At some point, maybe in two years or ten years, the endless rise of housing costs in Seattle will stop. We might see a recession. Hiring may slow. Incomes could flatten. Even if we don’t build one more unit of housing, rents can’t rise indefinitely.

Right now, the rhetoric pushing for density is Seattle relies heavily on an ECON 101 narrative about housing costs. This sometimes goes so far that people voicing doubt about private construction reducing housing costs are conflated with NIMBYs. However, when housing costs stop rising this rhetoric will have to shift. If Seattle enters a recession and prices drop, we still need to push density. Further, the ECON 101 argument has shown limited success in overturning the vast amount of single-family zoning in Seattle.

Fortunately, the argument for urbanism is strong even without relying on rising housing costs to make the case. The reasons below outline why density is so important. This isn’t meant to dismiss the values of rural living. It’s entirely understandable that people will pay a lot for privacy, space, and natural beauty. However, many people are choosing cities largely for the reasons below. We need to let our cities be cities and capitalize on the advantages of density.

Density Is Great For People’s Wallets

First, more people in a smaller area means the per capita cost of providing services drops dramatically. This means people also have more money to spend on other economic activity and have more security during recessions. Beyond their personal income, density also enhances social connections which also strengthens people’s safety net to avoid or rebound from personal economic hardship.

Density also increases the number of business which typically leads to more diverse economies–although density doesn’t always equal granularity. This avoids the systemic risks associated with the failure of a single large employer or single industry. Perhaps most importantly though, density is a critical ingredient for innovation. Easy exchange of ideas and knowledge is the seed of innovation. Proximity for businesses and people allows knowledge and ideas to flow more freely.

Density Helps The Environment

Dense areas see remarkably lower emissions. This is likely due to transportation modes in large part. Density increases the use of public transit, walking and biking, and even if people drive, they tend to drive shorter distances. However, people also often live in smaller spaces that use energy more efficiently due to sharing walls, ceilings, and floors. Further, density reduces sprawl which dramatically reduces deforestation and travel distances.

Lastly, density makes political solutions for environmental problems easier to achieve. Grassroots efforts have more influence at the local level, and density can reduce the cost of adopted solutions. By lowering energy consumption per household, density makes taxes on carbon easier to bear.

Density Improves Health Outcomes

Density is correlated with longer lifespans. This is true even when controlling for other factors.

There are many plausible explanations for why urban areas perform better: more access to care, stronger social support networks, lower incidences of bad habits such as smoking, higher rates of cardiovascular activity such as walking, less driving, and much more. For rural areas, this adds up to higher suicide rates, more traffic fatalities, and more heart attacks.

Density Pushes Politics In A Progressive Direction

It’s possible people with progressive political leanings tend to move to cities but it actually seems more likely that density makes people more progressive. There’s a number of explanations for this phenomenon: people rely more heavily on each other, there are higher incidences of social connection to a diversity of folks, negative externalities are more apparent, physical proximity makes organizing for change easier, the cost of government services–progressive policies–is lower.

Density (Done Right) Is Fun

Density increases access to a diverse set of leisure activities. This include traditional establishments like restaurants, bars, shopping, art, theater, and music but also extends to social groups. Do you like to knit and drink craft beer? Do you like to talk about transportation planning? With a sufficiently dense city, these social groups might even meet within walking distance of your home. There are a handful of things that are more accessible in rural areas–for example, outdoor activities–and many activities cost more in cities but there are simply more options. Also if a city does density right, it can even maintain access to the outdoor recreation. Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver have mostly succeeded.

Density Fights Traffic Congestion

One of the most frequent conversations with anyone that owns a car revolves around traffic congestion. In the 1800s, cities were miserable because of raw sewage and pollution. Today, people are miserable because of hours spent sitting in traffic. This could largely be resolved if people could make more trips without their car. That outcome is only possible with density: living close enough to people, jobs and amenities to walk, bike or take high quality transit.

This argument isn’t meant to suggest density is a panacea. It’s only meant to put forward obvious arguments that support density but have nothing to do with housing costs. Whatever happens to rent prices, density will improve the quality of life in cities. Density means being closer to your friends, your favorite activities, your job, and much more. Density alone is worth fighting for.

