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October 13, 2005

Is Seattle the New Singapore?

That's what mossback Knute Berger argues in his latest Seattle Weekly column.

As near as I can decipher his rantings, Berger thinks that density and gentrification in Seattle are tantamount to becoming a police state in the model of Singapore. Also, houses in the city are unaffordable. And, oh yeah, the University Village is--gasp--basically just a tony shopping mall.

Really, it's hard to know where to begin.

According to Berger, increasing Seattle's density is functionally equivalent to gentrification, which in turn implies Singapore-style law and order:

Proponents argue that the [neo-Victorian] laws work, the streets are safe, and that such rules are necessary for dealing with high urban density. As Seattle floats atop a real-estate bubble that increasingly makes the city affordable mostly to the affluent, we can probably look forward to more laws intended to make the whole town more like Singapore (recycle or else!). That is part of the price of urban gentrification, the signs of which are everywhere.

It's precisely these sorts of hysterics that make it hard for me to take anti-density arguments seriously.

Leaving aside the notion that gentrification may actually be a good thing for a city, it's not at all clear why increasing density would imply gentrification or Singapore-style law and order. It doesn't in, say, Vancouver or San Francisco.

Affordable housing is, I think, a legitimate concern. (Incidentally, that's why Berger's repeated lionization of the suburban Eastside in this column is so puzzling. Housing prices there are higher than in the city, so Berger's affordable housing spleen should presumably be vented there.)

I'll hazard one guess why Seattle's prices are a little lower: density. It's easy to bemoan the high prices in once anemic neighborhoods like Madrona and Mount Baker, but it seems to me that the best remedy for high demand and high prices is, well, more supply. The only (slim) hope of keeping Seattle's single-family neighborhoods even moderately affordable is to create an array of other housing choices.

I could go on and on about this week's column. Speaking as a mossback myself (though younger than Berger), I too often miss the "old Seattle," a quiet and unpretentious place with a character all its own. But time does not stop and cities are by nature dynamic. I wish Berger would quit gnashing his teeth and start using his column more constructively--perhaps finding ways to preserve the best features of the old place while we're trying to build something even better.

(Okay, okay, one last jab: Berger's flippant Singapore-bashing is awfully ill-informed. While Singapore is not a good model for liberal Western democracies, it's impossible to understand the place without reference to its geopolitical context and history. That is to say, it's a damn sight better than anything else in southeast Asia. Oppression comes in many guises and Singapore has managed to avoid the oppressive evils of poverty, race-riots, and Islamic fundamentalism that are even now wracking its nearest neighbors. The price of Singapore's freedom is government by a rather benign one-party psuedo-democracy that has built a prosperous and peaceful nation on the foundations of education, multiculturalism, and free trade. That and Singaporeans are denied their inalienable rights to litter and vandalize. The horror.)

Posted by Eric de Place | Permalink

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Comments

Well-said about Singapore, Eric.

Singapore truly does need to be understood within the historical context from which it emerged. I lived there from 1989 until 1996. As a woman, I had never felt safer walking around a city, any time of day by myself, than I had in Singapore.

Were Seattle to become more like Singapore, I might even consider moving back to Seattle. Singapore has a Mass Rapid Transit System that is phenomenal!


Posted by: Michelle Parker | Oct 13, 2005 3:51:58 PM

Whoa! I haven't read Berger's column, and I don't know the history (evidently there is some) between you two, but there's a fair amount in this post to raise the hair on the back of my neck.

It's hard to defend a direct causal chain leading from density to gentrification to police-state tactics, if that's what Berger was trying to do. And you are right to call him to account if he was. But there are legitmate concerns about how increased density can proceed without invoking the social evil of gentrification.

To wit: I heartily agree that we should "leave aside the notion that gentrification may actually be a good thing for a city." It's only a "good thing" if you happen to be able to afford living in a gentrified neighborhood. For people struggling to put dinner on the table (which is an increasing number these days, as you know), watching their neighborhood gentrify means their rents (or property taxes) are going to go sky-high, they're more likely to be evicted, and their prospects for moving into comparable housing plummet. Exemplars of this "bad thing" are the Mission District in San Francisco in the late 1990s, or the Central District in Seattle right now.

The challenge is to generate greater density in downtowns without gentrifying those neighborhoods. I imagine that's possible...I hope it is. But it's not entirely obvious to me how, as a casual observer of the world around me.

Rather than ranting against Berger's equation of density with gentrification, I'd like to see an informed and thoughtful debate about how to decouple the two.

