The Truth About Density Advocates

City Council Candidate David Miller, known in some circles as a tireless neighborhood advocate and in others as a wackjob NIMBY, had this to say on Publicola a few weeks back:

“There are two thoughts in density in Seattle. One suggests density is inherently good for Seattle and the environment, the other suggests that only density done well is good for Seattle and the environment. I’m firmly in the latter camp.”

Let me be clear: these categories do not exist, and I can only interpret such a statement to be an attempt by David to paint himself as reasonable and to pander to “neighborhood-interest” voters.

Now, the members of the HAC Collaborative be some of the most unrelenting density advocates out there, but not one of us would fall into Mr. Miller’s first category, although I suspect we are the very ones he had in mind with this description. His suggestion that any of us care more about density than quality of life is as overly-simplistic as it is insulting. News flash to David (and John Fox, and anyone else who seems to think there is such as thing as a density-for-density’s-sake-dogma): us density advocates are all people, neighbors, community members. We have homes, some of us even own them, and care about our property values. We have kids in the Seattle Public School system and care about the quality of their education. We live around the corner from this shite and think the city owes residents and neighbors better design in our multi-family housing. We don’t think trees should come down just because a new building is going up. We want our neighborhoods to have better sidewalks, better bike lanes, better transit. In short, we care, very deeply on both personal and collective levels, about the quality of life in our community.

All that said, I don’t think my neighborhood, or any neighborhood, should have a choice about accommodating additional growth. We should allow detached accessory dwelling units in our single-family zones (yep, even mine)—and not just the paltry 50 per year that the city is current proposing—in order to maximize the potential for more flexible and affordable ground related housing, especially for extended family households. We should upzone many of our transit-served arterials (yep, even the one 100 feet from my front door) to maximize the opportunity for people to live near our transit investments. And encouraging more development in our transit-rich station areas and urban centers? Well that is a no-brainer.

Because here is the truth that density advocates understand: Density is good for the environment. And density done well is good for Seattle.

Yes: density is good for the environment. Mitigating climate change. Restoring Puget Sound. Conserving our rural and resource lands. Responsible growth management. Oh yeah, and it’s also good for affordability and physical health.

But to reap the environmental and physical benefits of density, it’s got to be welldesigned, offering foot, bike and transit access to homes, jobs, and community services, and affordable to a range of incomes. That makes it livable. And that is good for Seattle.

So how do we ensure density and livability? Well, we plan. But not the way David Miller suggests here a few months back (from PhinneyWood interview):

And while [David believes that] development needs to happen in the city to address housing density issues without creating urban sprawl, “[The city’s] job is to protect the people who already live here.”

Argh! No! Land use planning efforts should not hold my interests (or those of any other current resident of this city) paramount! We density advocates believe that we have a moral responsibility to be a wee more forward thinking than today’s interests, especially when those interests may be at the expense of future generations. After all, a building that goes up today could be on the ground for 100 years, and I sure won’t be around then, so why should my interests come first? I want to city to plan for my kids’ interests, and your kids’ interests, and our kids’ kids’ interests, not to be beholden to the short-term and short-sighted interests of today. Such limits on thinking and innovation are obstacles to implementing long term vision for the region, and necessarily squelch any political leadership to get us there.

And as such, us density advocates believe that the city, and sometimes, yes, the state, has an integral role in ensuring that our land use and transportation policies are forward thinking for the long-term. And sometimes that means making some top-down decisions to make sure that the broader public interest of sustainability is achieved. That is the intent and essence of the Growth Management Act.

So, the David Miller and John Fox types of the world may call my ilk top-down, heavy-handed wide-eyed enviros out to destroy homes and communities. The truth is that we are both environmentally conscious and socially responsible, and understand the absolutely essential role that increased urban density plays in long-term environmental and social sustainability.

And as far as I’m concerned, anyone who does not share this understanding should not be in a position of making public policy.