What Upzoning Can Do

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Owen does servicing and consulting for a software company to pay the bills. He has an amateur interest in urban policy, focusing on housing. His primary mode is a bicycle but isn't ashamed of riding down the hill and taking the bus back up. Feel free to tweet at him: @pickovven.

42 COMMENTS

  1. Nice summary Owen, thank you.

    I would add that all the great benefits of density you describe are reasons why many of us are so concerned about policies like MHA that could backfire and suppress the creation of density.

    Densification in a built out city like Seattle means existing low-density uses must be replaced with new high-density uses. If MHA makes that process less profitable, then less will happen.

    If density–which means more housing–is such a good thing all in itself (not to mention that it also helps keep prices in check), why would we want to target the burden of subsidizing affordable housing on the very process that makes density happen?

    • As Owen illustrates, the mere act of upzoning a parcel for denser development generates public benefit. However, a significant part of the benefit accrues to the property owner through higher land values & higher rents (once a larger structure is built). The MHA is a mechanism that transfers some of that benefit from the property owner (via the property developer) to the public.

      • IZ can happen in 2 forms. Mandatory and voluntary. I don’t think it’s fair (or legal) to force it onto developers. Voluntary upzone is great because it allows the developer to adapt to what works best to create more new housing for the city.

    • Thanks. There’s probably even more reasons that could be added to this. Overall, the diversity of reasons explains why people come to urbanism from so many other initial concerns.

      Regarding MHA, I understand your argument. Without adding additional information, repeating it isn’t convincing me. I think it’s fair to say we disagree on the impacts of MHA. Consider this horse beat.

  2. For all of the wonderful benefits of density you listed, you missed a few.

    Resource efficiency. Building in suburbs or further requires far more miles of road, power lines, sewer pipes, water lines, Etc. Then add schools, strip malls, sprawling offices, post offices, community centers, etc. all with their own roads, parking lots, power lines, sewers…

    Time efficiency. We each only have so many productive hours each day, yet Americans spend a large percentage of that in cars. Even switching to a bus recovers some of that productive time as you get the use of your eyes, hands, and attention back. Reducing commute time is the ultimate solution to this.

    Productivity and Innovation. Cities are productivity machines. There’s a reason that it’s desirable* for a company to be located in a downtown area: network effects. Meeting with other downtown firms are quick and easy to set up, and positive and creative interactions are frequent.

    Transit efficiency. As we get more dense it becomes cheaper and easier to provide fast, frequent transit service to more people.

    It’s also worth exploring the benefit to existing residents to allow density in their neighborhoods – as they personally already have all of these benefits, why should they share? The reasons I tend to use are: It’s not pie – more density brings more benefits to you, not less. If you want good transit in your neighborhood, the best way to achieve that is to provide more riders. If you want more businesses and services in a walkable distance you need to provide customers.

    * a good proxy for desire is rent, and $/sf that companies pay in downtowns it high compared to the suburbs

    • Not to be snarky, but I actually listed all of those:

      Resource efficiency: “First, more people in a smaller area means the per capita cost of providing services drops dramatically.”

      Time effciency: “Today, people are miserable because of hours spent sitting in traffic. This could largely be resolved if people could make more trips without their car.”

      Productivity and Innovation: “Perhaps most importantly though, density is a critical ingredient for innovation.”

      Transit efficiency: See per capita cost of services & “This could largely be resolved if people could make more trips without their car. That outcome is only possible with density: living close enough to people, jobs and amenities to walk, bike or take high quality transit.”

  3. Your unbounded pursuit of density actually creates the very environments you deplore.

    You come to a neighborhood like mine – Wallingford – and tell us if we want to live like that, move to the suburbs. So we do! And that’s the real change in our metropolitan area – the outlying areas are unrecognizably changed, and never in a good way according to urbanist principles.

    Yet Wallingford is an urbanist paradise, by the textbook definition – clearly defined neighborhood center with shops for weekly household needs, walkable, variety of dwelling types, elementary school, streets are narrow and shaded by trees … We’re a little short on some amenities, playgrounds for example, but the Seattle “urbanist” program isn’t going to touch that. The neighborhood activists who defend these neighborhoods aren’t “urbanists” only because the Seattle version of urbanism has lost touch with its purpose.

