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.
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.