maximizing inclusion while responding to change in Seattle

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Now that Mayor Ed Murray has shifted Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) priorities away from changes to single-family zones and back toward Seattle’s traditional focus on density and urban village or urban centers, it strikes me, based on 30 years of experience, that the real work has barely begun.

Writing now from a world of detached simplicity, while on vacation—far away from my hometown’s bombastic debate—I am benefiting from the gestalt of reflection. Suddenly, I remember simpler, yet similar times 25 years ago, and have some cautionary tales to tell about human nature amid the specter of change.

Click here for the rest of today’s essay in Seattle’s Crosscut.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

why the zoning debate in Seattle has lacked ‘first principles’

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In all my years as a Seattle native, I’m not sure I have seen as passionate a debate as the current discourse about the past and future of single-family zoning in this city. Several articles and opinion pieces, in Crosscut and other media, have attempted to dissect one issue identified in the Mayor’s Housing and Livability Agenda Report released last week that single-family zoning in Seattle may have exclusionary roots. At issue is HALA’s potential rebranding of such zoning designations to “low-density,” aimed at rectifying history and allowing for more diverse housing types.

I fear that this debate will rob Seattle of its creative potential to solve the affordable housing crisis. We cannot let that happen, and vilifying HALA’s ideas without a broader perspective risks just that.

Click here for the rest of my guest opinion in Seattle’s Crosscut.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

revisiting sustainable housing, politics and a basic pride of place

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In Seattle, the recent recommendations of the Mayor’s Housing and Livability Agenda (HALA) Advisory Committee have dominated civic discussion, particularly a small part of the HALA report that emphasizes more flexible housing types in single-family neighborhoods (e.g mother-in-law apartments and detached accessory dwelling units).

To some of Seattle’s mainstream media, images such as the one above—depicting a longstanding triplex in a Seattle residential neighborhood—are forgotten. Instead, Rome is burning, or, perhaps, with subconscious memory of the changes brought by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, drastic change stands looming from the brown lawns of the historic heat wave of 2015.

In response, here is a timely republication of a post from last October, that also appeared in the Huffington Post, and, as digested, in Planetizen.

I began with a core question, and answer, about where and how we live: “What do the politics of urban housing have to do with a seasonal caravan park in Provence? For me, the answer is clear. Our political discussions, mired in jargon and positioning, often lose sight of a human pride of place inherent in even the simplest forms of shelter.”

Please read on.


A major American urban theme, today, addresses the challenge of maintaining housing affordability, and determining who should pay to insure available residences close to work and necessary services. Other themes include scrutiny of residential configurations, and debates over how small is too small for today’s dwelling unit size. In Seattle, various stakeholders, from elected officials to developers and nonprofits, continue jousting over an arguably not-ready-for-prime-time housing linkage proposal and new limitations on the size of micro-housing units. A new Advisory Committee will attempt a varied tool-based cure [as of October, 2014].

I recently keynoted a Seattle housing non-profit’s annual breakfast. There, I had to answer a big question: What, exactly, is affordable housing? My answer simply stated that people need affordable access to the sought-after elements of urban life. To paraphrase, people need affordable access to homes of whatever size and shape that they can take pride in.

When people take pride in where they live, their homes’ appearance shows a bonding with the place, often with considered ingenuity.


This ingenuity is clear at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue (a 53 year-old caravan park near Fréjus, France). From the Domaine, I asked myself last month, why not focus on how to see and decode the expressions of people’s pride in and around the walls and ceilings that protect them?

I am talking about the basic decorator and landscaper within us all, our human tendency to create a sense of comfort with the outside world so that we blend more easily with where we live.


The Domaine du Pin de la Lègue is, in American terms, a seasonal manufactured housing community. Some stay almost all year but most people are in residence for short vacations. Either way, there are a range of services nearby, including a grocery store, a produce store, a butcher and deli, a hairdresser, restaurants and more. There’s an outdoor cinema, tennis courts, a lending library, several pools, boules (or pétanque) and plenty of summer events.

Most importantly, there is the pride of place surrounding the small living spaces in the homes all around, from clever retrofits to landscaping and rockeries befitting the best of single-family neighborhoods.


On a stroll, this pride is clear throughout the Domaine, where caravans become palaces amid dignified grounds. In the ways called for among some urban redevelopment movements today, small-scale innovation is on display—it’s a locale where the plot-based, lean and pop-up urbanism movements of the United Kingdom and the United States merge with some admirable diversity.

