Precedented Growth

The current spurt of population growth in Seattle is big. We’re on track to grow by 130,000 people this decade, rising to a municipal population of 740,000 by 2020 and it has become journalistic convention to refer to this growth as “unprecedented”… which is odd. Seattle is a city with a short history, but we have an even shorter memory.

Seattle is a western boomtown and frenetic, cyclic growth is in the city’s DNA. At the current rate, this decade of growth will not be the largest increase in a single decade ( even just counting since 1900). That occurred in 1900-1910 when the city added 156,000 new residents, and increase of 194%.

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In percentage terms our “unprecented” decade appears even less notable. Our projected increase of 130,000 would be 21% above the population in 2010. Certainly nothing to sneeze at. But still, just since 1900 this is only our fourth highest growth rate. The city grew by 27% between 1940 and 1950 and 33% between 1910 and 1920, after the aforementioned 194% growth rate 1900-1910.

The most remarkable thing about the new growth of our city is that for the first time since 1930 Seattle is growing faster than the Puget Sound region as a whole. Puget Sound is only on track to grow by 14% this decade, about half of the average growth rate since 1900. For the first time in a long time Seattle’s share of the regional population is increasing – by about a percentage point to 19%, down from more than half in 1920.

seattlegrowth2
If you care about sustainability, or if you just like the benefits of urban living this is great news! We have sacrificed vast tracts of beautiful forest and farmland to asphalt and bluegrass to build our suburban living quarters surrounding the city. This seems normal, but it’s a choice. When we travel to foreign countries we often delight in the “quaint”, compact, neighborly places we visit which are so close to working and natural landscapes. We could choose to live in such places ourselves.

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Just outside Vienna, Austria

We are in fact making progress in this direction, as these growth statistics show. We are also approaching 30 years with perhaps the most robust growth-management program in the nation, the Washington State GMA, which is responsible for some of this trend.

Building on “vacant” land is easy. The plants and animals don’t know to file a lawsuit or form a neighborhood association. There aren’t conflicts with existing residents because there aren’t any and open land can be divided up into parcels for sale and construction.

Adding people to cities is hard. Existing residents can’t help but notice the change, which is among the most visible elements of the mix of disappointments brought on by the passage of time and mortality. As with most things, compassion and creativity make it bearable while corporate and bureaucratic efficiencies make it less so. If we value the awesome landscapes of our special spot in the world, we should try our best to accommodate our new neighbors close to us. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.
* population statistics are from US census bureau. 2020 estimates are straight-line projections using 2016 census bureau estimates. figures were accessed here and here.

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Urban Design and Life Between Buildings

Since its formal foundation sixty years ago the discipline of urban design has chiefly concerned itself with a response to the Modernist approach to city building. Modernism held up the idea of a city composed of buildings that were free-standing, internally-focused, unadorned, efficient solutions to the needs of humans for shelter and privacy. These buildings were big, as made possible by new construction methods. They were constructed and designed as singular objects, meaning that they did not combine with nearby buildings or open space to create a coherent form. The only coherent form was the building itself. The new role played by the building in the city caused a fundamental reordering of the shape of cities. And, in this instance, function followed form.

The new shape of the city altered how people lived and moved about, what kind of places they spent time and how the interacted socially. Throughout human history cities were formed of a dense built mass, cut through with narrow alleys, squares, and a few broader thoroughfares. These openings in the built form provided a space for the public life of the city in addition to circulation and access to buildings. The public realm was shaped by the many buildings which surrounded it and life that flowing through it into and out of these buildings. It was composed of nothing more than the sum of the relationships between these elements (Kostof 1991).

The modernist approach to architecture and city building was an acknowledgment of the 20th century changes in construction and transportation technology and it was an earnest attempt to deal with the many problems of the industrial city, with its crowded, polluted, and unhealthy slums, economic inequality, and congested streets. Still, urban designers found it necessary to repudiate many of the tenets of the modern city and its effects in their own work. This was perhaps most powerfully achieved by Jane Jacobs in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she the compares modernist city planning to the archaic medical practice of bloodletting, saying “years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.” Jacobs calls out for a new discipline of city planning based around the ways cities work in reality, derived from nothing more than the observation of cities themselves (J. Jacobs 1961).

