Building Coalitions

Greetings, STB readers! It’s an honor to be contributing to one of my favorite blogs in the Pacific NW, writing for a smart, attractive, diverse audience such as yourselves. You may have read a few of my ramblings at Orphan Road over the years. Thanks to the STB folks for letting me crash the place.

That quick bit of throat-clearing aside, let me say I enjoyed Roger’s cri de coeur in favor of denser urban development. It sparked a couple of thoughts in response, which I’ve adapted below from a previous post I wrote on Orphan Road.

At the 30,000-foot level, Roger’s question is about power and influence: how do urbanists win? How does one agenda defeat another? Well, basically you either out-organize them or out-fundraise them. Politics is a battle of interests, not ideas (apologies to Keynes). If you want your interests to beat out the other guys’ interests, you either need more money, better organization, or both. Having good ideas is a second-order problem. Ideas help you raise money and organize. But you still have to raise money and organize.

So, how do we get there?

Organizing in favor of change is always harder than organizing against it. People are more likely to come out of the woodwork to oppose something, be it the Iraq War or changes to the Route 2, than to support something new. But people do come out to celebrate the new, if they sense possibility and excitement around it. Witness the crazy crowds that surrounded the opening days of the Seattle Streetcar and Link. Positive, change-oriented agendas can have their own power, but they have to be specific, tangible, and actionable. Think Obama 2008: “Want change? Vote for this dude.” Nice and simple.

For density advocates, raising money is in some ways the easier task. There are plenty of organizations – from developers to construction firms to trade unions – that benefit directly from urban development. But that money comes with strings attached. Many of these folks are often just as happy to build sprawl. More happy, in fact, since sprawl often requires less onerous soil remediation and environmental permitting. Pro-density folks make a mistake when they assume that all developers are their friends. In truth, it’s often a marriage of convenience.

There are no magic solutions. But I do think the broad outlines of the Schleicher paper that begat this conversation are right: a coalition needs to form — call it a political party or not — that has the power to change policy and can back it up with money and votes. It needs to be difficult for a politician to defy this coalition. From time to time, the coalition will do things that individual members disagree with, and these members need to find a way to support the coalition and not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is often a very difficult task for some, who may immediately defect if the percentage of funding for their favorite transportation mode isn’t exactly what they wanted.

Finally, the only way for such a coalition to survive this inevitable infighting is to have a common creed, a similar worldview. This is where the ideas come in. This worldview needs to be broad enough to be inclusive, but specific enough to actually mean something.  Part of it is about the economic benefits of urbanization. Part of it is about limiting sprawl. Part of it is about climate change, but I’m pretty sure if we converted our entire auto fleet to zero emissions overnight, many of us would still be urbanists. And part of it is purely romantic. It’s probably not about mode choice or fantasy maps (much as I love fantasy maps!).

Max Weber said, “politics is a long and slow boring of hard boards.” 20 years ago, Seattle Transit Blog, Transportation Choices and Sightline didn’t exist. 20 years ago it was possible to make a film about Seattle in which the main character was an environmentalist who refused to take public transit. Today we have a decent light rail system underway, more bike and HOV lanes than ever, and a pretty great new multifamily code. This shift can be hard to see when you’re neck-deep in the weeds of yet another neighborhood zoning battle, but it’s real.

The next 20 years will be even harder. Whereas the last era was mostly additive (more transit options for everyone!) the next era may involve starker choices: where to allocate scare dollars, when to stop subsidizing free parking, how to cope with rising gas prices, etc. Against this backdrop, creating a political coalition for transit-oriented living and backing it up with a positive, inclusive ideology will be even more important. I hope to contribute to this effort in whatever small way I can.

About Frank Chiachiere

Frank Chiachiere is the General Manager of Seattle Transit Blog. He has lived in Seattle for over a decade, and designs digital products by day. Commute: 2, 3, or 4.




Comments

  1. Andrew Smith says:

    I think part of the problem is also seeming reasonable. We live in a place where some people can earnestly say that forty-foot-tall buildings across the street from Roosevelt high school are too tall and somehow bad for the kids going to the school. I live around there and have had that position explained to me by otherwise serious (if misguided) people.

    However, if some urbanists show up and explain that 85 foot-tall buildings are required to save the world from global warming, I actually believe the NIMBYs come across as more grounded in reality in this case. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with 85 feet or caring about global warming, but you’d have to be pretty imbalanced or insincere* to believe that one is going to somehow save the other. Similarly, anyone arguing that we should tear down pioneer square to build the Burj Kalipha has an extreme position, and using extreme positions is a good way to get ignored.

    One thing I do wonder, is why does the “urbanism” crowd get upset about exurban developments? There are huge developments going up all over the place. Black Diamond, Puyallip, etc.
    http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/02/15/2027792/areas-largest-planned-housing.html
    http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2016849523_blackdiamond25m.html

    Shouldn’t we get upset about this, too?

