It is finished: The last seven words of the code

Yes, it was all an evangelical ploy. Follow along as I read Seattle’s land use code and the punch line is a reference to Jesus Christ. Sort of. The truth is I am finally done reading the code,  and I can’t resist yet another eye rolling allusion. In Christian tradition Jesus utters seven last words, phrases really, from the cross. His last seven words aren’t “look at the bright side of life.” Actually the last seven words are a profound and amazing liturgical doorway into Easter.

Saint James Cathedral completes the full liturgical use of Haydn’s Last Seven Words at the end of Lent, and if you love Haydn it’s a rare thing to be able to experience the work performed within the liturgy. But be prepared, it lasts several hours and includes sermons on each “word.” If you’re crazy enough to read the whole land use code, or crazier still, read someone else who is reading the code this just might be for you. Here’s a wonderful commentary from Raimon Panikkar, who taught at the University of California of Santa Barbara where I got my Masters Degree in religious studies.  How’s that for a digression?

No, this is really about the code. The last seven words of the code are:

Uses or structures shall not be affected

I can’t think of a better seven words. These words are in the severability section of the code, boiler plate language that makes it clear that if any one piece of the code is ruled illegal or unconstitutional all the other pieces still apply. It’s an old and standard thing to put in legislation as a way to avoid having an entire law or set of laws thrown out just because one section, say single family, gets ruled unconstitutional.

These words stand out because, at first, you’d say “it’s exactly the opposite.” And that would be true, the code governs every aspect of use and structure, so of course it affects uses and structures a great deal. But maybe the last seven words point the way. Maybe the code shouldn’t affect use and structure.  Perhaps the code should only address use. That is, maybe we should see structure as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.

Heightbulkenscale is the product of a code focused on design standards. What does it look like? How big is it? How many floors does it have? What do the windows look like? All of these mandates about structure get piled one on top of the other. The point of the code should never have been to dictate design standards. Even old school zoning, intended to separate use, didn’t really care about what buildings looked like. The point with Euclidian zoning was breaking up use, not determining what a rendering plant or a single family home looked like. Design standards have become a proxy for fear.

We lost our way, but it’s not too late to follow the bread crumbs back home. How do we do that? Well, I’d say we focus on use and outcomes. Mixing use together is good because it reduces transportation cost in terms of carbon emissions, time, money, and pavement. When I can walk to my job, my stores, and my recreation then I don’t need a car or highways. It’s all right there. That’s huge. Good land use means no more wasteful tunnel debates. 

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it, “focus on use and the future at the expense of rigid standards that express what we fear rather than what we hope.” But letting go of fear is really hard. Change does create fear and even transformative and positive change is a fearful thing. If we truly change the code and make it a document that points the way to what we want rather than a wall to shut out what we fear, it still will make us uncomfortable. I think it’s worth it, and when it comes to land use I always try to look at the bright side of change.

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