The key element that Jacobs searches for in her study of the real functioning city is life, and the circumstances and environments which sustain it in an urban environment. This life is found in the street, in the “sidewalk ballet”, in well-used parks and in safe, supportive, vibrant neighborhoods. This quality has been sought by many theorists of urban design throughout the development of the field. It is something like “magic”, a “sense of place”, greatness, life, and it happened in the public realm, a result of the complex interplay of the built elements of the city and of lives of the people who inhabited them. This quality was perhaps best characterized by Jan Gehl, who called it the “life between buildings” (J. Jacobs 1961) (A. Jacobs 1993) (Cullen 1961) (Gehl 1987).

Thursday morning I went to the Island

This morning I went out to the island to write. I walked out my door around seven, got on the train downtown, took the passenger ferry and then the bus into town, where I arrived about a quarter after eight. The reverse commute is a strange special thing. You start out in the midst of the morning rush, through downtown amidst the office workers and bums, but before long you’re nearly by yourself, and then you plug right into the island’s sleepy, but industrious daily life. It felt a bit like I’d arrived in another country, with different customs and values and social problems, and a different kind of economy.

The bus from the ferry dock into town is particularly resonant. I grew up on a hill on the north end of the island, a short, steep walk up from the dock. I rode the bus to school, basically the same route for nine or so years. We’d start out nearly empty, power up the big hill, head down around the Dilworth loop where we could see the sunrise against the mountains at certain times of year. The bus passed through town and by the coffee roasterie, where on roasting days the the toasty, smooth smell of which alerted us that we were nearly to school.


The bus ride this morning skipped the Dilworth loop but it wasn’t so different. It is a county bus, but just like the school bus it stops for people on the side of the road, where there is no sidewalk or signpost or any perceivable clue that a bus stop is present. We don’t run the Dilworth loop, but we do pick up a few people along the “highway”, the main two-way road that runs down the spine of the island. Each has their own business about the island, and is dressed in their own uncoordinated attempt to resist the wind and rain. Or not all uncoordinated. Two men get on the bus just up the hill from the dock, they are medium height, with decent bellies, each has a straight handled full-size umbrella. They are both wearing hats, one a paperboy and the other a sort of German-style fedora with a little feather. One wears a leather jacket and the other a denim jacket, with canvas sleeves. They are twins. I remember riding the school bus with them many years ago. I think they were two or three grades below me.


They sit down opposite each other in the front part of the bus. Each has their phone in their right hand and their left on the handle of their umbrella. They get off just past town, on the funny little “Dead End” street that leads the the islands’ quiet industrial park, and open their umbrellas and set off on foot, perhaps walking the half-mile to a place of employment.


I get off at the Roasterie. It is one of the oldest buildings on the island and was built with a spatial logic that has become foreign with the passage of time. It sits right out on the street, with a long front porch, where the excellent coffee is served. Inside, odd tables and stools are arranged around jars of medicinal herbs, houseplants, historic coffee paraphernalia, with newspapers, cards, cribbage and chess sets, and posters about island happenings scattered about. The large windows are only twenty feet from the street and cars stop directly in front of the building for the four-way stop at the intersection of Highway and Cemetery. People in cars look out to see if they know anyone on the porch, roll down their window to yell a quick Hello How Ya Doin’ while the porch folks look out at the car passersby just the same.

The school buses roll by around nine. Their windows are foggy. Temporary drawings and messages have been written all over, traced with fingertips on the cold glass and slowly fading. On the lower panes openings in the fog have been hastily cleared with sleeves and little faces can be seen looking out at the world.

Bike to the train

In Portland Oregon a silver spheroid carries three thousand-odd people per day from the banks of the Willamette river to Oregon Health and Science University’s Marquam Hill hospital five hundred feet above. This aerial tram was constructed to deal with the access problems arising from its challenging physical location. With steep winding roads and limited parking availability the hospital needed to figure out how to allow people to access the campus without driving, or to relocate.