    * Sometimes I believe that “global warming” is a left-wing shibboleth, such as birtherism, “job creators”, “death tax”, etc. are right-wing shibboletsh: code words that prove that you are definitely on one side of the issue, but that you are not quite being sincere about what you are saying. Because no one can sincerely believe that this zoning or that zoning are going to make any difference in the juggernaut of green house emissions.

    • Matt the Engineer says:

      I don’t think global warming should be the only reason cited, but it should certainly be part of the argument. I make many choices throughout my day and my life for environmental reasons – anything from paper or plastic (the right answer: no bag please) to how to travel to Portland. And considering the progressive city we live in, I don’t think I’m the only one that cares enough about the small pieces in the blind hope they’ll slightly affect the big ones.

      “why does the “urbanism” crowd [not] get upset about exurban developments?” We do! But there isn’t a Outside Seattle Land Use Blog to complain to, and the politicians in Black Diamond could care less about our opinions. Plus it’s a bit hypocritical to live in a city with a big Keep Out sign in the form of restrictive zoning, then being angry that they’re building homes elsewhere.

      • Andrew Smith says:

        Plus it’s a bit hypocritical to live in a city with a big Keep Out sign in the form of restrictive zoning, then being angry that they’re building homes elsewhere.

        Seattle’s population has gone up by 120,000 people between 1980′s census and the 2010 census, hardly a “keep out sign”…

        There are other land-use issues in nearby jurisdictions as well. Where’s the upzone shoreline movement? Upzone Burien? My point is it’s all a bit inconsistent. We’re never going to build a permanent coalition if we have such a narrow outlook, as essentially project-by-project anti-nimbys whose interests end at the city limits.

      • mephistopheles says:

        How many of those 120 000 moved into new highrises in upzoned areas is the question. Based on the suburban growth patterns during that period, even with tons of new SF housing in Bellevue / Redmond, one would expect growth in old SF areas like most of North Seattle. Surely there had been development in places like Capitol Hill, but it appears not to be that many. It would be interesting to look up density maps by neighborhood from the 80s.

      • Bruce Nourish says:

        I don’t have time to find it offhand, but I seem to recall someone (Sightline?) ran the numbers and found that most of the growth inside city limits was in areas zoned multifamily or urban villages. Virtually all SF land in the city is built out, and families are getting smaller on average, so I would not expect growth in those areas. The number of ADU’s built in SF zones has been tiny.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        [Andrew] 120k is a great start. But it’s absolutely anemic compared to our region as a whole. Yet high real estate prices prove this is where people want to live. We need upzones on a massive scale.

        I’ve heard a theory that the recent apartment boom is the product of reduced parking requirements just as much as it’s a response for increased apartment demand. Developers (and by extension future residents) are hungry for reduced restrictions on building in the city.

      • Andrew Smith says:

        Matt, that’s part of my point, though. There are 3 million or so people that live in the region and don’t live in Seattle. They do live somewhere, and where they live is a fine target for density, too.

      • Upzone all you want. If the land is developed up to the new zoning limits and if people continue to move in the increased density will most assuredly make the cost of living in the city go up. Eventually you reach San Fran levels of density and cost of living. In the interim the measels style zoning will result in a lack of concentrated development making transportation more expensive and less efficient further driving up the cost of living.

      • A lot of new residents (and businesses!) have moved to places that are utterly car-dependent. The width, layout, and speed of the roads combined with pedestrian infrastructure that’s an afterthought makes them unpleasant to walk; the layout of the businesses makes them difficult to serve effectively with transit.

        If you upzone a place that’s utterly car-dependent without other major changes you don’t get density or anything that can be served effectively with transit. There are lots of tall office buildings in the suburbs of Chicago, for example, that are still utterly car-dependent. The sparseness of sprawl isn’t caused by height, it’s caused by the layout of elements on the ground. It’s overbuilt, too-fast roads; it’s the layout of office parks; it’s massively overbuilt, redundant parking. It’s the lack of good, basic sidewalks. I bet a lot of exurban locations have plenty of room left in their zoning codes. But there’s a hard limit on real density imposed by car-dependence.

        I care more about upzones in places where zoning is the last element holding it back. Places that are already walkable and human-scaled. In other places, I’m more worried about the pedestrian environment.

      • (And, as I say that, I actually believe that the stakes in the ‘burbs are bigger than the stakes within the urban core. The best thing for this region would be strong, walkable urban centers in the suburbs. But there’s so much else that needs doing beside upzones. Bellevue is sort of getting there, sort of, I guess. It still has a long way to go.)

    • Adam Bejan Parast says:

      I think if you’re talking about 40ft vs 85ft you’re having the wrong discussion in the first place. The correct discussion should be on a regional or city-wide level, setting goals and targets, measurable ones that you either meet or don’t. Only after agreeing about that, do you then go down to the block by block level.

