[Graphic by BUILD LLC]

Dear Seattle,

Look in the mirror. We’re no longer the gangly teenager of a city, no longer just a cluster of cute neighborhoods awkwardly bumping up against one another, and no longer an outpost whose most notable form of public transportation is a 0.9 mile long monorail from 1962. With a population of 750K, and the greater metropolitan area at 4M+, Seattle is now a thriving metropolis with all of the advantages and challenges that come with it. Chief among these challenges is the maturing of our collective psychology to match the size of our new, larger and stronger physicality. Seattle, it’s time to grow up.

Earlier this year, Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) released the One Seattle Plan, an updated Comprehensive Plan that guides how our city grows and makes investments. Per the document: The Plan guides City decisions about where we locate housing and the types of housing allowed in different areas of the city. In addition to addressing the needs of a growing city, the One Seattle Plan is also a response to House Bill 1110, which requires different population thresholds in Washington State to increase middle housing in areas traditionally dedicated to single-family detached housing.

Set to be approved by Seattle City Council in December 2024, there will be a barrage of commentary, controversy, outright anger, and debate over the policies and metrics of One Seattle Plan. It will come from all sides; from those for the plan, from those against the plan, and from those who simply like to debate. Much of the discussion will focus on density; too much density, too little density, the wrong type of density, density as the solution, density as the enemy, and so on. There will be no lack of smart people performing deep dives into the math of the Comprehensive Plan, such as Dan Bertolet’s piece for Sightline Institute or Hannah Krieg’s critique in the Stranger. These are welcomed perspectives, reality checks, and grading systems for OPCD’s work.

Without a doubt, the technical analyses of the Comprehensive Plan are important, as are all of the boxy transparent diagrams showing the maximum buildable envelopes on parcels previously referred to as single-family residential lots. They help us translate the language of the plan into the actions that are likely to occur around us in our daily lives, and allow the city to grow in a healthy, thoughtful way.

Along with the math and metrics, though, it’s important to understand the somewhat softer but bigger picture attributes of density. Before we can discuss, debate and judge the metrics of One Seattle Plan, it’s crucial to understand why density matters in cities. As architects, landscape designers, and urbanites dedicated to the well-being of our built environments, here are our top five:

More housing creates affordable housing.
The laws of supply and demand historically prove that more housing equals more choice of housing for people. More choice means a greater range of rents for apartments and prices for homes. Landlords and homeowners cannot continue to demand ever-increasing and unprecedented prices for housing year after year when there are cost alternatives. More housing alone isn’t going to solve our housing affordability crisis, but it’s a critical ingredient of the answer.

Urban Centers and Neighborhood Centers help eliminate our catastrophic reliance on vehicles.
Situating housing in closer proximity (otherwise known as density) creates environments where corner markets, cafes, restaurants, hair salons, pharmacies, and many of the other daily necessities have the critical mass to sustain themselves within a walkable distance to where people live. We need to give up the outdated and entirely unrealistic dream of the single house on the half-acre parcel of land. This scenario is completely reliant on the automobile for even the most convenient of domestic necessities.

Neighborhoods that thrive require a critical mass of people per square mile.
While the ideal population per square mile (otherwise known as density) of a city is a highly debated metric with no concrete answer, certain cities clearly have the right performance and feel, and we can tie a number to them. Cities that most design professionals consider an urban success begin, at the less dense end of the spectrum, around 15,000 people per-square-mile, like Vancouver B.C. Good examples extend up to 18,500 p/sm, like San Francisco, and top out in the US around 29,300 p/sm as in Manhattan. Seattle’s population density currently sits at a pathetic 8,800 p/sm, just a few hundred more than Los Angeles’ 8,300 p/sm—a city that we Seattleites take great pleasure in criticizing for their reliance on the automobile. Even Long Beach, California has Seattle beat with at 9,300 p/sm—a place whose tag line is Aquatic Capital of America is not even trying to be a city and it’s whupping Seattle.

Suburbs are either subsidized or pyramid schemes.
It’s no secret anymore that the American suburbs do not fund their own utilities. They can’t, as there are too few households and simply too much pipe and electrical line. The expansive distances required of all that acreage in the suburbs requires utility systems and facilities that are extremely large and expensive. The cost of these systems is either subsidized, or paid for via fees from new and future expansion, otherwise known as a pyramid scheme.

Going up allows open space for recreation.
Going up (otherwise known as density) saves space and allows parks, squares, public areas, walking paths, and bike trails to expand. These recreational spaces then have the critical mass of users and tax base density to provide proper upkeep and maintenance.

Seattle’s next growth phase will fall flat on its face if we do not support and foster a healthy and thoughtful density. In truth, the density is already here and has been for quite some time. It’s on the highway every morning and afternoon as people priced out of the city slog through hours of traffic to and from outlying areas. It’s lining the streets in RVs and trailers in industrial areas. It’s in tent cities under bridges and overpasses. And it’s in micro housing villages temporarily located in the parking lots of churches and other organizations gracious enough to respond to the challenge. The density is already here, we’re just not acknowledging it with maturity or responding to it as a city with common values.

These top five reasons to recognize and support density are just BUILD’s; there are dozens more reasons to support and foster a healthy, thoughtful density in Seattle’s next growth phase. We’ll take the discussion to our social media platforms where we’d love to hear from you. What are your top five?

Cheers from team BUILD