Last October, Seattle Weekly republished an article headlined, ‘Will Seattle Finally Protect its tree canopy’, which was followed a few days later by Seattle Mag’s ‘The Struggle to Save Seattle’s Urban Trees in the Face of Development’. Just the other day, KUOW had a piece on Councilmember Rob Johnson’s proposed tree policies. Trees are the new hot topic as we move on from MHA, and what’s been interesting to observe is homeowners who claim to be environmentalists state that we need to protect trees –but rabidly fight bike lanes and safe streets at every junction. Oh, and housing, too. This oddly aligns with the mayor’s uninspiring ‘EVs will save us’ climate action plan.

Seattle is in the midst of a housing boom that invariably has resulted in the loss of trees. It has also resulted in the planting of new trees, that will require time to grow. This is surprisingly similar to development in single-family zoning, where forests were clearcut for craftsman homes. Seattle is also in the midst of a program to start addressing our housing shortage, the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. Some of the people who largely oppose new housing (and HALA) claim that the city forgot the ‘L’ in HALA. They claim that we shouldn’t allow multifamily housing in single-family zones because there will be a loss of trees, a loss of ‘livability’. Seattle suffers from a massive disparity in access from multifamily zones to parks and schools –and many parks and schools were gerrymandered outside of urban villages. What about their ‘livability’? It never seems to be a concern.

With the advent of zoning and subsequent comprehensive plan revisions, huge swaths of the city were prevented from having much (if any) development –pushing new housing into surrounding King County, consuming up massive quantities of green land.

Generalized zoning in King County. (King County)
Generalized zoning in King County. (King County)

King County’s urban growth boundary, pictured above, much as with Seattle’s zoning, is a bit of a joke. Most of the ‘urban’ growth area’s 460 square miles is zoned primarily for detached single-family houses (although in King County’s original zoning ordinance, single-family zoning didn’t exist – duplexes were legal everywhere housing was legal). Multifamily housing is illegal in all that yellow. King County is three times the area of Vienna, with the same population –we just relabeled sprawl here as ‘urban’ – problem solved!

How many trees did we lose regionally to sprawl just in the last 40 years? You can visualize it. It ain’t pretty. When a Seattle Green Party leader, in an online discussion on infill development, tagged Freiburg’s Green Party Councilor Timothy Simms, he stated this in response to preserving trees over needed dense housing:

As City of Freiburg we will build apartment houses with 4 to 5 storeys. In other communities they still build singe family-houses. So when it comes to environmental issues it’s much better to build a new city quarter for Freiburg: We will build public transportation, shops, schools, a quarter of short distances — whereas in the surrounding communities there will be places where you need a car for everything. So the bottom line is: We save space, we reduce car traffic and we do have a better mix of people and no monoculture of middle-class-family-housing. Plus: We can force the people building there to build in a sustainable way with high energy standards. So I strongly believe that in growing cities the political fight is not for preserving every single tree but for building up public spaces with a high quality in a more dense urban environment.

This was wholly the point of my last piece, and really aligns with my ethos on sustainability and livability. It’s probably not an accident it was heavily influenced by time working in Freiburg.

We can have, nee – we must have –abundant trees and abundant housing in order to solve the livability issue as well as the affordability issue. It shouldn’t be a matter of prioritizing one over the other. In order to do it, we must stop centering land use policy around single-family zoning. Currently, nearly three-quarters of all land were housing is legal only allows detached single-family houses. In the largest city in the Northwest. New multifamily housing will need to be built in more of the city, and there will be conflicts with trees. Want to preserve them? Advocate for reformed policies that would allow reduced setbacks, more height, or more buildable area on parcels that have exceptional trees. We could reserve half a site for trees and open space by eliminating front and side yard setbacks, while increasing height.

None of this is new. Trees and density co-exist all over the world– but not in areas that prioritize low density sprawl. Perimeter block housing forms the backbone of almost every major European city. Stuttgart is roughly the same area as Seattle, with a slightly smaller population. It has both massive urban forests and a strong urban growth boundary. Munich is much larger, but the same story. None of these locations have any single-family zoning. None of them suffer from the massive extents of sprawl. Both have ample open and green space, and large urban forests.

