Seattle fancies itself a city of neighborhoods, but in many ways is a city of suburbs. As has been well documented, the city’s first population boom coincided with the electric streetcar, leading to an urban form primarily composed of “streetcar suburbs” – planned communities such as Queen Anne and Capitol Hill where mass development of single-family homes (some might even say “cookie cutter”!) followed private streetcar lines.
A fascinating new report from the Urban Land Institute reveals just how suburban most of the city is. The report seeks to subdivide suburbia, using census tracts, into five categories – Established high-end, stable middle-income, economically challenged, greenfield lifestyle, and greenfield value – to reflect the diversity of communities that are often lumped together as “the suburbs.” The modern suburb, they argue, is a hodgepodge of very different housing and land-use types, a continuum that stretches from stately, tree-lined streetcar suburbs close to the center to the sprawling planned communities on the exurban fringe.
What’s interesting its that the report finds that there’s not much different between North Ballard and Bellevue: both are classified as “established, high-end” suburban communities. Seattleites might chafe at the comparison, but there’s something to it.
The only parts of Seattle that are classified as urban are downtown and the neighborhoods immediately adjacent (roughly the Seven Hills + parts of the North end). These urban neighborhoods count for less than half a percent of all the land in the metro area, while housing 9% of the population (and, perusing the methodology, it may be that even these neighborhoods qualified as urban not solely because of their density, which isn’t very high, but simply because of their proximity to the city center).
The rest of the map’s classifications seem more-or-less on point from my experience, though defining nearly all of South King as “economically challenged” may be a bit of a stretch. We’d expect more blue in there somewhere.
As City Observatory notes, this report has been sold in the media under the banner of suburban triumphalism. That seems simplistic, considering that housing prices in many urban neighborhoods are at record highs: clearly more people want to live in urban areas than can afford to. But the report itself is worth reading, or at least clicking around the interactive map.