Which raises the strong-state problem: if the market trends in the direction of gentrification when there is significant investment in densifying downtown neighborhoods, then does it require an active and intrusive state to prevent it?

Both the gentrification problem and the strong-state problem lead perilously toward the broader question: do markets organize societies fairly?

If so, then how did we get into our current mess? And if not, what then? What does that say about the "free market" system?

Posted by: Sam | Oct 13, 2005 4:02:41 PM

You raise some interesting questions, Sam, that I too would like to see fleshed out further. How to decouple density and gentrification? I'd be curious to know if other commentors have ideas.

Personally, I think the housing-cost effects of adding density are complicated. On the one hand, new construction tends to be pricey (unless supra-market forces are at work) and those prices may act as agent of gentrification. On the other hand, density probably holds down the cost of housing by increasing the supply of options for renting and buying. I would imagine that without the added density of the last 10 years or so, prices would be even higher and there would be even less economic diversity in Seattle's neighborhoods.

It's also worth keeping in mind, I think, that density usually brings with it closer services and better transit infrastructure. Those are certainly goods for people of all economic standing.

I also think the effects of gentrification are pretty complicated and I don't think it is an unalloyed good nor evil. The Central District of 15 years ago was not an altogether healthy place, for example. For one nuanced view, I really enjoyed reading The Stranger's Charles Mudede's take on it:
http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=20859.

As I think Mudede would say, gentrification clearly isn't always good, but it often means better infrastructure, safer neighborhoods, and vitalized commercial and social areas.

Finally, I don't bear Knute a personal grudge--I'm sure he's a very good guy with a passion for the same place that I love. I'm just frustrated by his recent columns. I think he could be much more constructive and less aggressive. But it sounds like I've committed the same sin! Apologies then.

Posted by: Eric de Place | Oct 13, 2005 4:28:09 PM

I agree: I am sure that Knute is a citizen and mows his lawn, but his columns are preposterous.

As to the notion voiced in the comments that we can somehow prevent gentrification (even if we wanted to, which I do not at all) -- sure we can do that: just make it illegal to sell your house for more than you paid.

Posted by: David Sucher | Oct 13, 2005 8:02:43 PM

When Knute says that seattle real estate is floating on top of a bubble, he is exactly right. Increased density is an increasingly good idea considering the wages for the middle class have been lagging for the past thirty years. Density also brings greater efficency and that is something that is lacking in this city. Has Knute ever visited Sinapore? At least he might try to find an example that a average person could understand culturally. Density will lead to greater ownership of condos by middle class people and further increase wealth. Furthermore, Seattle's housing bubble has lately been spurred on by increadibly low intrest rates which are now rising. That should slow barrowing down and calm the raging housing market.

Posted by: Gary Durning | Oct 14, 2005 11:04:25 AM

You make a good point about Knute visiting Singapore, Gary. If he hasn't, then I would suggest he does.

As Eric said, "...[D]ensity usually brings with it closer services and better transit infrastructure. Those are certainly goods for people of all economic standing." Singapore is a role model for both superior transit infrastructure and urban density that works for people of every economic scale. There are no beggars in Singapore.

Singapore has also made a major point of preserving its lush tropical trees, plants, and flowers amongst the urban density. It is admirably known as "The Garden City."

It may be a "far away place," but it has a lot to teach us about living a good life in a clean, healthy, and affordable way.

Posted by: Michelle Parker | Oct 14, 2005 2:09:52 PM

I can never tell, when people complain about 'gentrification', whether they're also complaining about the possibility that the original poor inhabitants get gentrified, earn more, lose their authenticity; or just the possibility that the existing poor get shuffled off somewhere worse.

I can see the justice argument against the latter case, even when there's a utilitarian argument for it. But I know some people with enough nostalgie de la boue that they complain about the *first* possibility. At least they're optimists enough to entertain it...

Posted by: clew | Oct 14, 2005 5:27:50 PM

If this Gentrification can consumer itself to High Purpose and Virtuous Community, ie; sponsering Biodiesel, LEED/Green Built structures/personal & municipal, Voting the right people....Then we will see a Metroplex lead the World into an Example of how to Mentor for the New Age.

Posted by: Fred Hall | Oct 16, 2005 11:40:36 AM

As far as I can tell, the claim that increasing housing density leads to gentrification is bogus. Developers are building upscale high-density housing because they believe there will be a demand for upscale high-density housing in the city center. If there was no such demand, land costs would drop, and more affordable high-density housing could be built.*

I bought a house in the Central District because I value living close to the city center and couldn't afford any other close-in neighborhood. Apparently many others feel the same way. Gentrification is inherent to our culture. No doubt it has it's downside, but let's face it: gentrification is us! The only remedy is to change who we are as a culture, and the first thing that means is allowing more government intervention in the free market. The second needed change, it seems to me, is that somehow people need to become more connected to where they live, so that they think of their house as a home, rather than an investment.

