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Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Convenient Truth

posted by on April 3 at 13:05 PM

The wood-paneled conference room in the Grand Hyatt was already filled with 170 developers, design professionals, and land-use officials eating eggs and asparagus when I arrived this morning. In their pantsuits and ties, they had come to save the planet.

At center stage was a book just published by the international development-industry nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI), titled Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. The gist: Compact urban development is good for the environment.

Suburban sprawl, explained ULI’s Uwe Brandes, is the enemy. Longer commutes, errands, and business trips in vehicles there produce more carbon emissions. Dense urban centers, as we know, promote residents and employees to use public transit and walk, averaging fewer and shorter car trips. Brandes noted that even within cities, residents of dense, mixed-use neighborhoods produce, on average, 25 percent less carbon emissions than those who live in more sprawling neighborhoods. Secondarily, energy use in larger developments is 20 percent less than in single-family houses because units share walls, heating, etc.

“We’d like to raise awareness about climate change and the role development has in mitigating climate change,” says Kelly Mann, Executive Director of ULI’s Seattle District Council. The goal, she says, “is changing the approach to development as a whole.”

The message was falling on the right ears. Sitting among the developers was Diane Sigamura, Director of Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development. “We’ve got some big steps to take,” she tells me. “The public needs to examine how to travel and how to live. We can’t expect others to take care of global warming.”

The book projects that within 40 years, 90 million new homes will be built in the U.S., including replacing existing homes. If 60 percent of those are compact developments (townhouse density or tighter), vehicle miles traveled could drop by 30 percent, resulting in a 10-14 percent overall reduction of carbon emissions nationwide.

The benefits are more than environmental. The sort of urban design that reduces car trips also requires creating more walkable, more vibrant cities. But to do this, developers must commit to more than density—they must make a point to construct small retail spaces afforded by independent clothing shops, bars, and tiny restaurants (rather than large spaces afforded primarily by corporate franchise stores). Those are the local amenities that keep people from getting in their cars.

Projected growth represents an economic boon for the housing industry, too—Mann expects 1.7 million additional residents in the Seattle region by 2040.

Often, I think, developers are branded at strict profiteers. While some, no doubt, live up to that reputation, ULI, Seattle’s builders and local officials are taking commendable initiative toward better cities and ecologically responsibility. And ULI is already walking its talk: I wanted to keep my nifty press badge, but Mann asked me turn to it in—it will be reused at the next event.

RSS icon Comments


Yes. Yes. Yes. Keep up the good writing, Dominic. This is the type of post that makes me come back to the slog.

Posted by Ad | April 3, 2008 1:14 PM

Great writing, but if all the development is for the ultra-rich, the rich, and the upper middle class and their pet "artistes", what will all the people who read SLOG do?

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 3, 2008 1:52 PM

I thought one of the problems with much of the current mixed-used development is that the retail areas are too small. That seems to be at odds with the article, which claims that large spaces are the norm.

Maybe the problem is that retail spaces are medium-sized, both too small for larger retailers but too small for niche storefronts? I think the answer isn't more of any one type, but a mix of sizes and layouts for retail spaces, and regulations that allow for more flexible use to create diversity over time.

Posted by Cascadian | April 3, 2008 2:08 PM

Oh, and by larger I don't mean huge department stores on the big-box model. I just mean places that have some depth to them to accommodate storage or work areas or anything large enough to accommodate a business other than Subway.

Posted by Cascadian | April 3, 2008 2:11 PM

We should make this required reading by all who are participating in the neighborhood plan update process. And, those who have been the loudest complainers about the end of single family neighborhoods (aka the end of civilization) should be required to pass a quiz on the impact of single family development on the environment before they are permitted to participate in any plan updates.

