In Praise of the Swing and Grave


Picture 7

I’m riding home from Sea-Tac with a dear friend of mine. The last train headed for downtown has already left for the night, and we thus opt for a late-night 124 to work our way back into town. For decades Metro offered 24-hour service from downtown to Sea-Tac; maybe someday when there’s money they’ll consider doing so again. But nevermind. My friend and I pass the time pleasantly at Tukwila International Boulevard Station–yes, such a thing is possible at 1:30am! She and I talk around in detailed circles, always with more to say to each other, sharing space with the working few.

For tonight at least, the hour has since passed for drunks and users. Now is the quiet time, that elusive pre-dawn realm populated by people who very much need the bus. Cruising down the Boulevard now, I look around at the nations seated beside me, hollow cheeks and thoughtful, tired eyes, gazing into the middle distance, statuesque and contemplative, resting on the go.

Mostly men here, but not all, dressed in layered practicality: raincoats, work coats, sweaters, hoodies, windbreakers, reflective jackets… all with a tinge of earthy scrappiness. We’re on Pac Highway after all, and this is no place for the careless. The globe, our globe, balances precariously on the services and elemental labor these folks provide, and would swiftly crumble if not for their continued presence.

The 124 driver, also a friend of mine, takes us gently through the night like the seasoned pro that she is. One of my favorite things about being an operator- and something I never anticipated- is the sense of being surrounded by people you know whenever you’re going about the city on foot or by bus. Those are all your friends or acquaintances out there, familiar working faces on the move.

Seated- sprawled is a better word- about the front seat is a thin African-American man of roughly thirty. Oversized dark gray sweater with the collar turned up, black jeans and fuzzy cornrows ending in a bun behind his head. He stares vacantly, head resting on the top of the seat, his body draped in an expansive slouch, conforming to the surfaces around him.

At some point an older woman boards. She steps in slowly, heavier, hobbling forward on swollen limbs, colorful knee-high socks mostly covering her pale and puckered skin. She’s white and sixty-plus, with friendly eyes and her hands full- a bag, a backpack, a cane.

Cornrows notes her presence entering and, without waiting for any suggestion, gets up to offer his seat to her. He’s already stepping away when she manages a “thank you.”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all,” he says. He says it fluidly and quietly, a natural kindness, in a cadence I wouldn’t have expected based on his dress and stance. Had my eyes been closed I’d have thought he was Cary Grant. Sometimes the 124 is more than worthy of the “Jerry Springer” designation; tonight we’ve got Jimmy Stewart in here. We’ve got Sydney Poitier.

Is A Car-Free City A Practical Idea?


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on Road Crazed. Road Crazed is a blog about all things relating to roads, highways, and transportation.

For many of us, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a life without killer rush hours, incessant and problematic road construction, and seemingly endless traffic issues. However distant a world without these elements may seem, though, there was once a time when none of these problems existed. It’s hard to believe that barely more than a century ago, personal automobiles were nothing more than a dream for the average individual.

That all changed in 1908, of course, when Henry Ford’s assembly line opened the door for the luxury of unrestrained travel to millions of middle-class Americans. Understandably, the Ford Model T was a huge success. In the words of Henry Ford himself, the Ford Model T was “so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one–and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.” Now what doesn’t sound appealing about that?

The personal automobile has transformed the world since then–and that’s an understatement. Cars are both a blessing and a curse in our modern-day society. According to a 2011 article, the world’s car population has surpassed one billion, with the amount of cars worldwide to increase to 2.5 billion by the year 2050. I’m not going to go into a big argument about scarcity of resources and greenhouse gases here, but surely billions of vehicles pumping CO2 into our atmosphere can’t possibly be a good thing…right? Not to mention that the world requires almost 100 million barrels of oil per day, a statistic which is a bit concerning considering that this oil is not an infinite resource.

World Wide Oil Production – Attributed to The Economist

While electric vehicles offer a potential solution to the problem of limited resources and pollution, they do nothing to resolve the world’s other crippling issue with personal transportation–traffic. If you commute by car in a large metropolitan area, rush hour traffic is generally unavoidable. There’s not really a cure for this traffic, either, especially in growing areas. Expanding roads provides temporary relief, but actually makes congestion worse in the long run–a phenomenon which I briefly described in a prior post. To make matters worse, road expansions make conditions much more unpleasant during the duration of the construction itself.

