I’m trying my best to give a charitable reading of Knute Berger’s Mossback column in the Seattle Weekly railing against urban density. But it’s hard.

To summarize as best I can:  Berger doesn’t like Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ plan to promote high-rise housing near Seattle’s downtown because, well…I guess Knute liked the Seattle skyline just as it was in 1980, thank you very much.

Now, Berger makes at least one really good point—that Mayor Nickels seems to want to do too much, and that some of his goals conflict.  For example, the mayor supports both massive new transportation spending that could suck life out of downtown, and massive new residential development in the urban core. 

But Berger saves most of his fury for the prospect of residential high-rises near downtown.  He’d prefer that the city follow the example of Copenhagen, Denmark—which, according to him, means making Seattle’s policies family-friendly, so more families with kids can afford to live within the city limits.  Encouraging families with kids to move into the city would increase the number of people per household—accommodating population growth without increasing the need to build more housing. 

And if we do have to increase the housing supply, Berger again prefers the model of Copenhagen and other European cities:  creating small-scale urban villages that are interesting places to live, but aren’t dominated by highrises.

I guess I understand his instincts—building residential high-rises might change the character of the city Berger grew up in.  And, without doubt, Nickels’ high-rise plan would forever alter the priceless urban gem that is today’s South Lake Union warehouse district (sarcasm intended).

But let’s be careful holding Copenhagen up as a model, shall we?

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  • Here are the numbers, from the Jeffrey Kenworthy and Felix Laube’s venerable International Sourcebook of Automobile Dependence in Cities and this extremely helpful world city population website.  Between 1960 and 2005, the total population of Copenhagen-Frederiksberg—basically, the city without its suburbs—fell from 836,000 to 594,000, a decline of 30 percent.  In Copenhagen’s central business district—the downtown—population fell faster, from 65,000 in 1960 to 34,000 in 1990.

    Copenhagen, in other words, has been emptying out.

    Now, to be fair, the population of central Copenhagen rebounded slightly since 1990; central Copenhagen’s population is now at about the same place it was in 1980.  But in the meanwhile, the population of the Copenhagen suburbs grew from 772,000 in 1960 to about 1.2 million in 2005, an increase of more than 50%.  In greater Copenhagen, as in greater Seattle, suburban living is now the norm. (Though, doubtless, Copenhagen’s suburbs are denser and less sprawling than ours.)

    But still, let’s say we really should hold Copenhagen up as a model for promoting density by creating urban villages.  That’s fair enough—urban villages can be really pleasant places to live, and we really don’t have to accomodate new growth with skyscrapers if there are other viable models. 

    But remember, in 1990, after 30 years of population decline, Copenhagen was still two and a half times as dense, on average, as Seattle is today.  Two and a half times.  Now, I’m not suggesting that just because Copenhagen is dense, that Seattle should be too.  But I am suggesting that the European-style low-rise density that Mr. Berger supports would mean changes every bit as momentous, and far more widespread throughout the city, than a strategy of concentrating growth in the middle of downtown.  Urban villages certainly have their charms, but it’s hard to see how the politics of that kind of change would work in a neighborhood-focused city such as Seattle.

    And that goes to the heart of the matter.  It seems to me that  you just can’t prohibit people from moving into greater Seattle.  Legal and moral problems would abound.  There are smart ways to slow population growth—such as reducing the hidden subsidies for domestic & international migration, discouraging unwanted pregnancies, and the like.  But ultimately, we can’t stop people from coming here.  (Moreover, the family-friendly policies that Knute advocates would turn Seattle into a giant population magnet, which would, in turn send housing demand & prices that much higher.)

    So if we don’t accomodate new residents by accepting higher density within city limits, greater Seattle is going to continue to sprawl at the outskirts, overrunning farmland and rural land at the urban fringe.  This kind of low-density sprawl locks its residents into an auto-dependent lifestyle—which worsens residents’ health, decimates salmon habitat, and increases the region’s spending on oil, among other ills.

    If the alternative to sprawl is to accept greater density—whether in urban-style villages, or in skyscrapers, a la downtown Vancouver, BC—I’m all for it.  And concentrating some of that growth downtown—where people can drive less—makes a lot of sense for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that there are a lot of people who really want to live in a pedestrian friendly neighborhood near where they work.  Which is exactly what happened in Vancouver, BC, the city that the mayor’s "tall and skinny" strategy is modeled after:  the city cleared the way for lots of development in the urban center, which allowed the city to accept many new residents without fundamentally changing the character of all of the city’s neighborhoods.

    And Vancouver, by the way, has almost exactly the opposite trends from Copenhagen—an inner city that has grown substantially since 1960, not depopulated—coupled with a farmland-protection policy that is simply unequalled in the US, and, on net, far less loss of farmland and rural land than in any of the 20 cities we’ve studied to date.

    Now, that’s a model I’m in favor of.