Initial plans for the tram included racks for about 10 bicycles to park at the bottom. At the urging of planners at the Portland Bureau of Transportation this was doubled to space for 20. However, the location proved perfect for bicycle access – its low elevation is on the same plane as most of Portland’s most popular cycling routes and bicycles are able to circumvent the bottlenecks at the end of each bridge which make automobile and bus travel painfully unreliable. The racks were quickly overloaded and most people chose to carry their bikes with them up the tram. Bikes left unattended and far away must be securely locked, with lights and bags removed. Even then wheels and saddles are subject to theft. The crush of cyclists in the the tram reduced its capacity significantly.

Kiel Johnson, a cyclist and a friend of mine interning with the Hospital’s transportation office in 2011 had an idea. If there was a secure location at the bottom of the tram, people could leave them there without worry. It could be attended by paid staff who would watch over the bikes – lights, bags, helmets, wheels and saddles and all – and the bikes wouldn’t even need to be locked up. Cyclists in need of a new tube or a tune-up could place a work order with a mechanic on staff and have it ready in time for their commute home. The whole thing needn’t take up much space – hundreds of bikes can fit in an area that would park only a handful of cars. In fact it could be located in vacant space below the tram, advertising it’s services to everyone enjoying the view from above.

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And so the Go By Bike shop and valet was born, founded by Kiel and funded by OHSU. Together with the tram it solves a unique problem in an efficient and delightful way. It is hard to imagine Portland’s south waterfront without either, though the tram is only ten years old and the valet only five. Peak daily usage of the valet in 2012 was 180 bicycles. Last year’s peak highest daily count was 420, with another 150 parked on nearby racks outside of the valet.

Bike Valet in Seattle?

Kiel and I have spoken a number of times about the possibility of a bike valet here in Seattle, our home city. The natural analogue to his in Portland location – a rapid transit station near a major institution – is the new UW light rail station . However, the usage pattern of the UW station presents a problem. Many people could bike to the station from surrounding neighborhoods to use light rail in their commutes, but these are not people that UW, the property owner around the station, is much concerned about. Their students and professors arrive from other locations to the UW station. A bike share system – perhaps a UW-only version of the shortly to be discontinued Pronto system – would probably make more sense.

A bicycle valet needs to be located on the other side of a transit commute, between the travelers’ home and their entry point into the system, the so-called “last mile”. This allows the valet to operate during the day and to close up at night having returned all bikes in its care. In Seattle the light rail station in the area with the highest population density is Capitol Hill. The elevation changes surrounding the hill make it daunting to bike up and down, but cycling around the hill is rather pleasant. A valet at the light rail station here could serve riders who have a long walk to station but would be concerned about leaving their bike in a highly trafficked area with a visible homeless population. With 6,000 riders per day in just its first year, the Capitol Hill station alone already has twice the ridership of Portland’s aerial tram.

A new valet could partner with the Capitol Hill Eco-District for funding and there is currently large amounts of flat, vacant land on top of the station that would be perfect for storing bikes during the day – there is even a fence! That land is slated to be redeveloped but nearby street parking spaces, utility corridors, sidewalks, or even a corner of Cal Anderson park could potentially accommodate the 4,000 square feet occupied by the Portland valet. Kiel started the valet by asking: “how can we make arriving and leaving a place by bicycle the best possible experience”? Perhaps it’s that time Seattle cyclists got such a treatment.

LRT valet fence

Sources:
https://bikeportland.org/2016/05/20/go-by-bike-valet-has-doubled-its-users-in-three-years-183889 

http://www.gobybikepdx.com/about-us
http://crosscut.com/2009/08/dense-denser-densest/

https://www.seattletransitblog.com/2016/08/11/ulink-ridership-by-station/

And conversations with Kiel

Letter to Ramez Naam – Cofessions of an Urbanist

Hi Ramez

Thanks for the lecture last night in AP’s class. It was definitely the most informative session on climate change I have ever attended. I’d love it if you could send me the slides.