According to this infographic by Nationwide, the average yearly cost of road congestion to each driver is $713, which is more than an entire week’s worth of wages for the average American.

The obvious alternative is the widespread implementation and usage of public transportation. However, it’s not nearly as simple as it sounds. Numerous studies have shown that people are irrationally biased towards automobiles, and many people will choose to drive their cars even in situations where public transportation is proven to be quicker and more economically feasible.

This behavior alone would make the development of a successful car-free city a difficult task, especially in the current-day. However, China is attempting it. Outside of Chengdu, 78 million square feet of land has been set aside for the construction of a new city designed to house 80,000 residents, none of whom will need a car to get around. In this so-called “Great City,” transportation will be provided by electric shuttles, and all residences will be within a two-minute walk of a public park. The city also plans to implement eco-friendly features in order to save energy and minimize waste. However, we have yet to see if this will be successful in China, and whether or not such a development could be successfully built elsewhere. Still, it’s an impressive plan.

Pedestrian Zone in Chengdu – Attributed to little_ram. Original photo here.

While large cities with no cars are basically nonexistent in today’s times, there are a few examples of cities with significant pedestrian-only areas. Freiburg, Germany is a good example of this–Freiburg has both a large pedestrian zone and an extensive public transport system.

Perhaps a more relatable example of a mostly car-free community is the average modern-day university. Even though it’s not entirely comparable to an actual city, many large universities offer education, jobs, housing, and dining all in one constrained space–which is completely accessible by foot or bicycle.

Only time will tell if an entirely car-free city is a current-day possibility or merely an element of an unrealistic utopia. One thing is for sure, however–the world’s irrational aversion to public transit has to come to an end before anything like this can become a widespread part of our future. Once this happens, our future generations just might see the day when no one needs a car to get to where they need to be.

Why Do We Write About Cities?


When we write about cities, sometimes we do best when we take the metrics away.



In 2011, amid a visit to San Francisco and just back from Africa, I offered some thoughts about why we write about cities.  Three years later, I’m not sure much has changed.

I continue to believe that visiting and photographing cities worldwide can take the metrics away, often amid economic boom, or bust, next to revolution or facing or remembering the challenge of reconstruction. In such settings, qualitative and interactive experiences and comparison seem more important than documenting carbon emissions, census data, rankings or ratings.

While data and catch-phrases have merit to enhance background principles and to support goals, so does the sense of wonder with which people explain where they live, and ask about how other places are different, day-to-day, at the human scale.

Witness the frustrated commuter, who will authentically share perceptions, no matter the transportation mode. People will earnestly talk about neighborhood safety, a sense of economic well-being or challenge and satisfaction or concerns about a child’s education. With sincerity, others will refer to the weather, green or water surroundings or the music of place and time.

And transfixed, the world listens to and watches revolutions and disaster, where the urban setting is entirely disoriented and must rebuild again.

The fundamental reason that successful cities resonate is because they satisfy and/or complement some very basic human needs, often related to mental and physical health: congregation, safety, and the three “e’s” of education, environment and economy. In our policy and regulatory discussion of such urban settings, I continue to think we might perform at a higher level by starting with reminders of the core: the basic human needs which cities can give, or frustrate.

Only after acknowledging the fundamentals—and pausing to watch and listen— should we debate the circular arguments of ends versus means.



Images composed by the author in San Francisco and Seattle in 2011 and 2014.  Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

This post first appeared in similar form in myurbanisthere.

Baugruppen: Innovative Constructs


Editor’s Note: This is Part 4 of a series on Baugruppen, private owners collaboratively building affordable multifamily projects. Read Part 1 or check out the series.

photo: mike eliason

Baugruppen provide a vehicle for experimental modes of constructing versus traditional models of housing, where experimentation and innovation can prove difficult. Due to the nature of designing and building in a group, BGs allow owners leeway in the direction they’d like their project to go, or what type of structure the building should have. They allow the potential to incorporate highly individualized units, extremely innovative construction methods (prefab, CLT, brettstapel!), uber green buildings (passivhaus!) – all whilst remaining relatively affordable. And, in some cases, it is this experimental nature that brings the cost down.

