Seattle as SuburbThere are many things to take issue with in Knute Berger’s recent piece in Crosscut about smart growth and sprawl.  

But let’s pick two things. 

  • First, Berger’s contention that the discussion about growth in the region is characterized by an assumption that smart growth happens in the city and sprawl in outlying areas.

    But much of our debate about urban growth in Seattle is reduced to very simplistic notions about city and suburb, one good (dense, walkable, and full of the “creative class”) and the other bad (SUV-friendly, sprawling, full of folks scared of urban edge). The reality, for anyone who has lived in both or thought about it much, is more complex.

    Says who?  Characterizing the argument—essentially putting words in other people’s mouths—without attribution reminds me of a classic clip from the old days when a reporter used the old “everybody is saying” routine. Compact, dense and livable neighborhoods can happen in Seattle and in other cities surrounding it. I can’t find anybody who argues that either we move all new growth in the region into downtown Seattle or else everyone sprawls.

    Second, I would agree with the statement that a world where only dense-urban areas and sprawling-suburbs exist is a ‘simplistic’ way of looking at growth in our region.

    Frankly there are some really good examples of growing smart in our region in places that would seem unlikely to a person basing their worldview on such a dichotomy. Kirkland’s downtown for example has become denser with new 6 story mixed use development and even a new hotel.  The city of Bellevue is moving ahead with a the Bel-Red project which would likely be impossible in Seattle. In fact the Goodwill project, which would have included more density in a relatively dead zone in Southeast Seattle, was essentially talked to death by neighborhood groups and the City Council.

    Increasingly if you want to find what Berger calls a ‘suburb,’ that is, “SUV-friendly, sprawling, full of folks scared of urban edge” one need travel no further than Laurelhurst where the density is about 7 people per acre.  For comparison, in Capitol Hill it’s more like 70 people per acre. Laurelhurst is a lot closer to Medina with 1 unit per acre.

    What is happening is not that smart growth is causing sprawl but that sprawl within the city limits of Seattle, unchecked due to the failure of a vision for land use, is actually forcing smart growth in places like Kirkland and Bellevue. It’s precisely because the Mossback agenda is winning the day in Seattle that it is failing to accommodate growth and all the positive things associated with it like ample transportation choices, walkable neighborhoods and amenities close to work and home. Plus more density means less climate changing emissions

    Perhaps it is true that Seattle is “25 scenic square miles surrounded by reality.” As long as the City Council gives equal weight to small groups of neighbors and regional concerns we’re less and less likely to see the smart growth Berger is talking about.