Admittedly, it’s more campground than the best of Paris, and that’s really the point, as the illustrations here make clear. But unlike a campground, the surroundings are not disassembled. Rather, like a neighborhood, the homes become nurtured, planted around, and modified in functional ways.


People don’t need expensive building materials, identities or complex regulatory tools to find a pride of place. Rather, we carry with us the ability to mine pride from place, even in places that are, perhaps, least expected to shine.

Images composed by the author in Seattle, and at the Domaine du Pin de la Lègue, outside Fréjus, France. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

using ‘plot-based urbanism’ to reclaim the basic unit of the city



In recent years, urbanists have decried suburban developments on large greenfield properties in favor of a return to diverse, close grain urban fabrics. This granular form of development once served as the foundation for pre-automobile streets and town centers. Increasingly, urban designers, town planners, academics, community organizations and governments worldwide now seek more sustainable approaches to contemporary placemaking.

This move towards urban sustainability is old news. But, exploration of paths forward continues at many levels and under many urbanism monikers—from “new” to “landscape” to “tactical” and more. Late last month in Glasgow, I had the opportunity to learn about another urbanism moniker, “plot-based urbanism”, based on diverse, solution-based perspectives in the United Kingdom (UK).

Plot-based urbanism is best known in the UK, based on work by Sergio Porta, Ombretta Romice et al. at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow and notable contributions by several UK practitioners.  Plot-based urbanism returns to first principles of city-building, and underscores the fundamental importance of the plot in sustainable urban development over time. Specifically, the approach derives from historic traditions of placemaking, fosters staged growth, mixed land uses, minimizes adverse economic risks, encourages informal participation, and respects local culture.


At the University of Strathclyde on October 27 and 28, the University’s Urban Design Studies Unit (UDSU) assembled leading voices in the plot-based urbanism dialogue, to move towards practical implementation and greater collaboration in research, practice and policy. I was honored to keynote the Summit, organized by Alessandra Feliciotti and J. Alexander Maxwell, as a Visiting Scholar at the University. For me, this was a tremendous opportunity, given the American tendency (and often economic necessity) to aggregate land for urban redevelopment.

The discussion was diverse and interdisciplinary, and ranged from academic concepts to potential practical principles, as shown in the brief summary below (compiled and adapted from the Summit abstracts submitted by the speakers). It was clear that a return to basics evoked different issues for each summit participant, with varying perspectives presented on how a plot-based approach could enhance different urban development issues and scenarios going forward.

Keynote address: Returning to the first principles of urbanism

Charles R. Wolfe, Principal, Attorney at Law, Seattle, Washington, USA


There are basic similarities among placemaking, plot-based urbanism, and other contemporary “urbanisms”; however, the underlying rationales for urban policy, planning and regulation are best understood from a historical perspective and in a better understanding of the everyday uses of urban space. In order to create vibrant, sustainable urban areas for the long-term, we must first understand what happens naturally when people congregate in cities—innate, unprompted interactions of urban dwellers with each other and their surrounding urban and physical environment, also known as “urbanism without effort“.

First Panel

Recalibrating the plot for mixed-use buildings

Jonathan Tarbatt, John Thompson & Partners, London, UK

Plot size and traditional close-grain vertically mixed-use building typologies (‘living over the shop’) are essential to plot-based urbanism. To be viable in today’s market, new mixed-use plots must be configured so that the resultant buildings are able to meet modern standards and expectations. This configuration is more complicated for mixed-use plots than for single uses, because to design something with no detail – a plot – it is necessary to know, or at least anticipate, all the detail.

The Popular Home Initiative using plot-based approaches

Kelvin Campbell, Urban Initiatives, London, UK

The Popular Home Initiative focuses on the stumbling blocks to housing recovery in the UK and explores inroads into the delivery of medium density family housing based on a plot-based urbanism approach. With a lack of both finance and new ideas to solve the problem, we face a serious challenge—one than cannot be entirely solved by using old models. Housing is not about the products of high design; it is about the good “normal”, and we have lost sight of what this means and urgently need to discover our new urban vernacular.


Second Panel

Urban regeneration in Glasgow through plot-based development: The Botany, Maryhill

Gordon Barbour, Glasgow Housing Association, Glasgow, UK

Glasgow’s population is expected to grow significantly in the next 25 years, after decades of decline. At the same time it has, as a legacy of population loss and economic change, a large amount of well-located urban land lying vacant or derelict, most of which is publicly owned. With limitations on the construction of both subsidized social housing, and housing for sale by private enterprise, conventional methods themselves will not be enough to prevent displacement of future housing development to greenfield sites on the urban periphery. A plot-based approach might offer the means to unlock the housing development potential of much of this vacant land in the city.

