Posts Tagged ‘cities’

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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King County Transit, due to declining sales tax revenue, is faced with 17% system-wide cuts over the next 2 years, unless the County Council passes a temporary $20 car tab fee.  My rationale for why this budget-saver should be passed is posted over at the citytank: Dynamic Metropolitan Areas Depend on Transit, So Pass the Congestion Reduction Charge, Please.

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In late May I went on a European vacation, visiting four cities in two weeks: Prague, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona.  All four cities provide reams of insight into building the city, four interpretations based on different histories, cultures and climates.  It is impossible to exhaustively describe a city’s architecture, history, urban form, main sights and culture in a blog post.  So what follows are brief impressions of the cities, and comparisons one to another and to my hometown of Seattle.

First, a general note on history: European cities are widely perceived as ancient; artifacts of medieval urbanism and architecture.  True, to an extent, but the vast majority of neighborhoods I visited on this trip were built out in the nineteenth century as a result of Europe’s industrial revolution, which turned rural peasants into urban factory workers.  The cities’ building stock is not particularly older than Boston, New York or even San Francisco.  Paris was rebuilt during the Hausmann renovations of the late 1800’s.  Medieval Paris was almost entirely swept away, covered over with boulevards lined with buildings representing a high point of wealth, grandeur and gracious urban design.  The other cities visited have historic districts in their centers, dating back to the fourteenth century, yet most of what is considered “the city” was built in the 1800’s.  In some cases the winding, narrow medieval streets survive, yet the poorly-built, one-to-three story medieval building were all replaced with the nineteenth century with grand, solidly-built six-story edifices.  European cities were purposefully built, around 150 years ago, and built grandly.  It is within our means to build new cities along the same guidelines today.

Paris versus Barcelona:  These two large Western European cities vie with each other to be the busiest and most stylish.  Both are very densely populated throughout the municipality (while having a wide range of suburban suburbs)and provide immense transit networks.  There is never a break in central paris:  no matter where you attempt to stop and take a photo, you will be in someone’s way.  The streets appear as canyons cut through a pre-existing mass of six-story buildings.

Now Barcelona, my favorite city of the trip, is in a whole different category.  The level of density and intensity went beyond the typical European city into an Asian realm.  People, people everywhere.  Shops, shops everywhere.  Bicycle and motorcycle are the only practical personal transportation devices.  Many streets were wide enough to accommodate a vehicle (such as an ambulance), but cars just aren’t practical in such as environment.  The question isn’t “is there a grocery store within walking distance?”; but “which of the half-dozen produce shops, bakeries, meat markets and supermarkets within two blocks should I go to?”  Streets are still crowded with pedestrians at midnight.  Our room faced onto a 10-foot “lightwell” fronted with windows into kitchens and bedrooms from other apartments.  The street-side windows faced towards the balconies across the street, a mere 20 feet away.  Basically, no privacy, no quiet.  But urban energy everywhere.  I loved it. 

Typical Barcelona street

Prague versus Vienna:  These two central European capitals have similarly sized metro areas, in the same range as Portland and Vancouver.   Despite having top-notch transit systems, street-level activity paled in comparison to the larger Paris or Barcelona.  Yet, life was convenient, and many needs could be met within a few blocks.  Prague and Vienna are generally built on a grid of superblocks, with streets lined with continuous 6-story buildings holding large interior courtyards. 

An intersection in Prague New Town

The streets have moderate width, similar to narrower Seattle streets, typically with at least one row of parked cars.  On busier streets, the ground floors house retail businesses.  On quieter streets retail is more rare.  The interior courtyards provide everyone access to ample greenery, as a view out the interior-facing windows or as a gardening or recreational area. Building coverage area is low as a result, as is the population density, which results in a lighter smattering of shops and quieter streets than Paris.  Vienna, in particular, appeared to be equally optimized for automobile as well as bicycle and public transit.  Car parks were common, as was separated bicycle  infrastructure.  The example of Vienna is the most applicable to Seattle: moderate density, eminently livability, lots of green space and transportation options.

Vienna is still under construction

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How methods shift perception of population growth

The Seattle Times recently reported on 2010 census data by tabulating the “fastest growing” cities in Washington State and writing a feature about Snoqualmie, on the top of the list at 396% growth since 2000. As with many media outlets, they ranked areas based on percentage growth, not absolute numbers of people.  In the table below are the 10 fastest growing cities, ranked on percentage growth as printed in the Seattle Times.

10 Fastest Growing Washington Cities Ranked by Percent Growth

Footnote: Percentages based on initial 2000 census data. Seattle Time table based on adjusted 2000 census data.

Note that most of these towns are rather small.  It is easy to grow by 200% if you start out at a population of 2,000.  You may not have heard of many of these towns. But if you looked them up on a map, you would see that most of these towns are on the urban fringes of the Seattle-Tacoma metro area. The takeaway could easily be that urban sprawl and small town living are very popular.  Policies such as growth management have failed, and most people have chosen with their feet to move to the exurbs.