If anyone out there has any clear evidence that the development of high-density housing causes gentrification, please post it. Because as I see it, increasing density in US cities is probably the single most important factor in achieving sustainability, and we need to clear up any misconceptions and get it done.

\dan


*PS: I, for one, am interested to see if there actually is enough demand to justify all the new high-end housing that is currently being built in Seattle. The assumption seems to be an infinite supply of people willing to fork out $4k/month and up for their little box in a high-rise. Wouldn't it be fun if there was a bust, and a teacher could then afford a luxury condo at 2200 Westlake?

Posted by: dan bertolet | Oct 16, 2005 11:58:12 AM

The Achilles Heel of the environmental movement is its dangerous tendency to become about making the good life even better for privileged folks--predominantly white, middle class and well-educated. To me, the moral authority of the environmental movement depends not only on the value of a more sustainable society, but also a more fair society. If we must purchase the former at the expense of the latter, you've lost me completely.

The environmental movement, as it happens, is overwhelmingly populated (in this country, at least) by white, middle class and well-educated folk--people who, by virtue of their cultural conditioning, expect to take leadership roles and establish priorities and values for the movement. It is hardly surprising, then, that the movement leans sharply in the direction of promoting ideas that work best for them.

Gentrification is a perfect example. Gentrification surely increases the beauty and amenities of a neighborhood, and brings with it lower crime rates and better schools. I doubt anyone really waxes poetic about the charms of dilapidated buildings, street-corner drug deals, and inadequate educational opportunities.

But BOTH of these are products of a society that doesn't work for many of its members. The poor have no choice but to live in squalor (because they can't afford the rents and mortgages in better parts of town); and when the squalor is eliminated, the poor are sent packing.

Even amidst the squalor, the people who spend their lives in a particular neighborhood build culturally specific ways of life, social networks and institutions that have enormous value to all who partake in them. Whatever the circumstances, people create *home* wherever they live, particularly if they spend many years (or generations) there.

Oftentimes, gentrification decimates those lifeways by running beloved family enterprises out of business, forcing communities of family and friends to disperse to different parts of town, and flooding the area with a look, feel and population associated with the dominant culture.

Eric's original post, and many of the subsequent comments, seem perfectly oblivious to these painful consequences, which I personally find embarrassing. Nor am I assuaged by the "well, that's just the way the world is, get over it" message. I am unimpressed by the way the world is, and regard its worst evils as a product of bad choices made by all of us collectively. To say we can't make better choices because we *haven't* made better choices strikes me as the worst kind of exercise of futility.

Does density *actually* lead to gentrification? My common sense leads me to think it would, absent strenuous efforts to avoid such results. But one of the things I value about this blog is that the research often proves counter-intuitive. I'm looking to this blog to explore the answer to this key question.

The other question I am hoping to hear more about on these pages: what specific policies would most effectively ensure mixed-income development even as we increase downtown densities? What have other places tried? What worked? What doesn't work?

Posted by: Sam | Oct 17, 2005 10:32:00 AM

Sam, outstanding comment.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 17, 2005 6:50:23 PM

The Achilles Heel of polemicists is their tendency to exaggerate, thereby alienating those whom they hope to convert. Sam, do you really believe it’s fair to say that the environmental movement “leans sharply in the direction of promoting ideas that work for them”? If so, I’ll wager I’m not the only one you’ve lost completely. Yes, it is important to be aware of our biases. And you probably should have added “urban” to your list of typical environmentalist characteristics (which, I suspect, is a bias that resonates with my friend Dan Staley).

I suppose you felt obligated to expound on the negatives of gentrification, Sam. Justifiably so: it’s not as if the problem of gentrification has been a major topic of public discourse for several decades. Oh, and thanks for pointing out that “can’t” and “haven’t” have different meanings. Who knew? And it certainly is reassuring to know that you are unimpressed with the way the world is now!

So sorry! I’ll stop now. We’re all on the same team, I know. But what good’s a blog without a little feisty, good-natured back-and-forth?

Getting back on topic, my previous post was a bit off the mark in that I was arguing in the abstract that gentrification is not causally linked to density. The more concrete issue is that in the US, redevelopment usually _does_ cause gentrification, and for Seattle to increase its density, redevelopment is necessary. But let’s be clear: density itself is not the culprit. Redevelopment at any density is likely to cause gentrification.

