Men went there ‘to make a figure,’ and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of birthday cake that others may eat it.

From The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III

By Sir Lewis Namier

Lewis Namier’s assessment of 18th century politicians is consistent with my own views about today’s politicians. Lest you think this view overly cynical, Namier adds something I also agree with at the end of this paragraph I quote above: “Which is perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible.” Elected politicians say they want to make the world a better place, but each one of them will tell you that doing that won’t be possible unless they get re-elected. And it’s how the system has worked for hundreds of years.

Cake or Death: Making sure we get the right decisions requires political money

Whether we like it or not, those of us who wish to set our cities in the region on a course toward transit friendly and sustainable density depend on politicians to do the right thing; if we connect their political ambitions—their birthday cake if you will—to achieving our agenda in the region, we’ll have a better chance of getting what we want. I’ve talked about an idea for the big message—Density is People—and the list of things we need to get done. Both will require political muscle.

Getting into office and staying there takes money, and without a strategy to put lots of money into the political system we’re taking our chances on what that system produces. Whatever the accolades, pats on the back, and cool plaques we give politicians for doing the right thing, nothing beats cash in their campaign accounts. And today, there is no significant entity raising and spending political money to push for density.

Yes, there are examples of individual developers who pass out political cash, but as one friend who travels in those circles told me, the smartest thing to do is hand out money to everyone. Even if they finish third, there’s a good chance most political aspirants will come back again. But handing out a little bit of cash to everyone pretty much neutralizes an effect those contributions might have. It’s difficult to hold candidates and elected officials accountable when they all get money no matter what they do.

How do we hold elected officials accountable for the decisions they make on land use? One way might be to organize a lot of grass roots support and volunteers. But something tells me that “density” isn’t going to be an organizing principle. Important aspects of density like active nightlife have motivated political action before, but that is a bit narrower than making big changes to support more density around light rail.

What developers and others who support smart, sustainable growth in cities need to do is create a political fund managed solely to spend political money on holding elected officials—especially members of city councils—accountable for their land use and transit decisions. The fund could function like a blind trust giving some distance between contributors with specific projects and the actions of the political fund. Contributors could still write their checks to incumbents while still putting money into an effective effort to defeat those candidates.

It sounds odd, I know. But I have found again and again that density advocates (especially in Seattle) are afraid to put their energy into defeating a candidate because of their questionable decisions on land use. The worry is that a contribution to a challenger won’t lead to the councilmembers defeat, and the incumbent will remember the slight later on when their vote is needed on an important project.

Overcoming this fear factor is crucial to helping pro-density candidates win and anti-density candidates lose. Something powerful has to be established to counter the loud and often angry voices opposed to change in neighborhoods.

Facts, figures, and well-reasoned arguments are important; but they’re even better when backed with a smart, nimble, well financed, and strategic political machine that ensures our side isn’t just right, but that our side wins.

30 Replies to “Density is People: Creating Political Accountability for Sustainable Growth”

  1. Where did you get the buzz phrase “Density is People”? Has it been poll tested?

    I really think it is a losing slogan.

    1. It is a bit unfortunate that the first thing that comes to mind when seeing this phrase is “Soylent Green”… maybe not the best way to advocate density!

      How about something along the lines of “Density means everybody wants to live there.” Accurate, and I think more enticing.

    2. We’re not sending the yard signs to the printer yet. And yes it was supposed to evoke Soylent Green; it’s called irony.

      My point was also just to get it in people’s minds that density is not about the height, bulk, or scale of buildings, but making our cities more vibrant livable places for people.

      So I don’t know what the slogan might end up being, but it should have something to do with people not buildings.

  2. Seems like there is significant unused density all along the LINK light rail corridor already. I’m not really sure why all the focus is on yet to be build stations north of downtown.

    Aren’t parents always talking about playing with the toys you already have, rather than buying new ones?

    How about focusing on the existing dense building that has gone on around Othello and other stations and tell us why it works or doesn’t? Get out and do some research instead of pontificating.

    1. Presumably because the area to the north is, bluntly, nicer.

      It makes a great deal of sense to focus on areas where people actually want to live…

      1. But…isn’t the argument that density is good for its own sake?

        And that so many people are clamoring for density, that the benefits outweigh the negatives?

        And also that the social engineering of transit + density (like in the Rainier Valley) will transform its economic status?


      2. Rebuilding of housing stock and the “turnover” of neighborhoods takes *20 years* on average, according to what I’ve read. That’s short in some sense (Link will last longer than that), but it does mean you can’t really assess the “results” after only a couple of years!

      3. So, what I’m saying is, yes, the combination of Link and better zoning (allowing denser construction and a mix of commercial/institutional/residental) *will* transform the Rainer Valley economically.

        But it will take 20 years (really, 10-30 years depending) before it’s noticeable.

    2. It doesn’t work because the area around this station – and others – has gotten significantly more violent over the past year. Make it safe before you make it dense. This is a foundational issue. The density won’t – by itself – make the area safer.

      1. So what does the density do then?!

        The whole point of routing this silly coaster through the worst neighborhood in town, subjecting international tourists from SeaTac to onboard robbery and assault and costing an arm and a leg for expensive tunneling for a technology called “light” rail because its cheap and easy to implement was to Socially Engineer Rainer Valley.