    What do we get? You know the infrastructure cost savings of increased density are controversial at best, at densities anywhere near Seattle’s. We’d be rich if we were saving so much money, but instead we’re unable to even take care of the stuff built by previous generations (cf Green Lake pool.) That includes transportation expense and environmental costs – remember, Seattle is too dense to support itself, so there’s a lot of driving from far flung suburbs.

    The health claim is absurd. I mean, comparing Seattle to Granite Falls doesn’t give you any insight about the effects of density increases in Seattle neighborhoods, on health, social contacts etc.

    • Your defense of your neighborhood means all the things you think will hurt your neighborhood happen in someone else’s neighborhood. That’s a nice zero-sum game.

      Even if Wallingford is an urbanist paradise (which it isn’t), capping growth means capping the number of people who can enjoy that.

      Me and most of the people who contribute here work on improving all the amenities you say our agenda has no interest in improving.

      The research is strong that higher density produces per-capita savings on services. We are rich compared to most other places. Whether or not we can pay for things is entirely related to restrictions on taxing authority and political opposition to new taxes.

      The health claim isn’t absurd. It’s also supported by robust research.

      • The project ought to be, to bring these benefits to places that need them. I want other neighborhoods to be walkable places with a neighborhood core. That’s what should happen in someone else’s neighborhood – in everyone else’s neighborhood, Tukwila, Federal Way, etc. – and that means jobs there and everything. Seattle is overwhelmed by its infrastructure needs even though we vote yes on every levy, because on the whole we’re over-scaled.

        There may be places in Seattle where more residential density would be a good thing. I’m not an ideologue. Listen to the neighborhoods. I’ve heard View Ridge has asked for upzones, Herbold says some parts of her district want more development. They would know.

        • Listen to Wallingford, Donn. People there, too, want more density. You may feel like you represent your neighborhood, but you don’t; you represent yourself and that’s it.

          You raise a reasonable point that density to bring those likable and healthy attributes elsewhere is a good goal, but that logically lead to suggesting that it shouldn’t also happen in Wallingford.

          • Sure! listen to Wallingford, too. We are hard to miss, and we have a Neighborhood Plan and everything, but my point is, don’t take all the voices from Wallingford as evidence that every neighborhood opposes more density. Some of them may not even be urbanist paradises quite yet.

    • We *are* rich. We can’t take care of stuff built by previous generations because we’re mismanaging our money, not because we lack it. $160mil for a police station. $140mil for a badly-designed overpass. $25k for a single curb ramp (more than 5x the cost of other cities). Ridiculous streetcars that aren’t useful.

      We could find the $25mil to replace the Green Lake Community Center and pool if we actually cared about it. Our funding issues are unrelated to density; it’s simply poor leadership.

      • Right. It’s a general problem, from which neither high nor low density environs are immune, that politicians prioritize big flashy new things rather than boring routine maintenance. (And voters are not blameless here either–there’s a good case to be made politicians are responding to incentives by doing this.) To try and turn this frustrating but banal and general fact about politics into an argument against the efficiency gains of density is rank nonsense.

      • Would love to hear more about your proposals to make the city government cost efficient and prioritize money on things that actually matter!

    • As far as Wallingford goes, it’s next to one of the largest employers in the state (the UW) and also close to downtown. Expecting no growth in that neighborhood, even as Seattle’s population explodes… I mean, that’s just not going to happen.

      Seattle IS pretty rich, FYI. Just the city has a $5.6 billion dollar budget. It supports itself and subsidizes much of the rest of the state via state taxes.

    • You have a point. It is common for urbanists to focus on the areas that are quite urban, and say they need to be even more urban, instead of focusing on areas that are quite suburban, and need to be more urban. For example, while density should increase in San Fransisco (in lots of neighborhoods) the bigger problem is that Oakland, Berkeley and other cities aren’t nearly dense enough. To be clear, all those cites are more urban than most of Seattle, it is just that they aren’t as urban as they could be — as lots of people want them to be.

