A Pyrrhic Victory for Tree Canopy in Wedgwood

Source: Museum of History & Industry, Seattle (MOHAI), via Historylink

by Josh Feit

In a headline-making standoff this summer, residents of the Wedgwood neighborhood were able to thwart a developer who planned to replace a single family home with two three-unit buildings. Under heat from the community, the developer relented and turned one of the planned three-townhouse buildings into a single unit instead, shrinking the number of housing units by a third.

The effort, waged by Wedgwood tree canopy advocates who objected to the developers’ plans to cut down a cedar tree, got an assist from the Snoqualmie Tribe, which weighed in with a letter to the city arguing that the tree was a historic culturally modified tree.

I’m glad the Snoqualmie Tribe got involved in great tree debate. Not because their plea to spare the tree—which Wedgwood activists named Luma—may have helped save the massive cedar, but because it opens the discussion to looking back at what Wedgwood was like a century or more ago. And this is where my disagreement with canopy ideologues starts.

According to HistoryLink, Wedgwood used to be a sylvan paradise of “dense forest” crisscrossed with trails. After the forest was clear-cut, white newcomers transformed the area into farmland and then, in 1941, into a new whites-only neighborhood called Wedgwood. Today, Wedgwood is made up mostly of single-family houses with lawns and zoned “neighborhood residential”—part of the 75 percent of Seattle’s developable land where apartments are banned.

Now that all those trees have been replaced with single-family housing, anti-development voices, such as city council member Alex Pedersen—who tried and failed to drastically expand a new tree protection ordinance by using tree protection as an unsubtle proxy for anti-development rules— present themselves as righteous tree advocates.

I know it’s a gotcha to point out that single-family development is the original anathema of tree cover, but it’s a meaningful gotcha. It reveals the hypocrisy at the core of the NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard) that still governs our city today: Now that I’ve got mine, I’m not going to let anyone else have theirs.



Seattle Daily Times, July 6, 1941

The added irony, and frustration, is that dense development—that is, more units on individual lots, as opposed to one single-family house per lot—ultimately supports more trees in more spaces. For example, if everyone living in Capitol Hill, one of the densest zones in the city (with more than twice as much density—20,000 people per square mile—than Wedgwood) stretched out into single-family living, there would be little room for green spaces like Volunteer Park and the Arboretum that serve the neighborhood. Indeed, Council District 3—with Capitol Hill at is core—has the second highest canopy cover in the city, at 32 percent; the city’s goal is 30 percent citywide.

I live on Capitol Hill. Specifically, I live in a Neighborhood Commercial-55 zone (one of the city’s denser designations, where five-story mixed-use buildings are allowed) and my immediate neighborhood is an emerald wonderland.

Sure, as the 2021 City of Seattle Tree Canopy Assessment Final Report found, “neighborhood residential” (formerly “single-family”) zones had more tree cover (34 percent on average) than multifamily areas (23 percent). But this highlights yet another hypocritical cornerstone of the NIMBY reality. Their roomy neighborhoods leave space for more greenery and tree growth because they rely on multifamily zones to provide an offset. Multifamily zones are packed tight as part of a cohesive zoning plan to work in tandem with the adjacent commercial hubs and transit-friendly arterials. Adding more of these dynamic, walkable housing and commercial hubs to our city’s zoning map would preserve more trees in the long run because it accommodates sustainable growth as opposed to sprawling growth.

In other words, the only reason less dense areas have more canopy is because they’ve confined the kind of development that makes the city workable to a paltry portion of the city as a whole. If our city wasn’t growing and housing wasn’t scarce, this status quo might be sustainable. But as Seattle rapidly approaches a population of 800,000, we need to make more room for more housing adjacent to stores, transit, restaurants, arts, and services. Given that building densely ends up preserving more space for trees, this city needs more multi-family zones, not fewer, if it wants to meet its 30 percent canopy goal.

Using tree canopy as a cover story to prohibit additional density actually threatens existing canopy because growing outward obliterates more trees than it saves. In this context, by saving one tree, but stalling more housing, the tree activists scored little more than a Pyrrhic victory in Wedgwood.

Certainly, two wrongs—knocking down more trees in Wedgwood on top of what we clear-cut a century ago—don’t make a right. But enacting a hardline tree protection ordinance, which now seems to be the conventional takeaway from the Wedgwood tree saga, is also a wrong, and a graver one. Instituting an inflexible prohibition against much-needed housing development is simply a way for people in single-family neighborhoods to reject new residents.

This example—downsizing from six planned units to four—might not seem like a major loss of housing, but if neighborhoods across the city are able to decrease housing developments by a third every time a developer tries to build in-fill multifamily housing, the losses will add up fast.  Conversely, allowing greater housing flexibility in the areas where more new housing is needed—the core idea of YIMBYism (Yes In My Backyard)—would serve the greater good. It would also, ultimately, save more trees.


