Another week, another anti-city screed from Seattle Weekly‘s Knute Berger. There’s lots to pick apart in this week’s column by “Mossback,” but I’ll restrain myself.

According to Berger, increasing density won’t address sprawl on the urban fringe because:

Big growth in downtown Seattle won’t be a sponge for regional growth. In fact, it will likely drive additional growth in the region—just look at the San Francisco Bay Area, which has sprawled endlessly despite San Francisco’s higher densities and incomes. A Seattle boom will generate more sprawl and more density, in part because we don’t have the strict growth controls in place to truly limit it.

Berger’s argument is a lovely compliment to sprawl industry flaks whose mantra is: we can’t have growth controls because there’s nowhere to build in the cities. But Berger doesn’t want density because the growth controls aren’t strong enough. No density without growth controls; no growth controls with density. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle.

The obvious solution that Berger overlooks is that increasing density can indeed help corral sprawl. Can density solve the problem all by itself? Of course not. Does that mean density is worthless for controlling sprawl? Again, of course not. Growth boundaries on the urban fringe are important too; and so is smart planning. (That is, density is a necessary condition of growth management, but it’s not a sufficient one.)

Definitive proof that density reduces sprawl is hard to come by, but I can get close.

  • Check out this report, using Census data to track growth in 14 US cities during the 1990s. The cities that do best at controlling sprawl are also the ones boosting their density. Take Portland, Oregon. If Portland had grown like a typical city in the study—that is, if newcomers to Portland had spread out in the typical low-density fashion—the Rose City would have swallowed an additional 150 square miles of rural land. How did Portland spare so many farms and forests? A paired combination of density and growth boundaries. Seattle—with weaker growth controls during the period and anti-density Bergers in the mix—did worse than Portland, but not nearly so badly as places like Charlotte or Nashville.

    Berger’s argument is, in any case, weirdly perverse. He implies that density will actually speed growth into the Seattle region because—why?–people find density appealing? If people like density enough to move here, I suppose one strategy to prevent growth would be to outlaw density. Or we could try a massive urban uglification campaign, perhaps driving away current residents to boot. Even easier, we could just get rid of cops and fire departments and see how the region grows then. That’ll show ’em.

    Truth is, I actually agree with Berger sometimes. I just wish he would stick to making claims he can support instead of getting carried away (see here and here, for instance). He’s right to caution against damaging Seattle’s historic and architectural legacy. And he’s right to remind us, in a general way, to preserve the best of the old while we build for the future. But ranting about paying for parking (in urban neighborhoods, fer gosh sakes!) or “privatizing” sunlight by permitting skyscrapers (no, I’m not making that up) sounds less like civic smarts and more like incoherent ranting.