One perspective on all this is that if we don’t make our cities more sustainable by increasing their density, then before long there will be very little pie left to divide, equitably or not, and it’s safe to assume that the poor will be hit hardest. Hence, it may be that gentrification would be the lesser of two evils. Cities, like living organisms, either evolve, or they stagnate and whither. And evolution is never painless.

No doubt the Mayor wouldn’t get very far pushing for high-rise apartments in Wallingford, even though 99% of the residents there probably call themselves environmentalists. But the reality is that it simply makes more sense, with respect to sustainability as well as to urban form, to put the density downtown. Pioneer Square area is a particularly appropriate target, seeing as it currently has a housing mix that is unhealthily weighted on the low-income (subsidized) side.

I think most Seattlites would agree that it would be a good thing if future downtown development serves a mix of incomes. Vancouver is the obvious example of how it can be done outside the US. But we are not Canada, and until there is a cultural shift in the US that gives more power to government, equity will be elusive. So perhaps rather than nitpicking about the integrity of environmentalists, those who profess to care about equity would do better to direct their energies toward debunking the myth of the free market.

Posted by: dan bertolet | Oct 19, 2005 12:11:01 AM

Dan, I don't see myself as a polemicist and I don't think what I said ("the movement leans sharply in the direction of promoting ideas that work best for them") was an exaggeration at all. I just happen to think it's, well, true.

And if that loses you (and lots of other people), as you say, it may render me a weak communicator, but it does not necessarily mean that what I'm saying isn't so. It just means you don't want to hear it.

I think it is our unwillingness to wrestle with hard and challenging truths (including, as you rightly suggest, the inherent flaws of the free market system) that lies at the very crux of our dilemma.

Posted by: Sam | Oct 19, 2005 10:45:50 AM

>>Sam, do you really believe it's fair to say that the environmental movement “leans sharply in the direction of promoting ideas that work for them”? If so, I'll wager I'm not the only one you’ve lost completely...to your list of typical environmentalist characteristics (which, I suspect, is a bias that resonates with my friend Dan Staley). <<

First of all, Dan B is a friend of mine and I respect his deep commitment to ameliorating the externalities of the urban environment, and I know his understanding of the built portion of it far, far surpasses mine.

And I agree with Sam that the environmental movement “leans sharply in the direction of promoting ideas that work for them”.

So, let me take this opportunity to tease this out. I hear Sam saying the environmental movement only preaches to the choir. Feel free to correct this interpretation, Sam.

I came up to UW specifically to work on green infrastructure, and how to best relay and exploit the benefits of green infrastructure to a wider public and especially decision-makers. Somehow I became a Planning Director in a small town to try out these ideas in an actual coupled human-ecological system.

Anyway, my work has lead me to conclude that the current incarnation of the environmental movement has, IMHO, serious structural flaws which can be interpreted (esp. by vested interests intent on marginalizing greens) as meaning the environmental movement is seen as a special interest and is being increasingly marginalized.

If we look at the number of environmental policy failures over the past few years, we have to wonder where the influence of the environmental movement went. Almost everywhere you look, past gains are being eroded. I think this is because there is no compelling reason for the average person in Murrica to pay attention to the environment. Everywhere we go, we exist in personal microclimates, separated from the natural world, and the environmental movement has created no compelling vision that resonates, galvanizes and creates action at the average-person level.

There is a debate going on about this right now. I suggest starting here:

http://www.monthlyreview.org/1005jbf.htm

then the galvanizing essay here:

http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005/01/13/doe-intro/index.html#death


As I've said here repeatedly, you don't get action if'n people don't want it. That is my argument on the I-912 comment thread and it is my argument here.

Killer policies don't mean a thing if you can't get them implemented, and when the folks with the land think some urban yuppie wearing black knows better than they do then the battle is lost before it even started.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 20, 2005 8:16:37 AM

A humble request to those who are concerned that the environmental movement has a “tendency to become about the making the good life better for privileged folks”: Could you please give some examples? For instance, do you think Northwest Environment Watch is guilty of “lean[ing] sharply in the direction of promoting ideas that work best for them?” I don’t, but I’d be interested to hear other opinions.

Posted by: dan bertolet | Oct 20, 2005 11:11:52 PM

The recent immigration debate that divided the Sierra Clubbers comes immediately to mind, Dan, but the link I provided to the essay "The Death of Environmentalism" (my 'galvanizing essay' above) provides the background and context for this issue.

Posted by: Dan Staley | Oct 21, 2005 2:44:48 PM