As I was leaving I have to admit I was feeling a bit disoriented. I’m a Master of Urban Planning student. I like compact cities, active transportation, walkable environments, free-market land use, subsidized mass transit. I’m also a white millennial who grew up on Vashon Island and I can’t help loving things that are hand-made and sustainably sourced. I lived in Paraguay in the countryside for two years and I really love certain bits of technology – refrigeration, the internet, stereos and buses are nice – but find a lot of our American lifestyle overburdened with superfluous junk. It means we have to work all the time to afford to buy everything we think we need and it creates distance between us.

I’ve looked at climate sustainability as the underlying justification for my intended career in urban planning as well as my lifestyle habits and choices. In a world of carbon pricing we would need to learn to live more cheaply, closer together, locally, throw away a little less, share a little more. Excess would be less of a birthright, solo driving in cars would not be considered the default mode of transportation and we would not devote so much of our land to freeways, subdivisions and golf courses. All my fantasies for how I would like to see society transform were basically justified in service of reducing carbon emissions.

Your lecture and the defeat of I-732 (I gathered several hundred signatures and canvased for the initiative) really seem to collapse that fantasy. I agree with most everything you said and you obviously have data to back it up. I was excited by the drop in solar prices, but I was dispirited when I realized it meant we’re probably not going to learn how to live better with less and instead just make excess more sustainable and cheap. If electric cars become cheaper and more popular than internal-combustion cars, vehicle miles driven will continue to increase, with freeways, gridlock, low-density suburbs, traffic violence, toxic storm-water runoff, parking minimums as ubiquitous as ever.

It does make sense to me how conservatives would automatically oppose climate action as it has been identified with things that liberals like us like. Especially as it has become identified with the things that urbanists like me really like, such as mass transit and apartments. It has always bothered me that so many liberals seem fine with smug actions to seemingly wash their own hands of climate change without structurally changing anything. I do it too. The more I am comfortable living without a car, the more a carbon tax would actually benefit me at the expense of the person who drives a big truck because it is identified with their way of life. Of course conservatives are going to oppose a tax that is levied on their way of life.

So, I want to thank you for coming in and for your excellent lecture and for the work you did during the I-732 campaign. I remember listening to the Stranger podcast where you debated someone from Sage or Got Green and just nailed it. I was in Denmark at the time and followed the campaign a little bit obsessively. It seemed so good and rational and a way to push society to transform in the ways I’d like. I suppose I also ought to thank you for pouring some cold water on the selfish vision that my ideal world is also the world as it should be to reduce climate change. That’s how it always goes with grand visions. I can still justify low-car living on the grounds of health, safety, economy, and local environmental impacts, at least.

Now, what do we do about Naomi Klein?

best,

Ian Crozier
Master of Urban Planning | Class of 2017
University of Washington

Carbon WA after 732

Last Wednesday night I drank beer with Kyle Murphy, the new Executive Director of CarbonWA. CarbonWA is the environmental organization which wrote and lead the campaign for Initiatve 732 in the 2016 election – which lost by 18 points, 41% to 59%. We discussed that election, the national political moment, the prominent role Washington state has been playing in national politics by resisting the Trump administration, and the future of Carbon WA.

The results of the election were deeply disappointing to supporters of I-732. The initiative was a revenue-neutral carbon tax, designed to financially reward consumers and producers for making low-carbon choices and to mitigate financial impacts by reducing other taxes in equal measure and funding a tax-credit for low-income families. With Washington state having the most regressive tax code in the country this element of I-732 was very important to me. Efficient as a carbon tax is, all else being equal it falls most heavily on the poor.

The initiative was crafted to have bipartisan appeal by making our economy more environmentally sustainable without raising taxes overall. Instead it was attacked from both the left and the right, with prominent environmental, social, and labor organizations endorsing a no vote and winning support from few prominent Republicans or business organizations.