Energy Efficiency

Previously, I wrote that individual BG owners have access to reduced rates for hitting levels of efficiency (via the state-owned bank, KfW). Some locations also give a further subsidy for higher levels of efficiency, such as those meeting Passivhaus (which, depending on jurisdiction, can entail little cost increase for window/door packages, ventilation system and increased insulation levels over ‘barely legal’ construction). For Vauban, there was an efficiency requirement for all projects, and several ended up meeting (or exceeding) Passivhaus. These projects provide a high level of comfort, acoustic privacy, and low operating costs – all quite handy for urban housing, or even housing geared towards the elderly. As Passivhaus has becomes easier to meet (effectively no up charge on certain typologies), the transition to net zero PHs, or even plusenergie (energy positiveprojects, is already underway. Awe. Some!

The Baugemeinschaft Sophienallee is a really well done multifamily Passivhaus by Neustadt Architekten, located in Hamburg’s dense borough Eimsbüttel. The 5-story, 16-unit project features a variety of unit sizes, and corresponding diversity in owners (seniors, young families, DINKs, singles), roof terrace, garden and two community rooms.  Construction costs were about $250/sf. Drawings, photos and details via deutschebauzeitungen, and Passivhaus stats also available.


BGs have the option of pushing as far as their budget will allow in terms of materials and structure. The group may feel that certain forms of construction are advantageous in terms of embodied energy or carbon (e.g. CLT v. concrete) – and it’s entirely possible given the right approach, those methods may even cost less as well. For the BG, being ecologically-minded may not be an afterthought, they may even be willing to take on the risk of an all-wood building whereas a risk-averse developer might avoid that route. They can debate the merits of EPS, XPS, cork  in financial terms yes, but also through other lenses.

The 3xgruen BG (also by A52’s designer, roedig.schop architekten) is a phenomenal, jaw-dropping game-changing 5-story,13-unit wood building incorporating CLT and prefabricated walls. In terms of sustainability + affordability + density, I’m not sure a better project exists (and I would know!). Construction costs are incredible (about $175/sf gross) – even though the quality is quite high. This low-energy project was envisioned as a prototype, with the form and structure being transferable to other sites, which could result in even lower prices (whuuuuuut?!?). Common areas include a garden (kid’s realm!) and roof terrace (adult’s playground!). Truly a stunning urban prototype. Info, drawings and pics from a bauwelt article. Short video of this award winning project is also worth perusal.


Building in urban environs can be difficult, and many urban projects are opting for panelized assemblies to reduce the construction duration. This is advantageous to both developers and baugruppen – for BGs , specifically because the design and decision making process can be quite lengthy.

Kaden Klingbeil’s e3 is an incredible, 7-story wood construction in the heart of Berlin. A lot has been written about this project already, I will just note that not only is it highly innovative – but special permission was required in order to build that tall (hence the adjoining concrete stairwell + elevator). Thankfully, they prevailed, and the world can revel in the beauty of this stunning project, built for around $280/sf. Nice writeup of the architects and project by Joe Mayo’s timbercity. Great video on the project, w/ English subtitles.

Fragments From The Road


Picture 20


I feel like I see so many fragments of universes, the visible tips of deep and storied lives, icebergs whose temperatures and histories we can only guess at. Here are the glancing shades of a few.

Shan (“not Shannon, just Shan”), standing at the front of my 358, telling me how she broke up with her emotionally abusive boyfriend and thus felt a new and heady sensation of release. She’s developed a heretofore untapped appetite for exercise and has lost 150 pounds in ten months. I look at her beaming face, long hair and the first beautiful aging lines, letting all that vitality hit me.

An old but hardy man, perhaps a seafaring type, getting off at Seneca, quipping to me as he leaves: “okay, you can go home now!”

At Beacon and Lander. An African-American man stands up inside the coach, yelling through the open window at his friend across the street: “IT’S TEN O’ CLOCK! WHASS UP CHUCKIE!” I glance at my watch. It’s 3:42. Maybe he means New Zealand time.