      The same is true in Seattle. The biggest problem we have is not that Wallingford isn’t dense enough, but that places like Magnolia, West Seattle, and Northeast Seattle have only pockets of density. Not to mention places like Shoreline, which has really low density considering it’s location (about ten miles from downtown, and less than that to the UW).

      At the same time, though, calling Wallingford an urban paradise and then saying we should stop there just doesn’t make sense. The main reason Wallingford is as nice as it is, is because they allowed density that is now illegal in *most* of Wallingford. There are dozens of duplexes in the SFH areas of Wallingford because it was built long before the zoning laws restricted them (you can see them on this great map which has both the zoning borders and old housing that was grandfathered in: https://jeffreylinn.carto.com/viz/681ff218-0a5d-11e6-8f50-0ea31932ec1d/embed_map).

      As for services scaling, of course they do, and they do as you get more and more dense. Serving Belltown or Lower Queen Anne is much cheaper *per person* than serving Wallingford. That goes for electricity, water, and of course, transit. Speaking of which, the 26 manages to cut right through Wallingford, and yet only runs every half hour. Why doesn’t it run like the 7, which runs every ten minutes? In word, density. It just doesn’t make sense to run a bus that often in Wallingford, when it isn’t that dense. The relationship between density and ridership is not linear, it is exponential. In other words, if the population of Wallingford doubles, then transit ridership will more than double, which would lead to running the bus at least every 15 minutes (which in turn increases ridership, thus leading to a virtuous cycle).

      • Good comment about the need for the suburbs to become more dense, Ross. Too often urbanists equate non-Seattle development with sprawl, which is not the case at all. There are many urban-villages-in-waiting in the burbs (e.g. James Village in Lynnwood, at 196th & Hwy 99) — really infill development opportunities with no relationship to sprawl. That intersection cries out for 5-over-1 density, with walkable lanes leading off the main streets.

          • I suppose you have a point, but not an overpowering one. It doesn’t argue against densification of urban centers and urban villages in the burbs. It’s silly to argue, as some urbanists still do, that all urban density belongs within the boundaries of the City of Seattle.

          • Wouldn’t increasing density – in terms of both people and jobs – increase employment opportunities? I’m not following your point, Donn

          • My point is that employers moving from Kirkland, Federal Way, Tacoma etc. to Seattle are working against urbanist goals, by deepening the car-oriented bedroom community residential/employment imbalance. While the employment surge creates desperate housing economics when the building industry can’t keep up – the flip side of the same problem, people can’t afford to follow their employers here if they wanted to. You bet a lot of money is being made in all this, but it’s an up side for only a few.

          • Donn,

            One of the frustrations that people have with comment threads like this is that it seems nearly impossible to pin down what the actual reasons are for opposing density. In this comment thread you started with:

            1) People like me and others, who don’t live in Wallingford, are coming into the neighborhood telling you how to live your lives.
            2) The Wallingford is an Urbanist paradise, which means it shouldn’t change.
            3) That infrastructure savings from density aren’t real.
            4) That health benefits from density aren’t real

            After objections to those points, rather than reinforcing your argument, you then made new points:

            1) That neighborhoods like Wallingford shouldn’t change because that’s what should happen in “someone else’s neighborhood – in everyone else’s neighborhood.”
            2) That there might be some places in Seattle that deserve more density but we should decide that based on whether the neighborhood is asking for it and, in your view, Wallingford isn’t

            So then those objections were knocked down and you moved on to other points:

            1) We shouldn’t change Wallingford because it’s already growing and the buses are heavily used.

            So as that point is knocked down, you move onto another point:

            1) That the real problem is concentration of employment in Seattle. This creates bedroom communities in the suburbs.

            Let me address the above points:

            1) we were largely talking about adding residential density which means we would be improving the jobs/housing ratio.
            2) Seattle has more amenities and political will to support non-car/urban density than anywhere else in the region. So if you think overcrowded buses are a problem, forcing people to live in neighborhoods with bad transit service doesn’t seem like an answer.
            3) Pointing to Wallingford’s growth doesn’t make any sense as a reason to prevent the neighborhood from changing. You are conflating the places that allow growth — places we are pointing to as successful — with the places that don’t — places we are criticizing.
            4) There are some jobs coming to Seattle from other parts of the region. This is an interesting point to make that would be worth engaging and discussing. However, it is largely beside the point when discussing whether residential areas in Seattle should allow additional density. It’s also a relatively minor point, since the job base is growing in many parts of the region.

