Tag: Futurewise

Alex Brennan: Pandemic Shows that Density Isn’t the Problem, It’s the Solution

By Alex Brennan, Futurewise

During normal times, the case for moving into an efficient apartment in a dense urban neighborhood close to work, instead of a suburban house with a long commute, is compelling and logical.  For starters, the short commute means valuable extra time at home.

Meanwhile: You don’t need your own private yard because you can walk to the park. You don’t need a big apartment because the coffee shop down the block is an extension of your living room. Being out and about in the neighborhood is part of what makes urban life great. You run into people you know, and you come across all sorts of people you don’t know.

But now the coffee shop is takeout only. Crowded streets and parks require a masked, distancing dance, especially for elders or others at high risk. And for those of us who have switched to virtual work from home (it’s important to remember that many essential workers must still commute), we are now stuck in that apartment. Maybe we squeezed in a little work desk next to our bed or added it on to the kitchen table, but that roomy house an hour from the suddenly shuttered downtown office suddenly looks a lot more appealing.

Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions.

Since the pandemic upended our lives in March, people have been asking me if (or in many cases telling me that) the pandemic portends the end of cities and density. And I get it. Living in the city right now is hard. The pandemic surfaces old associations between cities and disease. And there are some signs in New York and San Francisco that those who can afford to move are leaving for the suburbs.

I’m not here to predict the future, but I can tell you I’m not giving up on density. To explain why, I think it’s important to start by clarifying what is not happening.

First, density is not increasing your chances of getting COVID. In King County, for example, the densest zip codes have the lowest positive test rates and some of the lowest death rates. Globally, some of the densest cities in the world—Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei—are models for preventing the spread of the pandemic. (The concentration of top medical facilities certainly helps.)

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Second, we are not experiencing the end of agglomeration economies, the enigmatic force that brings businesses and jobs closer together. Will some jobs stay virtual? Sure. But the core innovative industries that drive our economy thrive on in-person interactions. Amazon just leased another two million square feet of office space and announced they will have 25,000 jobs in downtown Bellevue by 2025—right across from the soon-to-open downtown Bellevue light rail station. Facebook just snatched up the headquarters office that REI let go—adjacent to the soon-to-open Spring District light rail station. And while perhaps struggling at the moment, Boeing isn’t going to start building airplanes on Zoom.

Beyond unpacking misperceptions about disease and jobs, it is important to think about the lessons we’re learning from the pandemic, the recovery that we want, and the important role dense, mixed-use, walkable cities can play.

Protecting rural areas. It might seem counterintuitive, but urbanism starts with respect for rural lands.  Remember the first time after lockdown that you left your home and went for a hike in our beautiful mountains? Remember what a blessing it was to have the great outdoors so close? Building up in the city allows us to protect our wild places and our working farms and forests. If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Climate Change.  The pandemic has taught us that we need to be better prepared for shocks, and there is no bigger shock coming than climate change. Are you angry that our leaders let our public health infrastructure waste away in good times? Well you should be furious about our inadequate efforts to mitigate and prepare for climate change. This year’s toxic smoke is only the beginning if we don’t act now.

If we all take our virtual jobs and move to the countryside, it won’t be the countryside anymore. It will just be another suburb.

Dense communities are one of the best tools for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation (Washington State’s largest source of emissions) by shortening travel distances and encouraging walking, biking and transit over driving alone. Dense cities also allow us to grow without building suburbs out on the forest’s edge, reducing human exposure to the destruction of climate-exacerbated forest fires.

Health. That increase in walking, biking, and transit, over sitting in the car, improves outcomes for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. Those two conditions also happen to be two of the biggest risk factors of dying from COVID-19. But it’s not just about COVID, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the US (diabetes is the seventh) and both ailments diminish the quality of life of millions more. Dense, walkable urban neighborhoods that incorporate physical activity into daily life are a big part of the cure.

Cost savings. When the pandemic is over, governments and households are both going to have a lot of debt. Density is part of how we can have a great quality of life and save money. Dense development cuts down on infrastructure costs, requiring fewer miles of roads and water, sewer, electrical, and internet lines. Density makes fire, ambulance, and other response-time-based services more efficient. That translates into lower taxes or better services (take your pick).

