Archive for April, 2012

Seattle is busy building the city.  Over the past year construction cranes have once again dotted the neighborhoods surrounding the urban core, building apartments and office buildings.  There are four city blocks under construction within two blocks of my South Lake Union office.  Local and national media have jumped on the trend.  Nationally, multi-family housing starts have ranged from one-sixth to one-third of the total over the past several decades.  How has the ratio of single-family to multi-family housing starts varied in the Seattle metropolitan area?

The Puget Sound Regional Council publishes such stats, so I was able to make some charts.  The first chart below shows total housing starts (in King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties) and City of Seattle multi-family starts, over the past 20 years.

During the 1990s, Seattle multi-family averaged at 9% of the total metro housing starts – a pretty small slice of the pie.  During the 2000s, the Seattle multi-family average increased to 23% of the total, and to 30% of the total since 2007.  When the recession of 2008 hit, housing construction tanked.  But single-family construction tanked worse than Seattle multi-family.  And now Seattle multi-family is roaring back to life, while suburban single-family plods along.  The chart includes projections of Seattle multi-family construction based on these articles: it appears that by 2013 multi-family construction in just the City of Seattle could nearly equal 2009 total metro area housing charts.  If suburban home construction continues at the same pace, nearly 50% of the total metro housing starts in 2013 would be apartments in the city.

Below are pie charts breaking down the annual housing starts for the Seattle metro in 2006 and 2010.  Notice that the overall pie in 2010 is about half the size, while the Seattle multi-family slice has grown.

Data Source: Puget Sound Regional Council

Data Source: Puget Sound Regional Council


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Best Buy, the U.S. electronics retailing chain, recently announced the locations of 48 stores to be closed.  The chain has been struggling for a while, and strategically plans to reduce their store sizes and shift towards a new line of storefront shops specializing in mobile devices.  This could be a symptom of the End of Retail.

However, based on a google map evaluation of each store slated for closure, I found that they are:

  • 50% are in exurban and small town locations
  • 39% are in suburban areas and small cities
  • 13% are in central cities.

Looks in line with the End of Exurbia meme instead.

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Jane Jacobs, in the seminal Death & Life of Great American Cities, espouses the emergent traditional fabric of city streets and districts. Throughout the book it is implicit that residents, if asked, know what is best for their neighborhood, and these insights are in opposition to plans of idealistic planners, politicians and financiers. The well-intentioned official plans would actually destroy the functioning of the neighborhood, and the average person-on-the-street would recognize it and oppose it, if their voice is allowed to be heard.

Greenwich Village, New York (Source: Wikimedia Commons, Urban)

Jacobs’ guidelines for successful city districts rest on a very high population density and diversity of uses, to provide the continuous “sidewalk ballet” of passersby, public figures and “eyes of the street” throughout the day and evening, even on quiet side streets. Shopkeepers keep an eye on neighborhood children; the mailman gets to know elderly residents who relax on front porches. Without this ballet the street cannot police itself and could become undesirable or dangerous. She decries the extensive “gray zones” that filled the outer portions of many cities, with a population density too low to support the “sidewalk ballet” yet too dense or industrial to be a green, pleasant suburb or a small town.

However, the vast majority of North Americans today live neither in the idealized small town community or the Jacobean city district. Instead, we live in an atomized suburban world of automotive arterials, television, internet, membership gyms, big box stores, programmed children’s activities, anonymity and long commutes. Small towns, suburbs, large cities, regardless: we essentially live the same lifestyle. Virtually every neighborhood, from the suburbs to the cities to small towns, functions as a “gray zone.” This is due as much to culture as to urban design.

Even in Greenwich Village, the prototypical city district, Jacobs noted that residents of the new elevator apartment building across the street didn’t interact with the neighborhood as much as the older residents. Those eyes on the street didn’t add as much. She implied that this was due to the building design. I believe was a marker of cultural change. Why would a resident of a fourth-floor apartment be more connected to the street if she walked up stairs to her flat instead of took an elevator? The new residents were simply less connected to the neighborhood than existing residents, who had been woven into a local fabric that took decades to develop. That local fabric didn’t die overnight; it would fade away slowly. But in newly constructed buildings, it would never develop at all. The rise of television was the symptom of an inward turn in North American culture, away from front porches and balconies towards the living room. Rising prosperity meant that you could rely on yourself to solve problems, instead of involving the neighbors. The automobile meant that you could shop and maintain friendships anywhere, not just your immediate neighborhood.

Outside of a handful of districts in cities like New York, Toronto, Boston, San Francisco, our neighborhoods have been converted to suburban functionality, where supermarkets are driven to and jobs are strictly separated from residences. Virtually every city in the United States, including New York, employs zoning codes developed for suburbia: setback requirements, open space minimums, height maximums. In Jacobs’ world the average neighborhood resident knew these requirements were antithetical to their neighborhoods, along with renovations to improve traffic flow such as freeway construction and street widening. Jacobs’ grassroots pro-city point of view was about preserving the existing neighborhood fabric. But sixty years of suburbanization has flipped the script: today’s residents implicitly know that free parking, wide arterials with free-flowing traffic, setbacks and separated uses allow their neighborhoods to function most conveniently.

Typical Seattle neighborhood scene (Source: Google Streetview)

Since the 1990s the limitations of the suburban model have been recognized by a growing “urbanist” movement: endemic traffic congestion, air pollution, loss of community, and global environmental problems like climate change and resource consumption. Urbanists look back appreciatively to Jane Jacobs and her insights in Death & Life of Great American Cities, looking for guidance. What does she say about urbanization, the process of converting greenfields, suburbs or gray zones into successful urban districts? Very little. Jacobs describes, historically, the ingredients of a successful urban district, in the face of a challenge to preserve that success against attrition.

Today’s urbanists face a challenge of cultural change. Many if not most political leaders and planners espouse urbanist principles: they want to create walkable live-work-play neighborhoods. Yet they are limited in action by opposed residents. We urbanists believe that converting to an urban structure will yield many benefits. But what if a majority of a neighborhood’s residents like it the way it is? Jane Jacobs faced a different political and cultural environment, and cannot tell us how to convert gray city neighborhoods and suburbs into thriving urban districts. We have to develop new tools.

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