On the 36, a little south of Judkins outbound. Who’s that Chinese senior walking with her head down, a half-smile on her face? I know that profile. I’ve pulled up to the stop, way past her, she’s back there somewhere, a hundred feet away, walking away- but I know that face. I saw her yesterday, for the first time in months. I throw on the parking brake and jump out of the packed bus- “gimme a second-” and cup my mouth as I yell, “MELBA!” That’s her name. “MELBATOAST!”
She looks up, looks to her right, now she’s turning around- that half-smile transformed, exploding as she recognizes me. “Nathan!” she shouts. We wave. I wish her a good day and jump back inside.
“Don’t mind me,” I tell the passengers. “Just sayin’ hey to my buddy!”

A working girl (you know what I mean) in a leering tank top, straps and bra straps, cleavage for miles, midriff exposed. No makeup today. Her sweatshirt is tied round her waist, somehow matching her hair tied back in a high ponytail. “Thank you,” she says as she gets off. She’s carrying, among other things, a hub cap for a Honda Civic.

Halfway down the bus sit two older Vietnamese, easily seventy, one a man and the other a lady. They sit across the aisle from each other, in their own separate seat pairs. Not relaxed around each other enough to be a couple; maybe they’re neighbors. They’re passing a cantaloupe back and forth. One really wants to give it to the other, and the other is just way too polite about it. Gestures of “no thank you, really” and “here you go,” until finally they grin back and forth, crinkling into ageless humor.

Sunday Video: 3.5M in Los Angeles


Many elements have to be considered when we talk about the total development capacity for a place. Gensler LA offers a good starting point for some of these. This Sunday’s video gives us a great visualization of what it would take to support 4.3 million residents in Downtown LA. Perhaps this is a worthwhile discussion for Seattle.

What We’re Reading: Accelerated Growth

Downtown Seattle - HDR
Downtown Seattle, courtesy of Matthew Whitehead.

Accelerating growth: Seattle grew twice the rate of suburban King County in population from 2012 to 2013, and that rate has massively accelerated from the previous yearly period when it only grew 25% faster.

Breath easier: Sightline breaks down 17 things you should know about California’s cap-and-trade system. Maybe this can be a model for our state?

Elevate your maps: Google Maps adds a hand feature for cyclists, now you can visualize your next bike ride with route elevations!

Competing proposals: Council Members Nick Licata and Kshama Sawant propose alternative funding measures to save King County Metro Transit in Seattle. There’s a lot to like about this.

Racism and inequality: It may not be the sexiest mapping, but City Lab shows us maps of racist housing policies and the inequality state-by-state over three decades.

Bus stop or transit station?: It probably goes without saying, but not all bus stops are created equal. Some are flag stops, some are sheltered stops, and some are full fledge stations. Greater Greater Washington gives a great primer on the diversity of the “bus stop”. Meanwhile, DC’s Metro explores the differences in high capacity transit service typologies.

Unequal social welfare: We don’t spend money on social welfare in the way that you probably think we do. The system is pretty broken because we broke it more even though we spend more. To top it off, we’re losing a lot of our social housing to neglect and demolition.

City sets strict rules: The City Council adopted much more stringent rules for microhousing (even beyond what DPD proposed) and small lot development.

20mph zones: Paris is looking to expand its 20mph zones all across the city.

In trouble: It looks like the tunnel project may be even further delayed and that the City Council is poised to tank the city’s $15/hr effort.

Third safest: Smart Growth America released some interesting statistics this week, especially in respect to Seattle. Ranking 51 cities, Seattle comes out at top as the third safest for pedestrians.

Tragic realities: You may wonder why and how bicyclist deaths occur. The statistics show that it’s almost always the fault of a driver and the cyclist being rearended, but there’s more to it.

First female police Chief: Mayor Ed Murray chose Boston’s Kathleen O’Toole as the city’s new Police Chief. O’Toole becomes the city’s first female in the position.

Uneven recovery: Since the end of the Great Recession, the recovery has been very different across the country. And not just in the rate of employment growth, but also in the quality and pay of jobs.