Control and Transitional Edges: Towards a socio-spatial morphology for plot-based urbanism

Kevin Thwaites, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

A new urban spatial structure called the ‘transitional edge’ seeks to connect social sustainability and human well-being. John Habraken’s discussion about the structure of the ordinary built environment is combined with spatial concepts from Experiential Landscape research to form an analytical framework. The resultant ‘transitional edge’ spatial structure provides an important conceptual thread reconnecting social and spatial dimensions of urban form to inform planning and design decision-making for urban sustainable living.

Plot-based urbanism: Experiences in developing countries and UN-Habitat’s latest activities

Salvatore Fundaró, UN-Habitat, Nairobi, Kenya

Cities face an enormous backlog of services and housing. There is indeed an urban planning crisis: the unplanned city is largely inefficient and requires increasing resources to make it more functional and livable. In order to further advance innovations, UN-Habitat proposes: (1) planning in advance of population increase and leveraging plans for revenue creation through value capture; (2) planning at the scale of the problem, particularly the projected growth of the urban population; (3) planning incrementally, starting with streets and following with water and sanitation, drainage, energy and lighting, transport, etc.; (4) planning for density and mixed land use; (5) providing urban networks for sustainable mobility and sustainable energy.


Third Panel

Town centers and the power of plot-based change

Diarmaid Lawlor, Architecture and Design Scotland, Edinburgh, UK

Town centers fit the ‘too hard’ box: too hard to understand, too complex to manage, too small to matter. The big economic narrative of place is about cities, and their regions. In this, towns are part of the story of other places.

Imagine though, the town center as a set of fixed spaces which can be re-purposed, plot by plot, in clusters, and along streets. A massive civic estate, a place with its own story. Imagine the town center as a place for public service collaboration, small and medium enterprise, new forms of participation, creative uses of space, new reasons to be. Imagine town centres as the best way to deliver collaborative public services, in places people want to be, in ways that matter.

Grow your own Garden City plot-by-plot

David Rudlin, Urbanism Environment and Design (URBED), Manchester, UK

URBED first referenced plot based urbanism in the late 1970s, when they developed the idea of ‘balanced incremental development’. In their book, Sustainable Urban Neighbourhood, first published in 1999, they explored the idea of the trellis and vine. According to URBED, the trellis is the master plan and the vine is the city that grows on the framework created by the plan. URBED suggested that the way to create a good place was to draw a plan, divide it into small plots, auction the plots and allow development of each plot with no rules whatsoever. This of course was a “ridiculous” idea that could never happen, except that it is the method by which our most admired urban areas were originally built.


Looking to the future and preliminary lessons learned

A Summit summary report, available soon, will set the stage for a follow-up summit in 2015. This report will set an agenda for future discussions and more practical implementation of plot-based urbanism.

As a preliminary matter, like all attempts to summarize approaches to city-building, Day 1 of the Summit provided varying, sometimes disconnected perspectives. However, after a moderated conferral on Day 2, the Summit established that:

  • Contemporary placemaking often fails to deliver longer-term sustainable, liveable urban environments.
  • The design of plots, blocks, and master plans must allow for urban change over time by establishing  context-specific, fundamental frameworks for urban development.
  • Unlike other parts of the world (e.g., Austria, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Norway and the United States), housing development in the UK is provided by only a handful of developers. This raises questions about power of large-scale developers and the role of land use regulation and local municipalities in incentivizing more diversity.
  • The ideas inherent in plot-based urbanism have potential in both regeneration and new-built projects, in both more developed and less developed countries.
  • There is a need for more collaboration between research and practice and between practice and policy in order to implement plot-based urbanism on a meaningful scale in order to affect change.

(Thanks to J. Alexander Maxwell, Fulbright-University of Strathclyde Postgraduate Research Scholar, for his contributions to this article.)

the once and future street, and how it defines us

A week’s residency in Glasgow, Scotland returns a 2011 essay to the forefront, and its message: In the post-freeway world, recall the important, organic landscape of neighborhood, towers and spires, lost before we can remember.




Among the more memorable aspects of my professional residence in Glasgow, Scotland this week are the readily ascertainable contexts of different streets from different eras. Dramatic contrasts emerge in a walk west from the remains of the historic, medieval High Street, across the pedestrian shopping promenades of Buchanan and Sauchiehall Streets, to the channeled traffic and amplified sounds of the M8 motorway system that transformed Charing Cross.

