and cranky.

    One last city: The densest city on earth, and also one of the most livable, and many have called it the greatest city on earth, and, no, it’s not New York.

    Paris. Population Density: 25,000, more than double Vancouver, more than four times Seattle.

    We can do better, if we choose to. How we get from here to there will require a lot of thought, and a lot of courage, but that process starts by realizing that it is possible, then making a commitment to figuring out how.

  6. Dan Staley

    I’m sorry, Dan’l, that you had to waste time rebutting this obvious libertarian/no-growth claptrap.

  7. Matt the Engineer

    (psst, Dan, libertarians believe in less regulation, and hence would be against zoning alltogether)

  8. Dan Staley

    Matt, this trope Dan’l focuses on is typical libertarian argumentation: SFD is what everyone wants, and greater density is coercion against market forces. It just has a different color lipstick and an extra bauble or two. The malused reference and lack of scholarship in the references is another typical indicator. The point being is it can’t stand scrutiny, as typical libertarian/no-growth claptrap argumentation cannot.

  9. Matt the Engineer

    There may be some group that calls themselves libertarian that espouses these arguments, but acting via zoning laws is definately against the libertarian philosophy. Though I don’t know what the “typical libertarian/no-growth claptrap” is.

  10. Sabina Pade

    My thanks to danb and to Tony for thoughtful, well-substantiated arguments!

    I appreciate having these at hand when trying to convince committed suburbanites of the merits of denser coexistence.

    Persuading them that people would be even happier were they to exchange the perception of unlimited personal space and freedom of action for greater conviviality and personal responsability is not always simple.

    They see such exchange as a renouncing of the rewards due citizens for their efforts and social position. About as easy to sell as a tax increase….

  11. Dan Staley


    IME many libertarians want to maintain the status quo wrt maintaining SFD housing, because they believe that “people” “want” SFD ( I could be lumping many in this category, but certainly not the hard-core libertarians). There is then some connection made that I don’t understand, wherein they believe that sprawl is the market acting. Thus, the status quo is an expression of market preference. Maintaining the status quo means maintaining Euclidean zoning, because this has contributed to the market forces making sprawl. And maintaining market forces is a maintenance of relevance of the ideology. It’s weird, I know, and I ask about it all the time at the Antiplanner, where no one can make their argumentation work. Ah, well.

    The second part of my ‘libertarian/no growth claptrap’ is the no-growth segment who don’t want density (growth), but a maintenance of their SFD neighborhoods (no growth). Maybe NIMBY was a better-understood phrase, but personally I think NIMBYism has its place.

  12. Josh Mahar

    This is a really good letter and totally needs to be said to all those NIMBY Seattlites who remember Seattle as the “City of Suburbs” from back in the ’50’s, but I will play a bit of the apologist here and state that I think there is a bit of truth to this argument. Seattle’s density is poor density for families (ie. children).

    It might be true as danb says that only about a quarter of Seattle’s residents have families, but still, a healthy and livable city is one where families can feel welcome and comfortable living. Plus, a child who grows up in a dense area is much more likely to understand and appreciate it in the future. Its people who grew up in the burbs who are the most skeptical of raising their children in the city.

    I feel that much of the townhouse development and condo development is not looking at amenities, such as open space. They destroy a SFH with a quarter of its land as yard, and put up four townhomes with about a 16th of the land as greenspace.

    I completely agree with pretty much everything danb says but I would also suggest that their movement shows that we need to get more creative in density building to better fit all people’s needs.

  13. SJSN

    Thank you danb and Tony. Excellent, articulate arguments.

  14. Mike O'Neill

    Fabulous read. Thanks for taking the time to write this all out.

  15. How to piss off a density cheerleader. — Smarter Neighbors

    [...] You should check it out yourself, but here’s the quick preview - The Livable Seattle Movement issued a report called Seattle Housing Capacity Exceeds Three Times Anticipated Growth, which really rubbed HugeAssCity the wrong way and compelled them to post an open letter to Livable Seattle. [...]

  16. Kenneth

    I have no argument with the comments by Tony about smart density versus dumb density, but just for the record, Paris appears to not even be close to the densest city in the world:

    That’s a very large area listed for Paris, so perhaps most of that population is concentrated in a core, and that’s what Tony’s referring to.

  17. mike

    ha. i moved to seattle thinking it was a vancouver lite, only to realize it’s far from it.

    Livable Seattle got pwned.

  18. danb

    Tony @5: Thanks for the thoughtful comment. My impression is that most people who are sophisticated enough to talk about density recognize the ingredients necessary to make it livable. The density advocate who ignores these things is a straw man.

    Likewise, nobody that I know of is claiming that density is necessary for livability. What I would claim however, is that it is, most likely, going to be necessary for survivability. So a backlash against density for whatever reason is basically suicide. A city full of beautifully designed townhouses, extensive lush open spaces, and not a shadow cast by a tall building aren’t going to make it any more livable when the planet is burning up.

