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Why Seattle Needs Two Million People
Alex Steffen, 31 Aug 06

monorailspaceneedle.jpg Going from Seattle to London offers a pretty stark contrast in the possibilities of an urban future.

In Seattle, we're arguing about handling the future growth of our city, with some old-school pundits reeling at Mayor Nickels' suggestion that Seattle can make homes for another 350,000 residents, while many more move to new subdivisions on the fringe. His critics charge that a much more sensible plan would be to channel most of the estimated 1.6 million more people likely to live the Puget Sound area by 2040 outward, to "undeveloped rural areas."

Both plans are woefully out of tune with not just the needs of the future but of the realities of the present day. We already live in an age of peak oil worries, climate impacts and nature pushed to the limits. And the only way out of that dilemma involves ending sprawl and building cities that are far more intelligently dense than what we have today, No sustainable future can be built that doesn't rest on a foundation of smart growth.

Neither are these issues Seattle is alone in confronting. World population is currently predicted to hit roughly 9 billion by 2050 (PDF), while the U.S, can expect to see its population grow by at least 120 million (PDF) in the same period. Most of that growth will happen in our cities, so learning how to grow cities well is one of our most important jobs.

We already know that density is, of itself, more sustainable than sprawl. Compact mixes of shops, homes and workplaces use less energy, for starters, and produce fewer greenhouse gasses. Even where infrastructure is crumbling, having more users closer together means less cost and less ecological impact for everything from water to sewers to garbage collection. Sprawl, on the other hand, is environmentally costly, and destroys natural systems even at very low densities. In the 21st century, to live in a city is to be an environmentalist, and visa-versa.

The optimal density sweet spot for supporting sustainability is a matter of fierce debate, and no simple answer can be right. One certainly wants enough people in neighborhood cores to support public transit and a variety of shops. A minimum of 40 people per acre seems to be the threshold. When well-designed and lively, neighborhoods can be much denser and even more livable. They can even encourage people to give up their cars because life is easier without them (growing much healthier in the process).

That doesn't mean that the entire city need to be that dense, or that no place exists for homes with yards and trees. After all, one of the hallmarks of a successful city is kid-friendliness, and most every young family needs a little more space than the parents once did. Other folks need a bit of outdoor space to garden or relax in. A healthy city can be quite dense and accommodate a variety of lifestyles.

The trick seems to be recognizing that so-called "single-family neighborhoods" -- neighborhoods of homes with yards or courts -- can still be compact. Traditional families -- families with two parents and kids at home -- are, In fact, a small and declining percentage of families in the developed world. More and more, the people in a household have a variety of relationships (from relations to roommates to renters) and large single-family homes don't meet the realities of those new relationships.

All sorts of new possibilities, from clever duplex designs to "grandma flats" in basements and garages, allow older "single family" neighborhoods to offer homes to people in sufficient numbers to support transit and bicycle infrastructure, a variety of shops and decent services within a convenient walkshed.

Of course, some people quite like living at much higher densities, and Vancouver has shown that very high densities (by North American standards, at least) and a high quality of life can go hand in hand -- Sarah and I were just there last week, and we again found ourselves marveling at how new, how urban and how livable downtown Vancouver feels.

Much urban land is wasted: it sits unused as polluted brownfields, abandoned lots, unneeded parking strips. In any North American city today, there are numerous building sites which could support better use, and the tools are emerging to identify and develop those lots. Then, too, whole areas can be rezoned and redeveloped (as Vancouver did with its nearly-abandoned industrial lands, as San Francisco is planning and as Seattle could do with its South of Downtown and Interbay districts). These days, building a whole neighborhood from scratch can also offer the chance to build on a much more sustainable basis to begin with. And while new housing is more expensive, the location efficiencies of compact neighborhoods can make living there cheaper in the long run anyways. If we want to build bright green cities, we have to use all land well.

Between dense neighborhood cores, newly-repopulated single-family neighborhoods and new high-density neighborhoods, Seattle could accommodate many, many more people than it does today. Indeed, it would become a better city. A Seattle of 1.5 million or 2 million residents, properly designed and supported with the right systems, would be a better place to live.

London is the proof. London is incredibly dense, by American standards. Yet London is one of the best, most dynamic, most interesting and even comfortable cities in the world.

That's not to say that either city is perfect, or has it all right. Indeed, I think we are still developing a key component of this bright green urban future, which is an understanding of how to leverage what cities have to offer -- proximity, connectivity and experience -- to deliver a new more dynamic, greener way of life, to deliver the experiences and comfort we all aspire to at a fraction of the ecological cost.

