Seattle among top 10 most densely populated big cities in the U.S. for first time ever

When it comes to urban planning, we just have to contend with more people.

Be careful where you use the “D word” in Seattle.

“If you’re the quintessential suburbanite, density’s a swear word,” said Branden Born, associate professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington. “If you’re an urbanist, it’s a buzzword.”

That conflict came to a head in July, when Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Advisory (HALA) Committee recommended increasing density in areas zoned for single-family homes. It didn’t go over well in some parts of town.

I spoke with Born about density in Seattle because — HALA or not — it’s an unavoidable fact of life here.

Analysis of census data shows that Seattle — for the first time in its history — ranks among the top 10 most densely populated big cities in the U.S.

With 7,962 people per square mile in 2014, Seattle leapfrogged Baltimore into the No. 10 spot among the 50 most populous cities in the country. Seattle’s population density has increased by nearly 10 percent since the 2010 Census. And if current growth rates continue, we’ll bypass No. 9 Los Angeles within five years.

You can thank — or curse — all those newly minted Seattleites.

Born acknowledged that a lot of folks in single-family neighborhoods hear “density” and get nervous.

He thinks the word needs a rebranding. “Some people think crime … people think of New York City — dirty streets, and people bumping into you on the sidewalk or the bus. It’s having to take mass transit — not having the ability to take your car,” he said.

“On the flip side, people who understand that density can be an extremely positive thing would say ‘Look how vibrant New York is, it’s electric, it’s a wonderful place to spend time.’ ”

But even residents in say, Madrona, do want the benefits of density.

“They want to walk to a coffee shop. They want to have a little neighborhood grocer. They want these little neighborhood centers. That only happens with a certain amount of density … there are real benefits to density, from the retail and convenience and the quality-of-life things that come along with a city.”

Born points out that density doesn’t need to look like downtown. He suggests a stroll through some areas of Capitol Hill, one of the densest parts of Seattle.

“There are these old, beautiful brick walk-ups, there may be four stories, garden apartments at the lowest level … the neighborhood fabric is wonderful. You can walk to the grocery store, there are parks nearby — that’s some of the densest stuff in the city, and it doesn’t feel overwhelming. It’s very human-scale.”

The densest part of Capitol Hill packs in about 55,000 people per square mile — comparable to Greenwich Village in New York.

When density is done right, Born says, it gives people more of what they like, and less of what they don’t like, in their neighborhood — but he recognizes that hasn’t always happened in Seattle. In Ballard, for example, there are so many new projects they’ve changed the character of the neighborhood.

No matter what, newcomers will continue pouring into Seattle. With our strong economy and high quality of life, “It’s an incredible place to be,” Born said. And we’ll have to accommodate the increasing density to keep the city remotely affordable. “If people keep coming in and you’re not expanding the housing, then housing is just going to get more and more expensive.”

Despite the recent HALA skirmish, Born thinks a changing of the guard is under way when it comes to density and growth. Step aside, “Lesser Seattle” folks:

“Now there are a lot more people, say, like me — relatively new, urban folks interested in a global city. And I think we might be at that next turn, which is a bunch of folks coming here who are astounded with the housing prices and the lack of high-quality rapid public transit, and with the bad traffic on the freeways, and have a different understanding of what should be.

“We might be at that tipping point.”

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