        If that is not the case. If density and transit is not a social solution in and of itself…then this city, state and nation was ripped off for billions and billions of dollars for something that is simply wrong!

      2. Has it really gotten more violent? It doesn’t seem as violent as it was in the 80s or 90s, and middle-class people are still keeping the house prices high.

    3. Get out and do some research instead of pontificating.

      But for a certain segment in Seattle, pontificating is so much more fun.

  3. Politics is ugly. It seems like the best strategy would be to set up a fund with mechanical requirements. If you vote for X, you get $Y. But that certainly sounds illegal – directly buying votes. Then again, isn’t this pretty much what all lobyists do? Or is the difference that they don’t make it as clear they’re trying to buy votes? (no garuntee that Chevron will donate to your campaign if you open up drilling, but wink wink nudge nudge)

    1. My understanding is that if you offer a politician an envelope with $500 cash, it’s called a bribe. But if you write a $500 check to their campaign fund, it’s called democracy.

      1. This is the best argument I’ve seen for funding campaigns out-of-pocket or having public financing of elections.

        On the other hand, it may be more accurate to say that if you write a $500 check to their campaign fund, it’s called freedom of speech.

      2. Yes, it is true that what it comes down to is money.

        I’d rather see a different system and better people running for office.

        Until that starts to happen, we’ve got what we’ve got. What we don’t have is all kinds of time fretting over it. Local politicians can set us back and they can also help our agenda, but they probably won’t just do it all by themselves. There has to be some accountability.

      3. Spending your own money, independent of a candidate, is free speech. Contributing money to a candidate’s campaign is not free speech. It is an activity that can be heavily regulated in order to reduce “the appearance and actuality of corruption”.

  4. This sounds like a job for Ben’s Northwest Transit PAC, but I haven’t heard much about it. Even the website redirects to their filing with the PDC.

    I think he’s been busy with the Seattle Subway group, but I think we also need to put money toward electing more pro-transit, pro-density candidates.

  5. First of all, let me say I completely support more density in Seattle – after living in places like San Francisco and Boston, I feel Seattle is way behind.

    That said, I agree “Density is People” is not a great slogan. Those who are opposed to density know that it refers to people (as well as buildings) and that’s what they don’t want. They don’t want areas that they believe are too crammed with people. They don’t want to live in crowded places, they want space.

    I don’t agree with them at all, but I don’t think “density is people” is going to change anyone’s mind or make them think about the issue differently or see it in a different light. I understand what you’re trying to get at, but I think you’re just taking down a straw man.

    The truth is the density debate is about very different ideologies and a fundamentally different view about what “quality of life” means. Of course, one side has sustainability, health, and numerous other positive attributes that the other side lacks, but hey, that’s a different point all together…

    1. In Seattle, those that are opposed to density generally just don’t want to lose their free street parking.

      1. I’d say that’s one of a number of reasons people are opposed to density.

        And to clarify, I think Roger’s arguments are spot on, it’s the slogan I’m not really crazy about.

      2. I’d consider the following deal: Charge for street parking everywhere in return for a $75 a year bicycle registration fee.

    2. I think people opposed to density are people who like the way things are and don’t want their neighborhood to change. It is hard for people to see that something new could be something better, and easy for people to point at where density was done poorly and say “I don’t want that for my neighborhood.” That’s why it’s so important to do density RIGHT. I really love the way South Lake Union is so much more dense than it used to be, what a vibrant neighborhood it has become…except, holy cow, could the streets be any worse in that neighborhood? They are literally falling apart. You can’t build all that density, run a bunch of buses through there, and then not maintain the roads that those buses are running on, that’s just ridiculous. Stuff like that turns people off to density. We have to get it right to get people on board with it.

  6. It sounds odd, I know. But I have found again and again that density advocates (especially in Seattle) are afraid to put their energy into defeating a candidate because of their questionable decisions on land use. The worry is that a contribution to a challenger won’t lead to the councilmembers defeat, and the incumbent will remember the slight later on when their vote is needed on an important project.

    I’m not sure readers here appreciate just how true this statement is, Roger, nor how much it can affect fundraising. And it does not only apply to individuals. So many of the activist organizations we support do the exact same thing, and everyone here should pay attention.

    I personally applaud the Sierra Club for sticking to their values and endorsing me in the Primary. Not only did I agree with their legislative agenda more than any other candidate running at the time, but I was willing to stand up and talk about it on the campaign trail. They took a risk on me — and Brad Meacham — knowing it was unlikely either of us could win.

    But why should other politicians stand up for your values if you don’t support them for it?

  7. Roger,
    I think you have it backwards.

    One starts with creating places people want to be and then the developers flock.
    In other words, density is a byproduct.

    Creating a politics of density is, to me a both a political loser and a misunderstanding of development dynamics.

    Of course, at some point, zoning must allow density. But your emphasis on zoning capacity seems wildly misplaced..the task is to create interesting places. Sadly, most off those grow out of already-traditionally-formed neighborhoods.

    1. While politics of density may only be productive with an electorate made up of people who really get it, it is the chicken in the chick/egg dilemma. If density is a byproduct, how come we’re having so much trouble “densifying” our more desirable neighborhoods now that they’re connected (or will be in the near future) with high quality transit?

Comments are closed.