The last in a series of essays on the other reasons why density and cities are important.
Living in densely populated cities is better for the environment but it can also be good for the economy, for government, and the development of people’s potential to be moral and compassionate. Advocates for density and urbanists should begin to broaden their approach to how we build great cities; we need to move beyond the realms of architecture, urban planning, and design. And we should reconsider our ideological assumptions.
The best thing we could do in the affordable housing arena, for example, is think about more than just price, and monthly housing costs when considering housing affordability. Broadening our approach to affordability means increasing supply and accounting for costs other than housing, a shift that is an ideological challenge to the liberals among us.
The good news about density in the city is that problems are neither technical nor scientific but conceptual. We already know how to grow sustainably. But new ideas are hard to come by when we refuse to change some of our basic assumptions. Here are some ideas I’ve suggested before in each of the three areas I’ve written about, the economy, government, and the moral dimension of cities.
Zero Based Zoning
One local planner has called Zero Based Zoning, “Voodoo Planning.” Others have mistaken it for libertarian land use or a repeal of all the rules. Some have offered Form Based Code as a way to use the code to inspire better outcomes. Each of these, in its own way, misses the point of Zero Based Zoning.
Zero Based Zoning is a way of strategically peeling back a code based on the fear of what might happen in favor of spontaneous order, the structure and relationships that develop when people are allowed to pursue their self interests limited only by supply, demand, and health and safety. We need a code that encourages everyone take risks for innovation. We need a code that aspires for the best, not a code that fears for the worst.
Constitutional and Charter Reform
The documents that we rely upon to help guide us as we solve problems are not working any more. Our Federal and State Constitutions are not just from another era, they are from other centuries. Far from being sustainable operating systems for government, these antiques are actually limiting us from innovation in the here and now. Constitutional reform is important because it would allow us to seek opportunities for the 21st century without the limits imposed on us in the 19th and 18th centuries.
Charter reform is also essential. Seattle’s Charter, like the Washington State Constitution, has been tweaked dozens of times since it was written; but what about the structure of the Charter? Wouldn’t it be better to have more elected and accountable neighborhood representation on a larger City Council than an unaccountable and unelected group of neighbors who appear whenever their narrow interests are challenged.
Fixing our outmoded forms of Federal, State, and local government will take a lot of work. But the benefits of rethinking and redoing our guiding documents are many, and we really have no choice if we’re going to make our cities work.
We Believe . . .
Opposing good things in our neighborhoods because they make us uncomfortable is wrong. If we believe that we ought to make concessions—some may even call them (Gasp!) sacrifices—for the broader good, then we’re called upon to do the same with land use. Yes, a bigger building will take some time to get used to. Yes, the person building it may make a substantial profit because it’s bigger. And yes, it might cast a shadow on us while we walk our dog. It might even be downright ugly. But it’s worth it because it makes the world better.
When I wrote the Urbanist Creed I didn’t intend to proselytize the unbelievers, but to encourage urbanists to be consistent with some core values. In Seattle we have to close the gap–what I call the Sustainability Gap–between what we say we value and what we actually do when it comes to growth in our city. Power points, brown bags lunches, and conference panels are useful and even important for achieving our goals. But if we truly believe what we say, are we prepared to follow our impeccable logic with determined action?
One of my heroes is Emmeline Pankhurst, who led a militant women’s suffrage movement in England at the turn of the last century. Pankhurst’s suffragettes didn’t just attend meetings and write letters. They didn’t simply hope and pray for the vote, they broke windows, they took over meetings, they made noise, they endured forced feeding during hunger strikes, and they even died.
If the effects of climate change are as serious as we say they are then our actions, or lack of action, are fundamentally at odds with what we are saying and what we really believe. The changes we need to build cities that can accomplish economic growth, good government, and human development are big ones, but they are achievable. Let’s start making those changes now before crisis creates urgency for more drastic action.
I close this series with a quote from Pankhurst, whose efforts led, eventually, to success. She said, when big changes are needed
You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to get your reform realized.