Vienna is 46% forest, green space and parks. It also has no single-family zoning, and has a dense, livable core that goes on for miles. Oh, and it’s routinely selected as the most livable city in the world. I’m just spitballing here, but perhaps there is a correlation?

Given the inequitable open space/park disparity that is heavily tilted against residents in multifamily zones –perhaps this is where conversations around ‘livability’ and quality of life should be centered. Most importantly, with those residents, and not primarily with homeowners who gerrymandered themselves out of urban villages. We need housing options in all parts of the city. Yes, it will result in losing trees in the process–but the earth, and our city, will be better off for in the long run for it. Especially when we convert arterials into lush, non-automobile greenways.

This is a cross-post from Mike’s personal blog on Medium. The previous installment proposed a radical rethinking of open space in Seattle.

The Relationship Between Parking, Urban Trees and Affordability

18 COMMENTS

  1. “Seattle is in the midst of a housing boom [].”

    Well, yes . . . and thousands of one-bedroom apartments will be coming on the market over the next 8 years. That’s right about when Amazon’s downsizing in Seattle will begin in earnest. It’ll have about half the employees in Seattle 10 years from now compared to today. It’s the high-water mark now. That shift as HQ2 supplants the legacy facilities for it here will mean a glut in the new apartments. Prices will come down as demand decreases.

    None of the planning to date — by HALA, PSRC, County, State, Seattle, RTA — factored in what Amazon will be doing — a big reduction in SLU employment. This story likewise fails to acknowledge that we really are at peak demand and face in the near future a glut of the one kind of housing that the past and current policies have promoted (e.g., TOD in the urban centers, and 1 bedroom/studio apartments). Re-zoning to encourage MiLs, ADU’s, and short platting of lots less than 7.200 square feet) won’t be needed because so many of the new apartments will come way down in price. What’s needed? New long term planning (and yes, trees should be factored in).

    • I think you’re jumping the gun. We don’t even know where HQ2 will be, let alone how quickly they’ll expand there.

      It’s hard to project some sort of Boeing Bust situation because Boeing didn’t have many American competitors and the recession was industry-wide. Tech is more diversified. If Seattle housing prices come down, we’re going to vacuum up even more jobs from Silicon Valley, especially if Amazon moves a lot of jobs and a good chunk of their talent decides to stay and work elsewhere.

      While we’re likely due for at least a slight market correction, I have a hard time imagining entering some golden era of widespread affordability when regional demand is a lot deeper than just Amazon. This is particularly true if do as you say and continue to sanctify detached single-family zoning, which by requiring ownership of a big chunk of land to buy a home forces urban housing to cost more than low and middle-income folks can afford. It also makes the provision of nonprofit housing more costly and less efficient. Ditto transit.

      • Amazon won’t be “expanding” into HQ2 — HQ2 will replace HQ1, and it will happen quickly. What Seattle will be left with is residual groups of Amazon employees not needed at the new hq.

        Your crystal ball is cloudy. Amazon’s departure will throw a wet blanket on the projected increases in housing costs all the government and private planning for Seattle has contemplated. However, neither housing costs nor the former Amazon employees here who can’t/won’t move to the new headquarters will “vacuum up” more jobs from California. “Low” housing costs and potential employees are not forces that drive expansions by companies into other cities.

        What’s going to happen is employment will be far less than projected over the next 30 years in downtown Seattle, demand for new housing will be less than projected over that time frame, average wages also will be less, and the needs for transit to/from downtown Seattle also will be less.

  2. Here we go again. Let’s remake Seattle in the image of Vienna, Stuttgart, Freiburg because they got it right and we have it wrong. Maybe a great theoretical argument, but the reality is Seattle is a built-up city, and much as some urbanists might like, we’re not going to tear down all those SF houses and build proper European-style apartment blocks. And rezoning all those SF neighborhoods to LR ain’t gonna happen either.

