Density is not Livability

Density is not livability, and livability is more than shops and cafes. As a former resident of Vancouver and current resident of Seattle, I often hear comments from my architecture and urban planning colleagues that Vancouver, as a city, does everything better than Seattle, and that we all wish that Seattle could take a page or two out of Vancouver’s playbook. To take nothing away from Vancouver, it could be said that Seattle lags behind in many urban planning initiatives simply because Puget Sound real estate has not reached the same stratospheric cost that it has in Vancouver. That said, Seattle has even more constricted landforms than Vancouver, the economy continues to grow, especially as a tech center, and higher prices are inevitable. Knowing this, Seattle has a great opportunity to lay the groundwork for a city that provides a high standard of livability for a lot of people whose livelihoods are tied to the industries of the city.

Livability is a complex issue. One man’s livability may be another man’s claustrophobia. But the roots of livability lie in the ability to live in human-scale housing, and the ability to stay in one neighborhood throughout the many changes in life, especially through different family sizes. I manage an apartment building in a relatively urban neighborhood in Seattle. I have seen many of my tenants move out over the years, usually to a different, more suburban neighborhoods, which leaves very few people that are invested in the neighborhood enough to stick up for it when important decisions need to be made. In my neighborhood the reason for leaving is clear—there is simply a lack of housing that can accommodate common transitions in life. The neighborhood is rich with one-bedroom and studio apartments, but very few two and three bedroom units. The rest of the housing is single family, priced at least $400,000 above what a one-bedroom condo costs. The livability that would come from residents’ long term investment in the community is lost simply because of a lack of appropriate housing stock.

In Vancouver, residential towers are more common. Some—as in Yaletown—bring a higher standard of livability for a lot of people; using parks and fitness options, grocery stores and coffee shops to supplement smaller living spaces. On the other hand, Vancouver also has a number of towers that exist in relative isolation, next to a mall or a SkyTrain station just to satisfy the need for housing with simple access to the downtown core. This may bring more people into a great city, but it often does so at the cost of livability. Towers provide density but have difficulty delivering on livability.

 

Livability Reconsidered

In A Pattern Language, Christopher Alexander notes that a major difference between living on the first four floors of a building vs. the floors above; even drawing correlations between higher floors and increased mental health issues, higher rates of crime, and the hinderance of child development. Furthermore, Alexander notes, below the fifth floor, the residents are simply more likely to go outside, more likely to engage the street more and to see it as part of their lives and their territory. It seems logical that building height should be a major factor of livability. Towers should not be looked to as a solution for better cities. A transit-oriented-tower near light rail will increase the density of an area in a hurry, but not in a way that makes the area any more livable, and not in a way that convinces people to stay in the neighborhood any longer. Too often Vancouver has built towers in neighborhoods that don’t exist yet, and Seattle has taken the wrong page from the Vancouver playbook when they have done the same (consider: Belltown).

Unique approaches to Livability

First, to achieve both livability and density simultaneously, the city needs to encourage experimentation, occasionally allowing for failure in the name of greater successes. In my own neighborhood, there is one great example where the owners of four houses came together and formed a condo association, collectivizing their yards into one yard, making for 7 units instead of 4, retaining the very desirable 1907 architecture and its streetscape, while retaining a real, usable yard and providing higher density. This small project exemplifies the flexibility and creativity that the city needs to encourage moving forward. Across the street from this property exists an unfortunate car-court condo that exemplifies only a narrow minded, unwavering dedication to maxing out value while complying with code. Creative solutions should be encouraged, and Seattle has taken the first steps toward this with an innovation-supporting set of guidelines, as discussed in a previous post by Kelly Hogg on this site.

Second, each city needs to concentrate on its strengths. A hilly, narrow city like Seattle should not necessarily look to the flat, large-grid city of Vancouver for solutions. Seattle’s strengths start with neighborhood centers, and the solutions lie in the city’s ability to find flexible, creative, adaptable ways to use these centers for both greater efficiency and greater livability.

In the end, the trait that separates the most livable cities from the rest, is an appreciation of experimentation and failure as part of the urban planning process. This requires the municipal governments to make the bold statement that their city is a place where experimentation happens, where zoning and code sometimes changes for the good of the city, and where great ideas are encouraged and actually implemented to move the city forward.

Seattle is starting with the great advantage of having smaller neighborhood cores that can lead to localized, yet very livable density: clusters around neighborhood centers that actually take advantage of Seattle’s unique topography. Should this city harness this potential—not trying to be Vancouver, but trying to succeed on its own terms, this city—and all cities—have the chance be a more livable place for more people, not just the fabulously wealthy who can afford a dense urban core.