    The common ground that has to be reached is that we’ve got massive problems to solve, we’ve got very little time to solve them, and it won’t be painless. Some people will lose their views! Cry me a fucking river.

    I doubt Paris would fit Livable Seattle’s definition of livable – there aren’t enough single family homes. BTW, that’s why they can achieve high density with relatively low building heights.

  19. Dan Staley

    What I would claim however, is that [density] is, most likely, going to be necessary for survivability. So a backlash against density for whatever reason is basically suicide. A city full of beautifully designed townhouses, extensive lush open spaces, and not a shadow cast by a tall building aren’t going to make it any more livable when the planet is burning up.

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    And I’d also say that we aren’t going to maintain ~9B people after population plateaus and declines. Why? Resource constraints (mostly cheap energy, and water) may not allow this population maintenance. If we can’t get cheap solar/wind/whatevah to replace oil, then we can’t maintain current population levels, let alone 9B.

    So this begs the question about whether we’ll have a hard landing or a soft landing [3 links embedded] to level human population after the decline.

    We’ll have a hard landing if the large western first-world countries approach the problem with a continuance of the hyper-individualism found there today. I won’t pretend to know what will happen, but EO Wilson answered the question “how many people can the earth support” by stating “if they consume at Japanese and American levels, about 500 million”.

    I’ve said for a while now that some places will depopulate when oil (energy) and water (climate) become restricted. Seattle will not. Denver, the Front Range, the Intermountain West, and a good chunk west from 100 to the Sierra-Cascades will. My little ex-town will completely depopulate.

    Folk will need some place to go. Most won’t be concerned about a three-car garage and a big yard. But we need to get there from here.

    Outfits like Liveable Seattle aren’t helping, and sadly again whack-a-mole must be played, as a considerable fraction of our society still isn’t paying attention. What will get folks to pay attention before its too late? That is our job: how to get folks to listen. Some of us, however, must make those places for the future right now, as it takes time. The Liveable Seattle folks, for whatever reason, can’t picture the future. That is the task ahead.

  20. SeattleScape » Blog Archive » Is Seattle overdoing it with density plans?

    [...] Read another blogger’s take on the report here. [...]

  21. Joshua

    Matt @ 3: “I’d say upzoning can have the effect of making housing more affordable, as supply is increased. Lower quality older housing that people are moving from into new housing becomes less expensive.”

    There are a few problems with that thought process. First of all, the idea that we’re going to rely on “lower quality” housing for our affordable housing is missing the point. We don’t want to create a situation where you have to move into a shitty old house to get affordable housing.

    But that’s moot, really. A situation that you describe, in which landlords have to actually LOWER rent because of over supply, is NOT good. People seem to have this impression that if only we could over supply the market, then everything would be affordable. That’s very naieve. While this would be nice for renters in the short term, it would be very BAD for the city’s economy and development. Projects wouldn’t get started, city reveunes would fall, etc.

    So, if you want both a vibrant economy that provides a market stimulus for good growth AND safe and decent housing for all income types, you’re going to have to have a variety of different subsidies and other tools directed at incentivizing developers to do the right thing. This is especially true with land prices being what they are, rising construction costs, a thirst for better design, and an increasing (and legitimate) desire to incorporate greener elements. All of those add up, and there is increasingly less and less room for affordability in your typical project. Dan had it right on: incentives are needed.

  22. Jim

    Dan – I appreciate your perspective on urban development and mentioned this website on my most recent blog "Seattle’s NIMBY-ism Problem".

  23. Paul Krugman Joins Team Density | hugeasscity

    [...] Yup. Uh-huh. Dang. [...]

  24. TLjr

    Josh: We’re already relying on lower quality housing for affordable housing, such as it is. Except it’s not shitty old houses; it’s shitty new houses out there in Subprime Acres.

    Incentives feel good, and probably don’t hurt much, but they probably don’t help much either.

  25. A Criminally Unfair, One-Sided, Amateur Blog-Style Q&A With (Or Without) David Miller | hugeasscity

    [...] The affordability issue noted above in #4 was addressed in my critique of the Livable Seattle Movement document that you said “was written by someone [...]

  26. Ye Olde Crosscut Not Dead Yet | hugeasscity

    [...] sprawl as well, despite (or perhaps because of) the Growth Management Act.”  In other words, density causes sprawl.   Never mind considering where all those people would have gone if they didn’t have the [...]

  27. Yes Virginia, Density Causes Sprawl—Lorax Edition | hugeasscity

    [...] all the wonderous myths of the density NIMBYs, surely “density causes sprawl” is king. Long ago Yogi Berra, of all people, nailed the illogic of that argument with his famous [...]

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