There’s a fire in the house: Bad design of space isn’t just the fault of traffic planners or developers, a lot of this blame belongs with our “life savers”. Ironically, fire departments across this country are making us less safe with our streets because of their fire trucks.

Map of the week: This series of maps in London explores the social differences of the city’s districts in a number of ways like race, accessibility to public transport, age cohorts, unemployment beneficiaries, and more.

Is Seattle The Fastest Growing Big City In The US?


Yesterday morning the Census Bureau published a press release titled, “South, West Have Fastest-Growing Cities, Census Bureau Reports; Three of Top 10 are in Texas Capital Area.” The article has links to the best estimates for growth between July 2012 to July 2013. Sure enough, three cities in central Texas top the list. These three municipalities (suburbs of Austin, TX) are growing rapidly, as much as 8%.  But which big city is the fastest growing in the country. Here’s a glimpse at the top 100 ranked by growth:



The estimates show Seattle growing 2.8% from July 2012 to July 2013. This is behind two other cities in the top 100 but it is the fastest growing of the top 50. Beyond this simplification the measurement becomes a little trickier.

How Do You Measure A City’s Geographic Area

Before measuring population, it’s necessary to define the boundaries of a city. The easiest measurement to use is simply drawing the boundaries at the legal edges of the city. This is simple enough and makes a lot of measurements easy but often times the legal boundaries of cities don’t match our perceptions. For example, is Shoreline part of Seattle? With this measurement the answer would be no. You see examples like this everywhere. If you asked someone living across the river in New Jersey where they were from it wouldn’t be unusual if they said New York City. Just like many people around New York identify as New Yorkers, people who live on Mercer Island likely identify as Seattlites but Mercer Island also isn’t within Seattle’s legal boundaries.

This is also true in Austin, TX. People who live in Round Rock, Georgetown or Cedar Park very likely identify as being from Austin. If you consider the growth in these municipalities, Austin’s growth rate jumps above 2.7%, still less than Seattle but significantly higher. If you include Seattle’s suburbs in the equation of growth, Seattle actually grew slower. For example, including Bellevue (1.37%), Redmond (1.67%), Renton (1.27%), Kent (1.18%) and Shoreline (.69%), would mean Seattle only grew 2.15%.

Additionally, Austin is much larger than Seattle if you compare their incorporated boundaries. Seattle only has about 84 square miles of land compared to over 320 square miles in Austin. A conservative estimate of Austin’s urban metro area is over 500 square miles. Is it a good comparison to juxtapose these two incorporated areas?

Incorporated Areas Do Matter

If you are attempting to determine government policy that is leading to good outcomes, measuring areas by the incorporated boundaries might be the best strategy. While there is a lot of influence on cities from county, regional and state politics, city policy has a big impact on the two factors that influence population growth, jobs and housing costs. Taking this into consideration paints an even brighter picture of Seattle’s growth. I cant help but speculate that policies put in place over the last few years are part of the reason why Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs. The opposite is true in Austin. Many of the people living in the suburbs likely identify as Austinites but, for whatever reason, choose not to live within the actual city limits.

When more people can choose to live in Seattle it has a real, measurable impact. City services cost less per person, diversity grows and our tax base broadens. Other, harder to measure factors also improve such as the resiliency of the city, dynamism and the lowered environmental impact. Overall, it’s a win for everyone when Seattle grows faster than its suburbs.

Seattle Is One Of The Fastest Growing Cities

Where the boundaries are drawn for a city greatly influences population estimates. Still, there’s no doubt that the city of Seattle is among the fastest growing in the country. It’s extremely difficult to do an apples-to-apples comparison but it seems to be on par or greater than all the other fast growing cities in the county. The one take-away that I think is most important is that the city of Seattle grew faster than its suburbs, meaning the city is both a desirable place to live and we are actually making some room for new Seattlites.

If you’d like to look at more of the data, perhaps coming up with estimates for the metro area, I’ve put it all in a spreadsheet here.

Urbanist Advertising Partner: Kaiser Permanente

Kaiser Permanente

Urbanist Advertising Partner: Bike Works

Bike Works