      We aren’t going to solve the problems we’re concerned with on a block by block level, and thus we need a systematic processes to get to that end.

      • Andrew Smith says:

        This is exactly right, and I think it’s something that the PSRC has already come up with. We should figure out how to make a movement organized around that.

      • Lack Thereof says:

        Screw 40ft/85ft fights. The biggest single change we could do would be to upzone several fully-built-out transit corridors in the city from SF7200 to LR3. Don’t talk about towers, talk about small single-lot apartment buildings – they are much less frightening. IMO, well-located LR3 is the biggest bang for your political buck, right there.

      • Matt the Engineer says:

        [Adam] has it.

    • “part of the problem is also seeming reasonable” Wow, and then you go on to call some who has a different opinion “misguided.”

      Perhaps actually being reasonable and open minded is a better place to start.

  2. “Positive, change-oriented agendas can have their own power, but they have to be specific, tangible, and actionable. Think Obama 2008: “Want change? Vote for this dude.” Nice and simple.”

    You do realize the contradiction here, right? The Obama campaign was about as vague and intangible as could be…

  3. Thank you Frank for this first post. Welcome aboard! I’d like to respond to some things you mention directly.

    “I enjoyed Roger’s cri de coeur in favor of denser urban development.”

    Cri de coeur. Is that a left handed compliment? Maybe it was more of a primal scream. I feel my patience running out with the squabbles we have over a few feet here and a few feet there. I also think that at times, as Bluto suggests, we can be our own worst enemies by talking ourselves out of actually doing something.

    “Finally, the only way for such a coalition to survive this inevitable infighting is to have a common creed, a similar worldview. This is where the ideas come in.”

    I actually wrote <a href="http://crosscut.com/2011/02/10/urban/20603/Urbanist-creed:-What-do-we-want-for-the-places-we-live–/just such a creed, a kind of rough draft articulating what we believe in and a common way to measure who we are.

    This was met by some misunderstanding. I wasn’t suggesting that this was a prescriptive creed, but a true creed, a way of alligning our similarities and down playing our differences as urbanists. I also tried to instill some connection to things everyone cares about, and NIMBYs sometimes exploit, like loss of privacy that can come with urban living. I do think ideas actually come first. Having said that I agree that when it comes to action:

    “Having good ideas is a second-order problem”

    This is something that liberal progressive Seattlites really struggle with when it comes to land use and transit. Often we wallow in ideas and data and expect that politicians will carry our water. In fact, we often bristle at the thought of brass knuckle politics, prefering to argue with NIMBYs rather than drowning their voices out. But as one commentor pointed out, the honest NIMBYs are acting from a sense of entitlement. It is important to remember WE are the underdog, not them. Land use policy in Seattle is slanted against density because the basic financial interest of single family homeowners is to keep housing supply low: less housing means their investment holds it’s value.

    But what is also true, is that there are more important things than price. The quality of life in a city is better than anywhere else. If we really believed that we’d work to level the playing field by raising lots of money and electing candidates that agreed with us to the core–then we’d support them when they took tough votes.

    “Pro-density folks make a mistake when they assume that all developers are their friends. In truth, it’s often a marriage of convenience.”

    This admonition cuts both ways. Developers must also be warry of environmentalists and defenders of the GMA. Remember, the GMA is, at it’s heart, an effort to control development and in some places stop it. It is very easy to lose sight of the fact that notwithstanding its origins, the GMA should be about creating favorable economic conditions withing the UGA and unfavorable ones outside. Sometimes in garding the edges of the walls of the UGA we can forget what’s happening or not happing inside the castle. If we don’t make friends with developers — the people who build cities — we’re missing out. I don’t care if it is a marriage of convenience: as long as the marriage produces lots of compact little children that grow up into dense neighborhoods. We should never confuse financial motives with morality; development is a business, we should help make it more profitable in cities.

    “a coalition needs to form — call it a political party or not — that has the power to change policy and can back it up with money and votes. It needs to be difficult for a politician to defy this coalition.”

    You have paraphrased my jeremiad here quite well. C’mon guys, let’s put some money behind what we believe in. Politicians are like water flowing down a hill; they take the path of least resistance. As Frank points out, it’s easier to be against the future, after all nobody has ever been there. We need to create some resistance of our own channels politicians toward bigger, bolder, and more sustainable action.

    • Will Douglas says:

      This post and this comment are both excellent and help move the discussion forward. Urbanists and transit advocates need to become much smarter about how to conduct politics, otherwise we will lose a lot more often than we win.

    • Frank Chiachiere says:

      Thanks Roger. You make a good point re: cutting both ways. A good creed should be inclusive, but also a little uncomfortable for your enemies to buy in to. It’s a balance between being inclusive and being wishy washy. When Republicans say they’re for “strong families,” one’s wants to say “of course I’m for that!” but then you wince a bit when you realize that they’re defining “strong families” very narrowly to define only a certain type of family.

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