            This inability to nail down your real complaints makes dialogue impossible and frustrating for everyone involved. It’s why so many people that engage with this conversation feel like it’s a waste of time and just end up hurling the “NIMBY” accusation.

          • You’re exaggerating the diversity of my arguments – I wish I were so creative. I haven’t pursued every objection, as they don’t seem to me to have “knocked down” mine. I leave it to the reader. To respond to your last itemized list:

            1. You can talk about adding residential density, but what actually happens is office buildings, to take the University District upzone as an example where that’s a foregone conclusion that seemed to be agreeable to everyone at this site. I focus on this because I believe the unsustainable economic growth is at the heart of what’s happening in this region.
            2. I’m not for forcing people to live anywhere, so I’m with you that far. To return to my point, what I hate to see happening is people choosing to live in suburb/exurb settlement patterns as a flight from the city – “forced” in some sense by economics or a desire for more green space than just a nearby park. What we ought to be looking for is an urban development pattern that creates the walkable communities I understand to be the core value of New Urbanism, which I share, all over the region.
            3. Wallingford’s growth is not “a reason to prevent the neighborhood from changing” – that would be paradoxical. The growth in density shows that we don’t need to upzone anything for “new development to resemble the current mix” – if anything, to do that we’d want to downzone, again, which I hasten to add no one has proposed that I know of. It’s emblematic of why I limit my responses to every little thing – the space required to point out even such a transparently illogical notion as “you don’t mind that you have a few quaint old apartments, therefore you should rezone it all to LR1” grows exponentially as each thing I write is recast as something I didn’t write.
            4. Until we start taking responsibility for a more sustainable rate of economic growth, it will always preempt any other consideration about our land use policy. The main thing i thought would be of interest about it here, though, is the relationship between employer location decisions and urban development outside Seattle. I don’t pretend to know how it all fits together, I just have a sense that it matters, and we’re going the wrong way.

          • This response largely illustrates why responding is so frustrating.

            You were talking about Wallingford. Most of the responses were talking about Wallingford. The article largely refers to advantages of residential density. Yet the first response you have misleads people by suggesting that upzones are usually about adding commercial capacity.

            You continue to switch subjects, focus and talking points in a way that makes it impossible to engage.

          • My comments have engaged that point! “We need to let our cities be cities …”? I’m saying, Wallingford and similar neighborhoods aren’t keeping Seattle from being a city. (Nor are they neighborhoods that don’t allow any growth.)

            I’m saying that the crusade against SF zoning per se may have a negative influence on the region, as homeowners will be displaced from urbanized areas here, to suburb/exurb settlements that are forming along less desirable, more auto-oriented lines. (That concern with areas outside Seattle ties into economic growth issues, which I apologetically acknowledge that this is not the subject of the article, but note that I answered your ordered list of points in order, so you really chose which item came first.)

            And I’m saying that adding density is great, if it’s in the right place to create the walkable urban environments we all want, and that those places may exist within city limits too. And I’m suggesting, as a way to be more sensitive to local conditions, that neighborhoods be consulted on that point.

          • If you mean, why don’t walkable urban communities like Wallingford form in the suburbs – great question that I can only guess at. Part of it must be that the change out there is too fast and drastic to see this happening, but there are also patterns that probably will inhibit it – shopping malls and other auto-oriented retail? Lot size and distribution? Lack of economic diversity? If we could get a handle on this, this region could grow into something that would be the envy of the country, where it’s currently growing more into California without the nice weather. (Maybe there are great examples right now, there’s a lot I don’t know about what’s going on out there.) I don’t think “because people there don’t care” is a very interesting explanation – certainly true, but I suppose you would be willing to suppose that people have an inherent potential to appreciate urbanism.

            Nor do I accept that Seattle neighborhoods are uniquely able to be walkable urban environments only thanks to proximity of a higher density urban area.