This can be done. Over the next month, I'll be reporting from great projects in the field here in Europe, sharing my ideas on how we can reimagine urban life to be far more sustainable and far more livable than anything we have today.

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I'm with you that "in the 21st century, to live in a city is to be an environmentalist, and visa-versa".

But, the denser our cities get doesn't it make it harder for everyone to buy local? If Seattle had a population of 2 million I don't think it would be possible for everyone to get their food from within 50 miles. In fact as the population grows, the average "food miles" our food will have to travel go up, as there won't be any additional agricultural land within 50 miles to support the newcomers.

I guess what I am wondering is if living densely and buying local are mutually incompatible. And if so which is better for the environment? My guess is that living densely is better, but I was wondering if anyone had some numbers to back it up.


Posted by: MH on 31 Aug 06

I'm not sure there's a trade-off there.

Most people don't grow a meaningful percentage of their own food calories. I can't imagine that will change, given the logic of expert farming, much less argibusiness (whether that's good or bad is another mater)

Considering, then, that most of us now eat food with transport trails hundreds or thousands of miles long, I see no reason why a compact city, surrounded by farmland rather than sprawl, couldn't greatly improve on the situation.

The idea of 9 billion people living as reinhabitant farmers is, in my opinion, both a pipe dream and ecologically unwise, even if it were possible.

That doesn't mean we can't reconnect with regional/local farmers, buy close to home/ organic and all the rest...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 31 Aug 06

London is a good model for any other city to use, but there's a big difference between Seattle to London. As someone who was born in Seattle, I appreciate what our city has to offer. But London does a lot of things a hell of a lot better.

As for growing food locally, if we remove sprawl or at least check its growth, there's more land for food. There's a lot of underused land which could be growing food that can't compete with cheaper imports. Assuming fuel prices rise in the long-term, eventually it will make more sense to grow more food locally. The denser the city is, the more land remains to support that population. It goes hand in hand. I admit to dreaming about razing the newer McMansion suburbs far out from the urban core and replacing them with farms. Someday, maybe.

Remember, too, that it wasn't that long ago that the US was self-sufficient in food production, and much of that was local for those who ate it. It wouldn't be impossible to recreate those conditions, given the right incentives.

Posted by: Cascadian on 31 Aug 06

I think the US is still much more than self-sufficient in food production. We could give up coffee, bananas and other more exotic foods, still ensure good nutrition for our citizens and still have much more than enough to sell to the rest of the world.

But I do agree that it's very important to buy local when you can.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 31 Aug 06

I think a denser Seattle is a much better solution to handling an increasing population rather than expanding into what were once rural areas. Continued expansion will only multiply traffic congestion (in addition to all of the other effects).

While the suburbs of Seattle keep pushing outward (what seems like exponentially) it will be important for the city and county officials to keep in mind and support smart transportation, affordable housing, and appropriate building and zoning ordinances for the future. Building a monorail and widening I-5, 405 and 520 aren't going to reduce traffic congestion as much as smarter regional planning could.

Posted by: Amy Stodghill on 31 Aug 06

It seems to me that cars actually compete with people for living space (garages, roads, parking lots, petrol stations etc.). So, if you can encourage densities that don't require cars for everything, then all that space reserved for car usage is freed up.

On the local food issue, wasn't there an planning study of Goa a while ago that came up with an interleaved design?

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 31 Aug 06

As one of those people who desperately wants to move to the Pacific Northwest, this both depressed me to no end and cheered me up quite a bit.

(Oh, man, I'm confused.)

Posted by: John Platt on 1 Sep 06

It is possible for dense cities to grow a substantial portion of their own food; it just has to be designed in the right way. Green roofs, beaucoups windows, tiered buildings, and green space should be emphasized during development. Good article.

Posted by: PeakEngineer on 6 Sep 06

Seattle encompasses 58,600 acres (including parks / roads / office buildings / etc.). A population of 2,000,000 leads to an average density of 34.1 people per acre. Average single family lot in Seattle is (I guess)1/8th acre. Thus, 4.25 people per single family dwelling could give that density. The unknown is how many of the 58,600 acres are available for single family dwellings. I suspect the average # of people per single family unit is closer to 2. Encouraging home owners to take in roomers via "mother-in-law apt's" would go a long way to absorbing the extra population while offsetting some of the cost of home ownership.

Posted by: fred on 7 Sep 06

This is not just a Seattle problem many American cities build "out" compared to the more European style of building "up".

Having just moved from England to the mid-west I am amazed that small cities of 400,000 can take up so much space.

However in England we are limited in space in the US you are not. It is choice you must make. For so many years town planners have made the choice to build out resulting in urban sprawl.

The time is now to change that choice.

Posted by: P Mc on 12 Sep 06



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