The Year of Density

(guest post from Cass Turnbull)

The year of 2014 in Seattle has been the year of density, specifically density without infrastructure, including green infrastructure. The development of Urban Villages and single family in-fill was breath-taking in its speed, the immense size of the structures, and the perversity of some of the building configurations (apodments, two packs, three packs, four-packs; the faulty towers, the wedgies, and  the prison blocks. Most of the new apartment and office buildings have only landscape remnants around the edges. You know, ornamental grasses along the front of the building and parking strips planted so densely that your passenger is trapped in the car. Those count now as the landscaping requirement.

In the new BIG houses, the American backyard has been reduced to a small green square– the BBQ pad. Or sometimes it turns into the secret parking spot. The four-packs have traded their yards in for hidden, shared garage access courtyards. I  imagine it must be fun to maneuver a full sized SUV in one of those.

The trees and the traditional Seattle landscapes are being sacrificed everywhere for everything: for mega-houses, for Accessory Dwelling Units, for office towers with waterfront views, for roads, for mass transit, for the economy, for…for…for…density.

We know that density is a good and necessary thing, but we have embraced an unfettered density which is stealing the soul of our City. There will be no neighborhood character and no livability for the City dwellers of the future. We’re selling off the little green triangles along the roads. The craftsman bungalows are squeezed between three story skinny houses, if they’re not torn down and replaced by a McMansions. There fewer and fewer vacant lots to play in, fewer rope swings, forts, and tree houses, no funky old buildings, or hole in the wall cafes,  or mom and pop grocery stores.

box houseRecently I’ve been driving through the light industry areas of town, in Fremont, Interbay, and the Duwamish. I’ve been looking their stacks and piles cast offs and machinery sitting behind chainlink fences, interspersed with fixed-up and painted old houses, and dilapidated ones. I’m saying goodbye to wooden buildings with glass windows, to welding shops, to artist’s lofts, hangers, to places that fix things and to one-story anythings. I’m saying goodbye to the real ‘mixed use’ land. It never occurred to me that it would someday become to a new sort in ‘industrial use’ land–slick and featureless, and without a spot of green anywhere, to clean and cool the air, to stop the run-off, or to sooth the weary worker.

And I’ve been saying good bye to Seattle’s water views. They used to be everywhere, to be seen by everyone traveling the roads along the lakes, the canal, and Elliot bay. And at the bridge approaches, and from Dexter, and Aurora, and then there is the view of the Olympics, the water sparkling, and ferry boats seen while traveling on the viaduct.

The City’s views will ALL belong to the wealthy soon. The rest of us will be driving in a tunnel. Well, we’ll be in cars, I’m not sure we’ll be moving.

The destruction of Foster Island for the new 520 bridge is the perfect image of our time. The massive concrete road structure that is being built seems like a juggernaut eating its way through the wetland in stunning slow motion.  It is nothing short of spectacular.  Every time I cross the bridge I look at the uncaring machinery, and try to gauge its progress. I try to see if the beaver lodge, the heron and the golden swamp cypress are still there. After the requisite impact studies and obligatory handwringing, it is a fact that the green spaces, the trees and native areas, are always taken–taken because it makes more sense, or because it costs less money, or because it makes more money, than the alternative. Does it seem to you that it is always a ‘determination of ecological non-significance’?

So I wonder is it time to move, or to pushback, or just to ‘cultivate one’s own garden’?  as Voltaire so aptly put it.

10 thoughts on “The Year of Density

    1. For a start, we’re trying to organize all of us who recognize the importance of abundant green nature to urban dwellers. Stay tuned, and prepare to lend us your voice in future doings!

    2. My conclusion was that there are three options: 1) move away from Seattle, 2) stay and fight for better building codes and open space requirements, or 3) accept change and enjoy what you can in your sphere. .

      1. Well, Jeannie,

        I’ve actually given this problem some thought. I don’t think you will be excited about the answer. I think it requires that there be an meta-green organization, made up of all the others. Many people and their organizations have tried to do this, including me, by founding TreePAC. Other examples would be Steve Zemke and Friends of Seattle Urban Forest, Seattle Urban Nature (maybe), the old Treemendous Seattle.