For households, less driving reduces the second biggest household cost, transportation. And while density alone cannot solve our housing affordability crisis, when land is expensive, more efficient use of land reduces building costs.

Reviving Main Streets. Density isn’t just about the big city, it’s also important for small towns. Right now, locally owned small businesses are struggling more than ever. The foot traffic that they thrive on has been decimated by COVID-19. If we let these places continue to be replaced by online shopping and big box stores out by the interchange, our small towns will lose their heart, their sense of place, and their tax base. Allowing second-story apartments above shops, and duplexes and triplexes nearby, can help bring back the foot traffic that Main Streets need to compete.

Public life. Let’s return to where we started. During normal times, dense neighborhoods are places of community and connection, places to run into friends on the sidewalk or at the coffee shop, places for festivals and marches. Right now, unfortunately, we can’t enjoy being with other people this way, and that is hard. But I believe, after the isolation of the pandemic, we will emerge more hungry for public life than ever before.

The United States of America has the lowest-density cities in the world. This isn’t because we harbor a Jeffersonian love for the suburbs. It’s because federal policies like the interstate highway act and the VA and FHA home mortgage programs have promoted sprawl for decades. Local policies also play a role: It remains true today that most low-density development in Washington State would not be financially feasible if impact fees reflected the true cost of the associated infrastructure. At the same time, single family neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs would be transitioning to duplexes, townhomes, and lowrise apartments if the zoning allowed for it.

When the COVID-19 pandemic ends, we will need to rebuild our country. Will we continue the policies of suburban bias that has guided the last 70 years or will we learn new lessons from the pandemic and create a more urban future?

Alex Brennan is the Executive Director at Futurewise. The organization’s current campaign, Washington Can’t Wait, is fighting to build more climate-resilient, equitable and affordable communities by strengthening the Washington State Growth Management Act. 

Morning Crank: Incongruous With Their Fundamental Mission

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1. For years, environmental advocates who support urban density as a tool against sprawl have grumbled about the fact that the anti-sprawl nonprofit Futurewise has two men on its board who make a living fighting against the foundational principles of the organization—attorneys Jeff Eustis and David Bricklin. Both men were ousted from the Futurewise board last month after the board voted to impose term limits on board members, who will be limited to no more than three successive terms from now on.

Both Eustis and Bricklin are crossways with Futurewise on a number of high-profile local issues, including the question of whether Seattle should allow more people to live in single-family areas, which occupy 75 percent of the city’s residential land but house a shrinking fraction of Seattle’s residents. Eustis is currently representing the Queen Anne Community Council, headed by longtime anti-density activist Marty Kaplan, in its efforts to stop new rules that would make it easier to build backyard cottages and basement apartments in single-family areas. Bricklin represents homeowner activists working to stop the city’s Mandatory Housing Affordability plan, which would allow townhouses and small apartment buildings in  7 percent of the city’s single-family areas.

To get a sense of how incongruous this work is with Futurewise’s primary mission, consider this: Futurewise is one of the lead organizations behind Seattle For Everyone, the pro-density, pro-MHA, pro-housing group. Bricklin co-wrote an op/ed in the Seattle Times denouncing MHA and calling it a “random” upzone that fails to take the concerns of single-family neighborhoods into account.

Bricklin’s firm also represents the Shorewood Neighborhood Preservation Coalition, a group of homeowners who have protested a plan by Mary’s Place to build housing for homeless families on Ambaum Blvd. in Burien on the grounds that dense housing (as opposed to the existing office buildings) is incompatible with their single-family neighborhood. The Burien City Council approved the upzone, 4-3, after a heated debate this past Monday night at which one council member, Nancy Tosta, suggested that instead of allowing homeless families to live on the site, the city should preserve it as office space, since “part of the way of dealing with homelessness is to have people make more money.”

Bricklin is still on the boards of Climate Solutions, the Washington Environmental Council, and Washington Conservation Voters.