    The better course is to dial up the one we’re already on — put density in urban villages and urban centers where it can be most easily accommodated by neighborhood retail and public transit. If current zoning doesn’t provide adequate capacity in the out years, then upzone within village and center boundaries and/or expand boundaries somewhat (trying to keep within a 10-minute walkshed of quality public transit and neighborhood retail; 10-minute walk shed = 0.4 miles).

    It’s past time to stop pining for some neo-European future that’s not achievable in Seattle, WA.

      • Why don’t you think approaches that are within the realm of feasibility in Seattle? Instead of fantasizing about wholesale replacement of SF housing?

        • Instead of a binary argument between wholesale replacement of single family homes and leaving them untouched, why not consider a middle ground? Personally I’d have no problem with upzoning every last single family zone (it’s not like it would all disappear overnight), but as a pragmatist I understand that’s not likely to happen.

          I’d advocate for expanding the size of existing urban villages according to the framework we already have, additional upzoning to allow for taller structures in neighborhoods that are already fairly dense (Capitol Hill, Fremont, Ballard, Northgate, etc), and ramping up Sound Transit’s TOD strategy to include intense residential development adjacent to or on top of new rail stations.

          • Now you’re singing my tune! Thanks for that. I hope it catches on in urbanist circles. I once even expressed regret at the low-rise projects around Capitol Hill Station, which in retrospect should’ve been 12-14 story buildings.

            There is a middle ground. We just need to find a few people who agree, and get them organized.

    • The overton window has shifted dramatically on reforming SF zoning. Portland already did it. Minneapolis and Vancouver have proposals to do it. Support for it is reaching a critical mass in Seattle. It’s not a matter of if but when.

    • The 34 acres of military property now proposed for low-income housing — that property abuts Discovery Park, it is not IN the park.

  3. I see this as the defining issue of our times. As urbanists, we have to take the desire for trees seriously, as they are key to human health and wellbeing – but not let that delay the dense building we desperately need to keep up with demand. My only quibble is on setbacks – planted setbacks provide a more pleasant pedestrian experience than zero setback, IMHO. Let’s reduce every other arbitrary requirement in exchange for trees, but maybe not setbacks. Further, I say we take our biggest public land asset – streets – and repurpose them. Trees are good for humans; cars are not. I know I’m dreaming, but this is the basis for my forthcoming manifesto, so I’m going to start seeding the idea out there.

  4. Rob Johnson’s draft proposal is half a proposal, letting developers off the hook for removing trees while asking already developed property owners to get permits and replace trees. Green factor is not tree replacement and a proposal to plant a tree on a property that maybe had 5 or 6 before developers removed them is not “green” That’s greenwashing. We can do better. Other cities like Portland, OR and Atlanta, GA do not give developers free reign to remove trees and not replace them. Why is Seattle doing this and putting the burden on taxpayers then to replace the trees?

  5. Density by itself is very beneficial for humans and to the environment rather than some extra trees in the city.

    1) It allows for transportation that could only work in dense environment such as the Mass Rail Transit or the Light Rail Transit. These train systems would be unprofitable in less dense areas. And we know the benefits of trains, it’s the least polluting of all commutes except for maybe walking and cycling and greatly reduces traffic congestion.

    2) Density allows for a cheaper cost of living, especially when it comes to utilities like electricity, water and internet. Utility companies don’t need to spend vast sums of money for cables and pipes for a small group of people. Few cables serve a lot more people.

    3) Density also allows for specialized services. For example, if you have a specific health issue like a specific skin disease, you probably have to travel to a major city where you’d find the skin specialist who could treat your problem. If you live in a denser neighborhood, the specialist may consider moving to your area if there are enough people requiring his/her services. Aside from that if you’re a vegan or love Indian food, you’d probably find a lot more vegan or Indian restaurants in a denser neighborhood instead of only mainstream eating options. The more dense, the more specialized the services could be because there are enough people who’d pay for the services.

    4) As many of you would’ve already known, the carbon footprint is absurdly lower in a dense urban city (per capita, of course) compared to a less dense suburb or worse, a rural town. If everyone in the world chooses to live in an area same density as New York city, we could all fit into an area the size of Egypt or Colombia. Can you imagine how much of wildlife and forest area could be restored and allowed to thrive if this happens?

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