Posted by Neighbor | April 3, 2008 2:51 PM

The problem isn't that they're too small, or too big; it's that they're shallow, little more than facades covering the real occupants of the ground floor: parking, building services. Seriously: go check out any of these new developments and see how far back into the building the shop goes. Now compare it to the cruddy but eminently usable retail spaces in one of Seattle's old strips -- I'm thinking Tweedy & Popp in Wallingford. Narrow, but goes back for miles.

Narrow but goes back for miles: a fundamental law of usable small retail space.

You can pack them in tightly to the street, because they're narrow across the front, but they've got room for things like proper kitchens and storerooms in back.

Wide, block-long or even half-block spaces, that aren't any deeper than ten or twenty feet aren't BIG, they're just wide. Any developer who comes away from that talk with a square-foot number in his or her head is missing the point.

Posted by Fnarf | April 3, 2008 3:03 PM

@5, so where do you think all of those people who want to live in single family neighborhoods are gonna move to if they're upzoned? That's right - the actual suburbs.

The City needs to keep the promises it made when the Comprehensive Plan and Neighborhood Plans were adopted and significant upzones were undertaken - DPD's new corporate-friendly greenwash notwithstanding.

Posted by Mr. X | April 3, 2008 3:33 PM

Why does a "promise" made 20 years ago - before many of us were part of this discussion - have to be the law for all of eternity?

That said, I don't think there needs to be that much change in use from SF zoning. Right now SF is 65 - 70% of the city. That is far more than in most major cities. The density in Seattle is far lower than it should be.

We can get denser and still have the suburban places in the city that a few folks want. And we can also have the denser, more vibrant neighborhoods that a new generation is looking toward.

Posted by Neighbor | April 3, 2008 3:50 PM

Cascadian and Fnarf: To clarify, the size of retail space wasn't a topic at the event, but rather my own concern based on the design proposals I've seen lately. Many have 5,000-10,000 square feet of retail divided into just a few spaces. Rarely do developers commit to dividing them into small spaces. But I agree that too many small retail spaces or too-shallow spaces are problematic--the key is various sizes conducive to multiple uses.

Mr. X: I think that many arterials and their adjacent lots can be upzoned, creating more urban density, while leaving the vast majority of single family houses untouched.

Posted by Dominic Holden | April 3, 2008 3:54 PM

@9 - that was exactly what the City promised when it upzoned in Urban Villages (and by the way - the Complan was adopted in 1994, and most neighborhood plans were adopted between then and 2000 or so). The problem has been that City planners negotiated in bad faith, and come back every year with the same old proposals to break the promises they made to neighborhoods regarding open space, setbacks, zoned heights, etc. etc. etc. etc...

Oh yeah, they also promised to preserve the existing affordable housing in Seattle, too. They've sure done well on that one...

Posted by Mr. X | April 3, 2008 4:00 PM

Mr. X - Stay tuned for more on affordable housing.

Posted by Neighbor | April 3, 2008 4:03 PM

Interesting retail comments. For once, Fnarf is correct, even if Cascadian had the best way of putting it.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 3, 2008 4:23 PM

Nah, you don't need variety. Just endless rows of 20x100 foot storefronts. Make 'em twice as big on the corners. No more than one doubled-up space per block. Think New York blocks. There's no need to overdesign this stuff; it's just space. Let the shops and the shoppers figure out the best way to use it.

Every block in the city ought to be like this.

Posted by Fnarf | April 3, 2008 5:07 PM

@13 - and then you go off the deep end ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 3, 2008 5:39 PM

The report is well worth reading. It also points out that compact development is not just good, it is pretty darn near essential to meeting the global warming and sustainability challenge. The report authors convincingly demonstrate that the gains from cleaner fuels and more efficient vehicles will be overwhelmed by more driving if we do not create more compact walkable neighborhoods. Good job ULI-Seattle.

Posted by Michael McGinn | April 4, 2008 10:53 AM

Shallow retail spaces are OK. In fact the design model that fnarf mentions -- shallow retail spaces in front of parking -- is an excellent one.

Posted by David Sucher | April 4, 2008 11:02 AM

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