        The meta organization would have a team (charismatic leader, policy analyst, political strategist, rainmaker,and organizer, and Nick Cardone). It needs a huge membership, for credibility, labor, talent, and the funds that make all else possible. (The funding from members is hardest to ask for and get) Money allows staff time to study issues, organize and communicate agreed upon messages, and to run the organization.But most importantly money is needed to donate to policy makers and lobby for legislation (a process that most right thinkers find objectionable). The other thing the membership does is participate in organized email campaigns. Because of it’s advocacy, the meta group cannot be a 501c-3 non-profit,. which means it cannot get many grants.

        The other ways that can cause change are an influential book, a galvanizing issue or event, a famous person becomes spokesman for your issue, media coverage, and/or that charismatic leader,

        So what can you do? Find an organization you like and join it, Donate time and money as is right for you. Write three emails a year to policy makers (extremely hard to accomplish), vote, enroll a friend, offer to help your organization but don’t burn out. If you are so inclined, attend one hearing or participate in a protest. But whatever you do or don’t do, be sure to ‘tend your own garden’– to find beauty, respite, heath, perspective, inspiration, solace and wonder in nature.

  1. It is estimated that 100,000 people will move to Seattle–not Greater Seattle–Seattle, in the next two, five, or ten years (pick your source). But surely, many people will move into the city in the next decade. I believe I know where many of these people can go: build above the large parking lots in front of mega-stores like Safeway, Home Depot and even places like the Veteren’s Hospital on Beacon Hill. There are well over a thousand, one-acre parking lots in Seattle. They have the infrastructure, many (most) of them are available to public transit and the owners would love the income. Each floor of apartments (depending on how you build–apodments, studios, one-bedroom and so on) would be twenty, forty or sixty units. A five story apartment above the Ballard Market Street Safeway couldeasily accommodate two hundred ‘hosueholds’. We could even trade-off: build the apartment twenty feet back from one side of the property and landscape that area with potentially bigger trees that will in time grow to a reasonable size. Christ, Cass, afterall this typing, with this much gin in me, I hope you read this. Let’s talk at Raina’s party. Or better, let me drink some gin at the party and you talk.

    Dick Falkenbury, yeah, that one.

    1. Wow, those are some wild ideas! Thanks for offering your gin-fueled insights.
      With all this growth, it is more important than ever that we recognize the importance of good design in building and planning. Density does not have to be soul-crushingly ugly. Good design can make the difference between a vibrant, healthy place, and a sad, unhealthy one. It might cost a bit more up front, but in the long run it will make life better for all of us.

  2. Nice, Cass!

    I think there may be value in advocating for something I’ve started to call 35/35. Instead of worrying how many people are living on a single family lot, it’s more of a performance type of zoning. It’s a way to counter the folks who’d like “single family zoning” to go away completely and replace it with more stack and pack with little in the way of green.

    Maybe if “single family” zoning was instead called 35/35 it would be easier to preserve green and create areas with more green. The 35/35 stands for 35% lot coverage which is the maximum in a current “single family” zone and 35′ tall which is the maximum height of a roof ridge allowed in a “single family” zone. 35/35 assures that there’s room for trees and light and gardens and play. No, it’s not open space or a guarantee that people will steward trees in that space, but on a 5,000 square foot lot, there at least exists the potential for the other 65% to include green.

    1. I agree, Cass did a great job on this – thanks so much to her for letting us post it on our site.

      I like your ideas on rethinking spaces to allow for light and trees. Views toward greenspaces and in particular toward dense trees and shrubs has been shown to make a measurable difference in human health. We could design much more pleasant neighborhoods for our inceasingly dense future if we gave up the notion that the only good view is water or mountains. Not only does this result in people cutting down trees that “block” their so-called views, but the real estate industry has hyped up water and mountain views to such an extent than many people think of them primarily as cash value. TREES ARE THE VIEW! That should be the new real-estate mantra.

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