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2. Seattle City Council members reached no resolution this week on a proposal from the mayor’s office to approve the city’s purchase of GrayKey, a technology that enables police to easily (and cheaply) unlock any cell phone and review its contents, including location data, without putting the technology through a privacy assessment under the city’s stringent surveillance ordinance. If the city determines that a technology is a form of surveillance, the city has to prepare a surveillance impact report that “include[s]  an in-depth review of privacy implications, especially relating to equity and community impact,” according to the ordinance. The process includes public meetings, review by a special advisory group, and approval by the council at a meeting open to the public. In contrast, technologies that intrude on privacy but aren’t considered surveillance only require a “privacy impact analysis” that is not subject to formal public process or council approval. Previous examples of technologies the city has deemed to be surveillance include license-plate readers (used to issue traffic tickets) and cameras at emergency scenes.

The city’s IT department, which answers to the mayor, determined that GrayKey is not a “surveillance technology” after the company submitted answers to a list of questions from the city suggesting that the technology would only be used if the Seattle Police Department obtained a warrant to search a person’s phone. In an email appended to that report, Seattle’s chief privacy officer, Ginger Armbruster, wrote, “If phones are acquired either under warrant or with suspect[‘]s knowledge then this is not surveillance by ordinance definition.” In other words, Armbruster is saying that as soon as SPD gets a warrant to break into someone’s phone and scrape their data, the surveillance rules, by definition, no longer apply.

ACLU Technology and Liberty Project Director Shankar Narayan disagrees with this interpretation, noting that the surveillance law doesn’t include any exemption for warrants. “The ordinance is about the entire question of whether it’s an appropriate technology for an agency to have, and encompasses a much broader set of concerns. If the warrant serves the same function as a surveillance ordinance”—that is, if anything the police do after they get a warrant is de facto not surveillance—”then why do we need a surveillance ordinance? The intent of the council was to put scrutiny on technologies that are invasive—as, clearly, a technology that allows police to open your cell phone and download data about the intimate details of your life is.” It’s the technology, in other words—not how the city claims it will be used—that matters.

The city’s initial privacy assessment is brief and unilluminating. GrayKey skipped many of the city’s questions, answered others with perfunctory, one-word answers, and followed up on many of the skipped questions with the same all-purpose sentence: “this solution is used for Police case forensic purposes only. ”

Proponents of GrayKey’s technology (and GrayKey itself) say that the police will limit its use to child sexual abuse cases—the kind of crimes that tend to silence concerns about privacy because of their sheer awfulness. Who could possibly object to breaking into the phones of child molesters? Or terrorists? Or murderers? As council member Bruce Harrell, who said he does not consider GrayKey a surveillance technology, put it Tuesday, “No one has a right to privacy when they are visiting child pornography sites.”

The problem is that in the absence of review under the surveillance ordinance, even if police claim they will only use GrayKey to investigate the worst kinds of crimes, there will be no way of knowing how they are actually using it. (Narayan says police departments frequently claim that they will only use surveillance technology to hunt down child molesters, or terrorists, to create political pressure to approve the technology or risk looking soft on crime.) The council can state its preference that the technology be limited to certain types of especially heinous crimes, but if the phone-cracking technology isn’t subject to the ordinance which allows the city council to place legally binding limits on the use of surveillance tools, the decision facing the city is essentially binary: Approve (and purchase) the technology and hope for the best, or don’t.

This is why privacy advocates consider it so important to look at surveillance technology thoroughly, and to give the public real opportunities to weigh in on granting the city sweeping authority to review people’s movements and access their data.  Harrell said Tuesday that he didn’t want to “jump every time the ACLU says [a technology] raises issues,” and that he was confident that additional review by the executive would resolve any questions the council might have. But, as council member Lisa Herbold pointed out, there’s no requirement that the mayor’s office present the results of any future internal privacy assessment to the council—they can run it through a privacy impact assessment, reach the same conclusions they’ve already reached, and post it on the website with all the others without any additional input from the council or the public. The only way to ensure that concerns are daylighted before the city buys this, or any other, technology that could invade people’s privacy is to determine that GrayKey is surveillance, and put it through the process. At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, the council’s governance, equity, and technology committee had made no decision on whether to subject GrayKey to additional scrutiny or wait to see what the mayor’s office does next. The city currently plans to purchase the phone-cracking technology sometime in the third quarter of next year.