CarbonWA has downsized since the election. Murphy and remaining board-members are looking for the ways the organization can be most helpful in the coming years. It is possible that a carbon-tax initiative could be placed on the ballot in 2018, but relatively low Democratic turnout during mid-term elections could put such an effort at a structural disadvantage. We discussed smaller-scale actions the organization could take, with targeted ballot initiatives, state-level lobbying, or local organizing. The ballot initiatives that passed in 2016: raising the minimum wage, temporary limits on gun access for the mentally disturbed, protections for care-givers to the elderly, toothless opposition to the Citizens United ruling – all deal in a narrow way with a popular issue. 732 on the other hand was broad and sober in its attempt to remake the economy and focused mostly on the negatives – the negative effects of carbon pollution and taxation, while negating also tax revenue. In the future CarbonWA could try to identify a more narrowly defined but popular issue and to craft ballot language that would still make an impact on carbon pollution: a tax or ban on the coal- or oil-trains which frequently pass through our state, for instance, or a “clawback” of federal subsidies for fossil fuels.

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Oil train near King County Airport

It is challenging to identify a politically popular climate-change measure that would have a significant impact on the problem, however. Burning fossil fuels for energy is deeply embedded in the way we have built our society – it affects nearly everything about how we go about our daily lives. The problem is with us, and scapegoating unpopular actors or obscure practices is simply going to delay the difficult transition that we will have to start making if we are going attempt to reduce climate disruption in a substantive way.

It is very likely that a carbon-tax will be on the ballot in 2020, either sponsored by CarbonWA or a coalition of environmental groups. That ballot measure should preserve the best parts of 732, the low-income tax credit and statewide sales tax reduction that reduce the regressivity of our tax code. However, it should abandon strict revenue neutrality – this failed to win many Republican votes and was unpopular among Democrats. It could front-load subsidies for energy retrofits and job-training and delay the imposition of the tax by several years. These could be paid for on credit by future positive tax revenues and would give those negatively affected by the change time to make changes to reduce their costs. Ideally such a measure could pass in a state where our legislature will have finally achieved an agreement to adequately fund education, taking the pressure of any potential tax to compensate for an unrelated budget hole.

In the early months of the Trump administration our state is taking on a higher profile role in progressive government than it has traditionally played by standing up for immigrants and refugees.  In fact, this role builds on recent Cascadian leadership in marijuana legalization and marriage equality, and is buttressed by our states’ economic strength in technology and international trade. I am hopeful that our state will rise to the challenge of leading the way in dealing with climate change in a serious and just approach.

The Remarkably Good Urban Design of UW’s New Dorms

In the past decade the University of Washington has undertaken a major building campaign to replace aging dormitories on the west side of campus, building seven new dorms around Campus Parkway and 12th Avenue. These buildings have positively contributed to the urban environment of the neighborhood in several ways: they have increased the residential capacity of west campus from 3,000 to 5,000 beds, improved the quality of public and private open spaces, and provided a blueprint for sustainable, compact urban form. 

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UW West Campus

The new dorms were principally designed by two firms, Mahlum and Mithun but many characteristics are shared by the whole group. They are 6-7 stories tall, use linear forms to create well-defined streetscapes and courtyards, and include ground-level spaces for retail and student support services. Surface parking lots have been removed or replaced by underground lots, improving the quality of the open areas and the capacity of the built areas. They all generally have a classy, restrained use of materials that is neither distracting nor off-putting.

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Mercer Court

These project address concerns about the poor quality of the urban grain of many new developments expressed by Liz Dunn and which have caused significant backlash against new development in Seattle. Although these dorms each have a fairly large footprint, their design works to increase the density of unique places within each building and between the buildings. They do this by differentiating parts of the buildings and open spaces based on their use, relationship to surrounding elements and grade changes of the sites.

Because they have nearly doubled the housing capacity of west campus these projects also address Glaeser’s concern about housing scarcity, although it is pretty likely that he would heave preferred that these buildings be taller. Most of the new dorms rise to the maximum 65 feet allowed in the zoning, however Poplar Hall, Elm Hall, and the Cedar Apartments north of Campus Parkway are zoned for 105 foot height limits, meaning that for some reason the university chose not to built to the maximum allowed height.

