Matthew Gardner, the chief economist at Seattle’s Windermere Real Estate, earlier this year digitally superimposed a map of Paris atop a map of Seattle for a talk he gave about how outdated single-detached zoning is. It’s a familiar theme for Sightline readers who have been tracking our arguments about housing shortages and climate change. The image spread at Twitter speed through Seattle’s small world of housing and climate hawks and then as quickly faded, replaced by the next meme and quip.

But I kept thinking about it.

What’s eye-opening about the Paris-on-Seattle map is that Paris—the City of Light, the modern birthplace of democracy, the cradle of the climate treaty that we hope may yet save us, the embodiment of urbane living, perhaps the closest thing the world currently has to an emblem for civilization itself—is tiny. You could set it atop Seattle’s north end, beyond the ship canal, and very little would splash down outside of the city—especially if you snipped off Paris’s wings, which are vast parks. Stacking Paris atop north Seattle would not even ruffle a feather of downtown, Amazon’s South Lake Union haunts, or the Starbucks and Boeing neighborhoods farther south. Yet Paris holds, in that limited space, three times as many people as all of Seattle.

Mr. Gardner’s rendition was quickly done, so Sightline redrew the map and gussied it up.

Paris has almost three times the residents of Seattle in less than half the area.

Sightline did the same for Cascadia’s two other big cities, Vancouver, BC, and Portland, overlaying Barcelona and Vienna, respectively.

Barcelona has 2.5 times more people in a smaller area than Vancouver.

Portland has about one third the people in an area almost as large as Vienna.

Why these cities? For Cascadia’s big three, Vienna, Paris, and Barcelona are worth emulating. First, they are affordable, at least relatively speaking. International comparisons of housing affordability, as opposed to housing prices, are notoriously difficult. Affordability is a function of prices and incomes, and incomes vary widely. Plus every home is different, and comprehensive data are hard to come by. Still, four outfits have made respectable attempts: Demographia, the Economist, and the real-estate companies Knight-Frank and Point2Homes. Collectively, their surveys show that Vancouver, BC, is egregiously expensive, and that Portland and Seattle are also painfully pricey—no surprise! Seattle is now the fourth most expensive US city for renters.

In contrast, Paris falls in the second most affordable group of cities in the Knight-Frank study. Vienna is a standout of affordability through housing abundance, as I have detailed. And Barcelona, included in the Economist’s study, is, if not cheap, at least less expensive than most of the global gems the magazine studied.

Second, and largely explaining the first, these three cities have built enough homes to welcome substantially more people on each acre than Cascadia’s cities: Paris is almost six times as densely settled as Seattle. Barcelona is three times as dense as Vancouver. And Vienna is more than twice as dense as Portland, despite the fact that the Austrian capital’s boundaries encompass vast amounts of parks and open space—almost half the city, by one estimate. (Incidentally, Vancouver is almost three times denser than Portland and 60 percent denser than Seattle, further strengthening the case that international cities are worth emulating in the United States.)

Third, Vienna, Paris, and Barcelona are greener. Compact, populous cities save so much energy by sharing walls, shortening trips, and shedding cars that they are to urban planning what windmills are to the electric grid: indispensable climate protectors. As the concentration of people rises, greenhouse gas emissions decline precipitously: for every doubling of density, emissions per household drop by almost half from transportation and by more than a third from home energy use.

Fourth, they are, as cities, wonders to behold: meccas for quality of life. Vienna, like Vancouver, has recently dominated more than one of the rankings for the world’s most livable city. And Barcelona, Paris, and Vienna (again, like Vancouver) are all among the world’s most beautiful cities, if Condé Nast Traveler can be believed.

  • Finding this article interesting? Donate now to support our independent research!

  • Vienna, Paris, and Barcelona aren’t the only cities I could have picked to make my point (though others would not have made such a pleasing allusion to the 2008 Woody Allen film). I could have picked Singapore, Kyoto, Buenos Aires, or Phnom Penh, to say nothing of planning-school favorites in northern Europe such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Or a dozen other cities. 

    Cascadia’s cities, like all of North America’s cities, remain—for all the arm-flailing that locals do about neighborhood character and traffic—sparsely peopled places. Uncrowded in the extreme. And until a governing majority of us Cascadians feel that fact in our guts, we are likely to make only halting progress on our housing shortage and our transition to zero-carbon cities.

    When enough of us realize that the future we say we want looks different than the cities we live in, when we realize that to build communities that manifest the values we express so fervently and aspire to so earnestly—sustainable, equitable, welcoming, tolerant, democratic, community-oriented, opportunity-rich, beautiful—we will be able to make our cities look more like Vienna, Paris, and Barcelona.

    And less like the north end of Seattle, most of it frozen in single-detached amber since the 1960s, astronomically overpriced for lack of multi-family homes, and almost big enough to hold the entire City of Light.

    Appendix

    Side-by-side editions of Seattle-Paris, Barcelona-Vancouver, and Vienna-Portland.

    Maps of the cities, showing the park area in each, are here: Barcelona, Paris, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, and Vienna.

    Thanks to Matt Stevenson of CoreGIS, who drew the maps for accuracy, and Devin Porter, who designed them for presentation.