Districts, Density and Development

Roger Valdez doesn’t want to debate anymore, he wants to win.  Apparently it’s Scarface, final scene, f**king bazookas under each arm, “say hello to my little friend.”

Okay then! In the interest of being solutions-oriented, let me offer something positive.

Compared to, say, most of Europe, Seattle falls short when it comes to building dense, transit-oriented development. Compared to most of America, though, I’d say we’re doing pretty darn well. But I get it, it’s not good enough. We can do better.

At the 30,000-foot level, Roger’s question is about power and influence: how does density win? How does it beat the other guys: the NIMBYs. Well, basically you either out-organize them or out-fundraise them. Liberals often think politics is a battle of ideas, when it’s usually a battle of interests. 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 important, but it’s a second-order importance. 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 come out of the woodwork to oppose something, whether it’s to protest the Iraq War or changes to the Route 2, more often than they come out in favor of 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: Change = Hope = Vote for This Dude. End of story.

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 from urban development. But that money comes with strings attached. These folks are often just as happy to build sprawl. More happy, in fact, since it often requires less onerous soil remediation and environmental permitting. Also, the amount of money that can be made from infill development is proportional to the restrictions on said developments. If it became easier to build in the city, then building in the city would by definition be less profitable. I think pro-density folks often think that developers are their friends. In truth, it’s often a marriage of convenience.

I’m afraid there are no magic solutions here. “Politics is a long and slow boring of hard boards,” as Max Weber said. But I do think the broad outlines 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 pet 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 worldview needs to be broad enough to be inclusive, but specific enough to actually mean something. 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. Part of it is about the economic benefits of urbanization. Part of it is about limiting sprawl. And part of it’s purely romantic. It’s decidedly not about mode choice or fantasy maps (sadly!).

One last thing, as I approach the 700-word mark. I think the pieces of this coalition already exist, and great organizations like Sightline and Transportation Choices are absolutely leaders in it. It’s really a matter of finding the common thread and pulling it all together.

3 responses to “Districts, Density and Development”

  1. Matt the Engineer

    “the amount of money that can be made from infill development is proportional to the restrictions on said developments. If it became easier to build in the city, then building in the city would by definition be less profitable.”

    How so? I’m not saying you’re wrong, just I’m not following the logic.

    Let’s take floor area ratio. More FAR allowed = more units that can be built = more money that can be made with the same amount of land. Sure, prices per unit drop as supply starts meeting demand, but you have more units to make a profit from.

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