Department of Analogies: Time for a new bookshelf

Just the other day I was able to listen to City staff and developers working together to address how the code could be improved. Both sides were making an earnest effort. How can we make the development process easier, more predictable, and more transparent? This is important work. We have to figure out how to accommodate growth in our region, and too often the code makes building new housing, commercial, or retail too complicated and expensive by regulating by standard rather than use.

When I stopped by the men’s room I spotted this weird, empty bookshelf.

Accommodating growth is like putting books in a book shelf

Later, haunted by the bookshelf, I was struck by the analogy muse: figuring out how to accommodate growth in Seattle is like filling a new bookshelf.

Imagine you have some books. OK, you have lots of books.

Lots of books have to fit in that shelf

And you’ve got lots of different sizes and shapes of books.

Big books

Small books

Tall books

And you have books on all sorts of different subjects.

History books



Books on politics

Books on religion

Let’s say you’ve got to get your books into that bookshelf in the bathroom on the 19th floor. There are strict rules about the size of books you can put on different levels of the bookshelf. And there has to be a mix of sizes, shapes, and topics of books. You can’t have more than 5 big books on politics on any one shelf, for example. And all the books on religion can’t be higher than the second shelf.

You can apply to put some books on the top of the shelf, and, if you want, you can add two more shelves. But if you add shelves to on top you have to contribute to a bookshelf fund for people who need a subsidized bookshelf, because they can’t afford a bookshelf on their own. And all these applications require time for review, comment, and changes to meet the requirements.

You can get an exception to just about any of the rules, but you have to apply for them. Some of the exemptions or changes to the rules require the approval of the City Council. And sometimes your next door neighbor gets suspicious about what you’re doing with your bookshelves. “What’s going on over there anyway?” he wonders. He gets a chance to comment on what your doing with the bookshelf too.

Once you’re all done trying to figure out how to cram your books (and maybe you want to store other things like DVDs, too) into DPD’s bookshelf they have to come out and inspect it to make sure it complies with the rules. And this whole process of trying to shoehorn all your books into this shelf while not violating any rules, getting exemptions for rules that make it impossible to get your books into the shelf (you have lots of big books on politics, for example), and having the whole thing approved and voted on by council, and passing final inspection takes 3 years.

Did I mention that you are paying for the bookshelf and all the process that goes into getting the final configuration of how the books all fit together? You get the point. Nobody would do this. And certainly you wouldn’t try to make a living at this game of figuring out how to cram books into DPD’s shelf, would you?

I’m making this analogy to how the code affects a specific project. The code tends to focus more on the bookshelf–what it looks like, how tall it is, how wide it is, and where the books have to go–than on the books.

All the rules in the code about heights, setbacks, landscaping, parking, design review, and FAR are all well intended. The hope is that we’re preventing something bad from happening. But the problem is we’ve got lots of growth coming to the city–1.7 million new books according to the Puget Sound Regional Council. We need to accommodate lots of books in our bookshelves.

The people moving into our region have lots of different housing, business, and jobs needs. Why are we trying to fit them into our code rather than making the code fit the needs of coming growth?

What the bookshelf ends up looking like

We’re spending way too much time worrying about book storage rather than worrying about the books.

My point is that use is a lot more important than standards. Use should drive design standards, not the other way around. If my analogy works, it would be a way of explaining why the code is such a mess. Rather than looking at the mix of activities and living arrangements we want, we spend too much time fighting about height, bulk, and scale. The question the code should ask is “what would you like to see happen on your project site?” not “what will your buildings and landscaping look like?”

Dense, livable, walkable, affordable bookshelf we dream about

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4 Responses to Department of Analogies: Time for a new bookshelf

  1. Dan McGrady says:

    Wow, Roger, that was inspired!

    i love it.

  2. Pingback: Chapter 23.58A Incentive Provisions | Seattle's Land Use Code

  3. Nora says:

    Hi there,
    love the pic of the “Dense, livable, walkable, affordable bookshelf we dream about” do you know where you found it? I like the art displayed on the wall, so was trying to find out where it comes from. Thx Nora

  4. . says:

    Hi Nora,

    The truth is I can’t remember. I wrote this awhile ago and was trying to find pictures in the public domain of book shelves. I don’t remember what I was searching for when I found this one.

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