But what if we ranked “fastest growing” cities by the number of people that moved in?  In the table below the top 10 cities in Washington state for 2000 to 2010 population increase are listed.

10 Fastest Growing Washington Cities Ranked by Total Growth

This list is very different from the first list.  The three cities that appear in both lists are highlighted.  Larger cities may add a lot of new residents, but their percentage growth is less than small towns because they started from a larger base.  Yet, one more modification is needed to accurately compare growth between cities.  Some of the cities in this list, such as Marysville, increased in population mostly due to annexations of adjacent previously populated areas.  Washington State keeps records of populations of annexed areas, so I subtracted these populations from the population increase reported in the 2010 Census.  In the table below the 10 fastest growing cities in Washington State are ranked based on population increase, excluding annexations.

10 Fastest Growing Washington Cities Ranked by Total Growth, Annexations Excluded

Now the list of the fastest growing cities is similar to a list of the largest cities in the state.  Only one city, Issaquah, an outer Seattle suburb, remains from the original list.  The City of Seattle tops the list as fastest growing.  Tacoma is notably absent, but large cities in other parts of the state grew strongly.  Two of the three tri-cities are listed, Kennewick and Pasco.  So are Spokane and Vancouver, the Portland metro’s second city.  In the Seattle metro area, the fastest growing suburbs are established (and affordable) middle-ring suburbs such as Renton, Kent and Auburn.  The takeaway from this list is different from the first list: most people moved to large towns and suburbs; and the most of all moved to Seattle, the fastest growing city in the state.

Please keep in mind, when developing stats, do you want to calculate magnitude of growth, or magnitude of growth compared to the initial base?  If the former, look at absolute numbers not percentages.

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Why do I write about cities?  What so attracts me to urban environments?  There are factual reasons that cities are preferable over suburbs and the countryside, often cited on this blog.  But my preference goes deeper, to a visceral emotional level.  I will attempt to put the sources of this preference into words.

Architecture.  I love the architecture of buildings (what else is architecture?).   Rural landscapes are defined by the near absence of buildings.  In suburban settings buildings are designed to be hidden, set back, subdued, never to upstage the focal point of nature, trees and greenery.  The suburban project is an attempt to merge the bucolic rural landscape with the practicalities of home, work, shopping.  It produces not great architecture by design.  In a city, however, buildings cannot be hidden.  They are the city, lending endless variety, new and old, well-kept and run-down, art deco and victorian and post-modern and modern, all on the same block.  One-story, office, six-story, condo, commercial, two-story, hotel, twelve-story, retirement center.  Always something different to feast your eyes on.

Community.  I am a shy person, easily self-entertained.  If I met one hundred thousand people, with maybe five I would click and we would become great friends.  The odds are low.  In a city constantly surrounded by people, with residents from everywhere with every interest known under the sun, the odds are slightly better.  How many people could you meet while driving home on the freeway?  How many people could you meet on a well-attended city bus or subway?  Cities aren’t designed for isolation.  Good cities form strong neighborhood bonds and support institutions.  People seek the city for its crowds, public ceremonies and celebrations, sporting events, critical masses of nightclubs, art galleries or political bicyclists.  Elsewhere people avoid crowds.  I seek them out.

Innovation and influence.  A diversity of experiences leads to new mixtures of ideas that drive every field forward.  Cities are made greater for their serendipitous interactions.  How many musical genres have been invented or transformed in New York City?  How many in the great plain states (with the same population, spread out nearly 1000 miles)?  New ideas are created in cities, and then rapidly transferred and adopted in other cities.  Slowly these innovations spread across the countryside around the world.  Cities set the cultural tone for nations, including within them most leaders and taste-makers, giving them outsized influence economically and culturally (but not always politically).

Sustainability.  Cities have been sustainable communities for millenia in all but the worst of war and societal collapse.  The larger the city, the fewer resources each resident consumes.  Cities can offer as high a quality of life as suburban areas, but its a different quality of life.  One with less travel and fewer personal resources, but with more convenient services and community support.  We live in a world of depleting natural resources and accelerating climate change (induced by our global combustion habits – i.e. burning fuel).  Spreading advances in agriculture mean that fewer and fewer people are needed to farm, and for the first time in human history a majority of us are living in urban areas.  But what type of urban areas?  Dense cities allow efficient living in the face of scarcity, create strong communities and give rise to the innovations we need to maintain prosperity.

The sweep of history.  Humanity started in a garden, cultivating fruit trees.  As time passed large-scale agriculture and industry and cities and trade and empires and megacities developed.  The controlling narrative in American culture, the Christian story, is about redemption and restoration of a lost idyllic paradise.  The Christian scriptures conclude with a vision of the restored people of God: the holy city, the New Jerusalem.  The story does not end with a renewed garden, but with a vision of a city described as 1,400 miles square  and 7,392,000 feet high.

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