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.