          • That’s not what I asked at all. You are saying that Wallingford is an urban neighborhood. To support this argument you are pointing to the mixed use, higher density areas that allow growth.

            Everyone else is talking about the single family zones that don’t allow growth. Why do you consider single family zones in Wallingford urban but the single family zones in the suburbs not urban?

          • Sorry, that is indeed the literal interpretation of your question, but I’m afraid it will seem obtuse. What I mean by “urban” here is, as opposed to surburban, satisfying more of the values advanced by New Urbanism as I casually understand that. A single family lot in Wallingford meets that criterion by being part of Wallingford: you can easily walk from there to a neighborhood center where there is a variety of retail and other arguably essential elements of a neighborhood. I’m saying that’s not true in a satisfactory way in Maple Valley, or Sand Point, though I could be in error here through unfamiliarity.

          • Right. I’m glad we could clarify that the single family parcel has nothing to do with urbanism. We both agree that it is the parcels that aren’t single family that make a space urban. It appears we’re on the same page.

          • That’s an odd way to put it. The destinations don’t exist by themselves – the center and the residential part of the neighborhood are mutually interdependent, so they both have everything to do with the outcome.

          • What I’m saying isn’t odd. Multifamily, mixed land use patterns make a place urban. Whereas single use, large lot residential zoning does not. That’s pretty basic. What is odd is suggesting the latter is what makes Wallingford urban while continuously pointing to the mixed use, multifamily areas as evidence.

          • I agree that a mixture of land uses is necessary. Some amount of multifamily can of course help make it work, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient – we can easily find large MF developments in places that are as suburban as they could be – and while there are indeed a few apartments in the Wallingford center core, if there are lots of units there, that’s very recent. The residential use of the NC zoning there doesn’t support the retail, alone or even in large part. Zoning is not really the issue you make it out to be.

          • It is necessary to have multifamily housing. There are no places without multifamily housing that are urban. And there are no places without mixed uses that are urban. Neither of those are allowed in single family areas.

            This is a dumb thread that illustrates why these discussions are so frustrating for people.

      • A lot of this makes sense, yet doesn’t seem to be very real in practice. Number of units in Wallingford has grown by a third, since I moved here. Think the transit has gotten materially better? Not so much. The 26 you remember is gone, replaced by a 26X with a peripheral connection to Wallingford and a 62 that tries to be both the old 26 and the old 16. More transit ridership has most conspicuously led to more people left behind at bus stops. What do we have to do, to get the density fairies to come with all those good things?

        Thanks however for confirming that Wallingford is nice, from an urbanist perspective. I don’t doubt that this is because we have a certain mix of housing. That makes kind of an odd argument for changing the zoning, if that’s where you were going with that.

        • “Thanks however for confirming that Wallingford is nice, from an urbanist perspective. I don’t doubt that this is because we have a certain mix of housing. That makes kind of an odd argument for changing the zoning, if that’s where you were going with that.” – as Ross points out, the good mix of housing stock in Wallingford is generally illegal under current zoning. If you want new development to resemble the current mix if housing in Wallingford, you need to change the zoning.

          • New development in Wallingford already pushes towards more apartments. We aren’t losing old grandfathered apartments to new single family, I doubt in even a single case but surely not at the rate of apartment construction, so we don’t need a zoning change to get a residential density increase. This isn’t the first time someone has advanced the notion that an upzone would be a good thing because we’re happy with the current mix, but it makes no sense at all.

      • As usual, Ross is spot on. Owen’s post applies to any neighborhood that has the infrastructure to support more density.

    • Agree with Donn. I live in Seattle and I pay higher taxes than ever, for a quality of life that is declining. Crowded parks and trails, buses that are so full they skip stops, cold looking buildings and a bleak cityscape. The density has made things so much worse.

  4. The point about density not equalling granularity definitely applies to my neighborhood (soon to be the Aurora / Licton Springs urban village). The housing density is quite high (mostly condos and four-story apartment buildings around me), but the density of amenities is quite low and mostly just on either side of Aurora proper. I guess that’s zoning but I’ve become curious about the justification for it…

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