There are three things missing from efforts to grow sustainably in the Puget Sound region, a story about why supporting more growth is a good thing, a punch list of policy changes to help get there, and political accountability. I’m going to focus on the getting our story straight first.
We have reams of data and studies that support why density is better than sprawl. But how do advocates of new development that supports smart, sustainable density counter the simple story NIMBYs tell: this is our neighborhood and we were here first!
During the long and often contentious debate over rezoning Roosevelt I divided my frustration, sometimes equally, between opponents of the rezone and the developers asking for additional height. For the former my irritation should be no surprise.
But what annoyed me about the developers, and developers in general, is that they lack of a coherent story and vision to explain why their project is important. For understandable reasons, developers are project-focused, worried mainly about getting their building up and running. Often the big thinking about how their project might fit into a regional agenda is left in the dust of getting it done. More after the jump.
Sure, high-flying groups like the Urban Land Institute, the Quality Growth Alliance, and efforts like the Great City Initiative discuss why density is important. There are groups like the Master Builders that take their hardball political tactics to Olympia, but rarely employ them in the service of a single development at the local level. And there are several effective public relations firms and land use attorneys that can be deployed to fight for those extra 25 feet.
What’s missing from the lexicon of developers and density advocates is a slogan, a phrase, an image that sums it all up that’s as easy as Not In My Back Yard! The NIMBY story is a classic one, best summed up by the lone hold out against development in Ballard, Edith Macefield. Her house, embedded in a large development, is emblematic for growth resistors. There is the sacred symbol, the single-family home, surrounded by new development and anchored in the principle that every family’s detached house home is their castle.
What story or slogan could provide a strong enough theme to counter the NIMBY theme of a lone person defending their castle against greedy developers? That slogan, I think, just might be something like, “Density is People.”
I’ve stolen this from the Charlton Heston film, Soylent Green. Like Logan’s Run and Planet of the Apes, two other apocalyptic science fiction films from the 70s, Soylent Green is premised on the idea that runaway growth, pollution, environmental degradation, and nuclear war will eventually result in a dystopia in the future. In Soylent Green food supplies have disappeared, and well, I won’t ruin it for you.
My suggestion of this phrase is ironic since Soylent Green is perhaps one of the most iconic anti-growth movies ever made. Just watch the opening credits. But when NIMBYs oppose growth and stand in the way of creating more housing, they are really saying “we don’t want more people, those people, here.”
What’s true is that the apocalyptic, dystopia foretold in old 70s sci-fi films like Solyent Green is more likely without density not because of it. When a NIMBY in Maple Leaf squashes 25 units of housing those people who might have lived in those units have fewer and more expensive options, including living further and driving longer to make their lives work. That means more pollution, more resource consumption, and environmental degradation.
Right now we all argue about buildings: height, bulk, and scale. One of the strangest things about the Roosevelt debate was that if revolved, in the end, around 25 feet, the height of a building rather than the principle that land use patterns around transit should accommodate people that aren’t here yet to advocate for themselves.
Making the density argument about people rather than buildings must be the strategy we use, even if the way to get there is increasing the height, bulk, and scale of buildings around light rail. But when we make our arguments they should always be about the new people coming to the neighborhood. It’s easy to fold one’s arms and stand firm against a big, imposing building—even if that isn’t what’s proposed; It’s a lot harder to say, “We don’t care about all those people.”
Next up: What’s on the land use punch list?
Photo credit: Edith Macefields’s house, Wikipedia Commons, Ben Tesch