The high-quality urban design of these projects encourages students to walk and socialize outside, with positive health and social outcomes for the community. It also encourages active transportation and use of transit. More broadly, the new dorms epitomize the ideal of compact urban growth, with lively social activity, efficient transportation and building, and dense but livable neighborhoods.

The university’s ability to realize such a vision is probably the result of its unique situation with large financial and land resources and influence at city hall, a fact that may urge caution against using the west campus expansion as a model for the rest of the city to follow. Still, as noted in chapter 1 of The Carbon Efficient City, universities are excellent testing grounds for sustainable practices, and the bifurcation of capital and operational funding streams gives these institutions a strong interest in investing in high-quality buildings that will save money in energy and transportation costs over time. Hopefully the experience gained by the builders, designers and residents of these projects will shape understandings of what good urban form looks like how to achieve it over a greater part of our city in the future.

 

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12th Avenue plaza between Terry (pictured) and Maple Hall

 

Quota zoning -share the load

In a letter to the editor of the Seattle Times from November 2015 David Sucher proposed taking literally Seattle City Councilmember Juarez’s straw-man argument that we not allow “triplexes on every block” to alleviate the housing crisis. Calculating the number of blocks in single-family zones and the 31,480 unit increase in the housing supply that would be added by literally adding one triplex on every such block in Seattle, Sucher concludes that this would be an excellent strategy to address the mayor’s Housing and Affordability and Livability Agenda housing creation goal of adding 50,000 units city wide, while having the minimum possible impact on the character and built fabric of the city’s neighborhoods.

The council member and Mr. Sucher’s reasonable suggestion is unlikely to be put in place because it defies the logic of existing zoning laws, which are little changed from the first zoning laws developed by the City of New York and approved by the Supreme Court in the 1920’s. These laws created a defined three-dimensional space in which buildings could be constructed as they also meet the restrictions on land use and occupancy specified in the zoning. These zones usually encompass at least one city block in area though they have been retroactively applied to built environments that predate zoning in order to match the finer grain of those neighborhoods.

This type of regulation has little impact when the maximum allowed envelope is substantially larger than the existing buildings within the zone. However, many zoning codes have been crafted to hold a neighborhood’s form strictly in place, even to the point of creating “nonconforming uses”: existing buildings that would be illegal to build under the new code. Compounding matters, zoning codes are rarely updated to reflect growth in regional population.  The result is that in cases of high demand blocks with extra zoning capacity are quickly built to capacity, resulting in the wholesale elimination of the built legacy of the building and what is often a monotonous block of similar buildings designed to maximize zoning limitations and construction efficiencies.  

Alternative approaches to zoning have been proposed, the most prominent being “form-based codes” which regulate the types of buildings that can be built rather than merely their maximum physical dimensions.

Mr. Sucher’s approach to regulate building by type based on the existing population of buildings on the block would be a novel approach. Such a quota could distribute new buildings according to the needs of the city across the city, preventing any particular neighborhood from bearing the burden of too quick growth, and ensuring a diverse, gradually evolving built environment.

Alternately the city could regulate building based on the number of units for the block (or acre). If 20 units currently exist on the block, and 30 are allowed, either ten single-family homes could add backyard cottages, be subdivided into or replaced by duplexes, or one house could be replaced by an 11 unit apartment building. An advantage of this approach would be to allow capacity to be increased incrementally and systematically with the rise in population of the city or region. If the city population increased 1%, every neighborhood in the city could be required to increase capacity by 1%. Some neighborhoods would see no change for several years as additional capacity accumulated, others would see piecemeal replacement of aging building stock with slightly more unit-dense buildings. By making zoning capacity increases essentially automatic this approach could temper the fierce resistance that “upzoning” often faces when proposed by planners and elected officials. Residents would generally not see large-scale replacement of the building stock of their neighborhood in a short period of time.

Such a unit quota system of zoning would be a drastic change from our existing system. Still, it is worth reconsidering if our nearly 100 year old system hasn’t gone stale.