16 thoughts on “A Pyrrhic Victory for Tree Canopy in Wedgwood”

  1. Here’s an idea that saves, nay IMPROVES the tree canopy and reduces the heat island effect. We build up, easily freeing up some 50~75% of the land area, and plant some trees! We can set aside new parks, trails, play grounds. More housing, AND more green space, sounds like a winning deal to me. Sure it’ll cost in the short term, but isn’t city planning all about long term effects? In a decade or two we (and our new neighbors) will all be enjoying the true, connected green space!

    For some reason I doubt this will pass the neighborhood gatekeepers. Let’s drop the farce. this isn’t really about tree canopy. It’s about people who wants to LARP around as a country cottage dwellers in the middle of one of the fastest growing and in demand city in the US. They slipped by the ever closing gate of home ownership, so it’s time to shut the gate and let the next generation die and rot. Yet another family’s home ownership dream dashed. Sacrificed on the alter of the lawn god.

    1. HB 1110 grants the ability to build four plexes on “neighborhood residential”tracts in Seattle. It’s not zoning holding back more units, it’s cost. And yes to planting more trees.

  2. By using buzzwords and platitudes Josh conveniently avoids the fact that these new townhomes and apartment blocks will most likely be purchased by even more high income white folks. I love Capital Hill and the old brick apartment buildings, walkable zones close to transit, entertainment and parks. It was planned that way, over 50 years ago. Which is ideal today for 20-30 somethings, hipsters, tech workers and students living with roommates. However as Josh is certainly knows, as these buildings are gentrified and upscaled, the current renters are being priced out of the market by unregulated development. Especially by private equity and builders who are literally writing the legislation for the city to rubber stamp, excluding voters, equity advocates and environmentalists from having a say.

  3. When developers cite their projects at Council meetings or in media cite their positive effort towards relieving our housing crisis. We all know their “efforts” are aimed at top 1%. There’s no money in really tackling this problem, building truly affordable housing, you know real people who may be several paychecks until tent encampments.

  4. Those who were adamant about saving the tree should revisit the site after the new house is built and at least once a year for 10-15 years after that. Lots of trees, including those supposedly protected during construction, turn out not to be as protected as they thought, and it can take years for a tree to die from construction injuries.

    We can hope that if Seattle didn’t get two extra housing units, it at least got to keep the tree.

  5. Josh flaunts his own intellectual NIBMY ism: Not In My Binary Yard.
    Development can successfully exist alongside preserving tree canopy and examples abound. But no, that will take some extra intellectual heft. It’s so strange to see this blog’s scriveners, alongside The Stranger’s, show up pro-developer with “give them whatever they want!”. Please do check in with them and ask how much affordable housing they are building, perhaps in particular, you could address affordability of the units on this lot development, then get back to us with your ‘deep dive’.

  6. We’re going to have to lose some trees to densify the way we should. So plant others. But, to me, the whole ruckus is off point because the tree is not particularly worth saving. It’s not that big, not bigger than a bunch of nearby trees and it’s not even “a” tree — it’s two trees grown very close.

    1. How’s about you take your notion of densifying “the way we should” and put it into a chipper shredder along with the many magnificent trees that you so casually dismiss that were torn down to ensure that some developer was able to maximize their profit margin?

      Please see my suggestion to Josh and ECB below – head on out to the suburbs and exurbs and let us all know how tearing down the foliage in Seattle has kept developers from building out there, m’kay?

      1. Are you thinking that your irrelevant point is bolstered by larding it with your condescending colloquialisms, launched from the privacy of your pseudonym? I did see your “suggestion” and thought it was not worth a reply, but since you practically insist, m’kay: Nobody has said that our building policies would affect theirs. Should we do the wrong thing because they are?

      2. New Urbanists are condescending and dismissive to anyone who dares question their dogma and/or sees the world differently – I choose to respond in-kind.

        We’re not going to have the conversation you think I should have.

        Suck it up, buttercup.

  7. This author is conveniently ignoring the south end where most of our city’s “YIMBY” development has happened – this has displaced many BIPOC communities and exacerbated the heat island phenomenon of lost tree cover. Preservation of Luma was backed by local tribes. We all know pure economics accounts for why District 4 doesn’t see many new housing units – land is expensive. Taking a dig at the pro-tree crowd is disingenuous.

    Why does “Yes in my Backyard” go after other neighborhoods’ backyards? Capitol Hill is lovely and very well set up for the density they love – fixed public transportation, amenities, and most importantly the pro-density residents!

    1. Because YIMBYs are really YIYBYs. Yes in your back yard. Their back yard will magically never be ideal for the project/housing/whatever. But yours will always be, by sheer coincidence. It’s about looking good, not actually caring about the environment or world.

    1. I recommend that Josh and ECB go in on a one-day car rental (I usually use Enterprise when I’m on vacation, and they have a Capitol Hill location) and drive on out to Newcastle, Maple Valley, Bothell, and any number of other places in the greater King/Pierce/Snohomish region and get back to us all about how Seattle taxpayers and residents are gonna save the suburbs and exurbs from themselves….

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