Save the Yards!


Yesterday, longtime Seattle writer (and my erstwhile colleague) Eric Scigliano published a jeremiad on Crosscut making the case that the city should keep two-thirds of Seattle’s land zoned exclusively for single-family housing because single-family homes have yards, and yards have trees. (Mayor Ed Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda suggests allowing very low-density multifamily housing in 6 percent of the land currently reserved for single-family houses in Seattle; a separate proposal, to allow duplexes and triplexes of the same density currently allowed in single-family zones, was scuttled after neighborhood activists protested that the change would ruin Seattle’s character.)

In short, Scigliano’s argument was that because a majority of the trees in the city are on private property, in part because we haven’t taken good care of our publicly owned trees nor planted enough of them, we need to make sure no new development encroaches on these yards so this privately owned tree canopy can continue to exist.

Once you’ve gathered your jaw off the floor and returned to seated position, I have a few rational responses to this insidious bit of anti-density sleight of hand:

1) As cities like New York make clear, density is not in itself a danger to urban tree cover. (NYC’s tree cover is comparable to Seattle’s despite that city’s vastly greater density).  Allowing two-story, low-density multifamily housing on the edges of current single-family zones, as the HALA plan suggests, does not endanger trees.

2) In fact, density is a far more environmentally sound than exclusionary large-lot single-family zoning, which uses more resources and also forces people into the suburbs when demand outstrips housing supply, as it currently does in Seattle. Suburbs destroy open space and lead to car-dependence, which contributes to the car dependence that’s currently destroying our planet.

3) Privately owned tree cover is maintained only by the private beneficence of private property owners. In other words, the tree canopy is only as good as its owners’ desire to maintain it. In other words, a property owner can chop down just about any damn tree he or she wants. Relying on the altruism of private property owners is a lousy way to make public policy, and (as anyone who’s mourned the loss of a treasured tree or bemoaned the construction of a megamansion next door knows well) often backfires. In contrast, our public urban forest, which is maintained by the city and funded by the taxpayers, can’t be destroyed at a property owner’s whim.

4) Just imagine if single-family exclusionists expended as much time and energy advocating for properly protecting and fully funding the maintenance of Seattle’s publicly owned trees as they do raging against the possibility that they might get more neighbors. Certainly, our public tree canopy wouldn’t be in the dire straits Scigliano describes in his plea to maintain low density in our growing urban area if people cared as much about saving urban forests as they do about maintaining their property values.

And 5) Density opponents forget that the quaint Craftsman cottages on 5,000-square-foot lots they are fighting to protect (because TREES) came at the direct expense of actual forests, which were razed to make all those expansive lawns and private outdoor space possible in the first place.

If erstwhile treehuggers like Scigliano really want to protect and expand the city’s privately owned tree canopy, I’m sure they’ll get behind this modest proposal (h/t Josh Feit): Raze all the city’s driveways (and ban new ones). Think about it: Driveways take up valuable space that could be turned into lovely urban groves, and who could argue that car storage is the highest and best use of potential urban forest? Just imagine all the trees we could plant if property owners just gave up their car storage and contributed (even more than they already do) to Seattle’s critical private urban forest. If my proposal goes through, lawn superfans like Scigliano will probably be able to stop paying any attention at all to Seattle’s struggling publicly owned trees (like the ones homeowners sometimes plant in public planting strips and then forget) and focus exclusively on maintaining the only urban forest that really matters: Beautiful trees on private lawns, preferably behind tall, well-fortified fences.

8 thoughts on “Save the Yards!”

    1. You are also aware that the article you posted is incorrect. I asked for a retraction, because Mr. Scigliano played loose with the facts. He basically took the numbers suggested by an opposition group and published them without doing the research himself. He never did .. oh, what is called .. reporting.

      Look at the second comment. Depending on how you measure it, 62.5% to 64.8% of the city is zoned single family. You can see the references in that comment. Those are numbers published by the city of Seattle. So unless someone is falsifying those numbers up (and no one has even suggested that) then these numbers are accurate.

      It is a stretch to say 2/3 instead of 64.8%? That is a judgement call, but I think it is reasonable. You could say “over 60%” or “roughly 65%” or maybe “5/8”, but “2/3” is very close.

      1. How is this inaccurate? You don’t say.

        ” if you exclude ROWs and open spaces like parks as bungalow-ready, the single-family share only reaches 61 percent. If you exclude parks, open space, lakes, and ROWs from the calculation, single-family zones occupy about 54 percent of Seattle’s potentially developable land. “

      2. @Trevor: What’s the difference between 65% and 54% in the context of this discussion? Both are simply staggering statistics that show how skewed the city is towards single family zoning.

  1. Eric’s goal seems to be to protect the net number of arbors in the world, but doesn’t seem to grasp that humans moving to the area will either live tall or live wide, and the latter has a much worse impact on tree counts than the former.

    But that’s not to say that trees can’t exist along side density – check out NYC’s Greenwich Village. That neighborhood has more trees that Queen Anne. And on the other side, my hometown of Long Island, New York: the ultimate SF sprawl location, has way fewer tree coverage than, say, UQA.

    But you should inform Eric that Prop 1 has a large tree planting program along arterials, and if he and his tree huggers (literally??) care about trees, they should vote for prop 1.

    I’m sure BenS would also point to Hong Kong, where there’s literal untouched wilderness within city limits and like a half hour away from the heart of their downtown. Sprawl like Eric seems to want kills trees!

  2. Well said! There’s nothing worse than people donning the green mantle to fight density. Oh wait–except when they use it to fight low income housing! Thank you for your tireless crusade to get Seattle to walk the talk. Three cheers for HALA!

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