It’s a walk worth taking, as shown above, for a ready reference to the ebb and flow of the urban land use and transportation relationship over time.

Most importantly, this walk from High Street to the M8 provided new relevance for some of my earlier essays. While written for general applicability, the one reproduced below (posted both here and in The Atlantic in September, 2011) seems particularly relevant.


Some of the best thoughts about tomorrow’s urbanism come from yesterday’s observations.

A case in point is a quick-read essay entitled “The Discovery of the Street,” by J.B. Jackson (1909-1996), one of the twentieth century’s most noted commentators on the American landscape.

Jackson tells us what is organic, wondrous and ethereal about life in cities, through a bittersweet history of public space, from medieval markets to the modern freeway.

No matter that the Jackson piece is “legacy” in form and only partially internet-accessible (preview here in Glazer and Lille, The Public Face of Architecture). Jackson’s classic writing spins a most relevant story, an ambiguous tale about the raison d’être of today’s urbanism: reclaiming the human and natural systems which underlie the city, as first principles of urban reemergence from within, rather than sprawl to afar.

According to Jackson, likely writing in the 1970’s, the symbol of the modern city is a collection of streets as seen from above, a mere “cartographic abstraction” of implied richness, because the bird’s-eye relationship between public byways and private space is how we now understand urban areas. In contrast, Jackson described the foundational and compact, vertical city of towers amid a landscape perceived by the medieval resident of long ago—who did not need to understand public streets and spaces—while living a straightforward human and animal-propelled life of short journeys to work, church, market and neighbors.

The medieval, vertical city, however imperfect, was represented by a idealized symbol of the divine (a religious construct), “miniature versions of a celestial prototype: a walled city divided by two intersecting streets into four quarters.”

Jackson’s essay came to mind in my recurring legal work over the past few years addressing responsibility for environmental cleanup and the nature of public and private ownership as related to highways, arterials, streets and alleys, and associated advocacy about who is fiscally responsible for assuring public safety adjacent to private places. I had consulted his work frequently long ago, in the context of my Master’s thesis and a later book chapter I wrote on neighborhood planning, summarized here.

His masterful narrative focuses on the 11th century, and how laws, which once regulated classes of people (e.g. feudal lords, citizens, traders and merchants), evolved to regulate places. From the dawn of the geographically delineated, regulated marketplace through the evolution of transportation technology, advances such as the harnessing of multiple horses and pivoted front wagon axle resulted in the surrounding city taking on a different shape. Jackson recounts how forms of public assembly further developed, and streets and squares changed to accommodate both commerce and necessary vehicular space. Land became a commodity as lots to be created, measured and and taxed, with buildings to be designed and regulated:

Almost at once the town authorities recognized the street as a versatile tool for exerting control. In one town after another ordinances regulated the height of buildings, the pitch of their roofs, even their design, which had to be suited to the social standing of the occupants. City building plans were detailed… In the additions to existing towns the dimensions of the lot were prescribed, and all houses were taxed on the basis of frontage. The fact that each house owned half the width of the street in front of it encouraged each business or each household to expand its activities on to the street and to use the space for its convenience. As a consequence the civic authorities legislated questions of health and safety….

People learned to perceive a new kind of public space where previously there had merely seen a succession of alleys and passageways, a crooked interval between houses. Now they discovered a continuous space with a quality—and eventually a name—of its own…

The main point for invoking Jackson today, is that in order to achieve a successful city—a place of congregation in the social science, rather than religious sense—we must understand the backstory of organic human association. We must further honor Jackson’s inquiry as to why stones and huts—density based on human association and interdependence—evolved into public and private spaces with the associated loss of a human scale.

As his essay concludes:

It was in this tentative and almost unconscious manner that the street in our European-American model began a career that became increasingly spectacular and then culminated in the freeway. Imperceptively and over many generations our vision of the city shifted from the cluster of towers and spires to the perspectives of avenues and streets and uniform-sized lots. The celestial model, never easy to discern in the dark medieval spaces among stone walls and crowded huts, has been at last forgotten; the map, the diagram, the coordinates are what help us to make sense of the city [emphasis added].

In my view, Jackson’s subtle synopsis ends with an ironic, yet nostalgic judgment of a milquetoast, mapped reality, He implies missed opportunities to create more ideal, scaled spaces which look across and upward rather than down from above.

Jackson might have spoken more directly, but, in my opinion, he invoked a laudable, now familiar challenge to the post-freeway world—to recall the importance of the organic landscape of neighborhood, towers and spires lost before we can remember.

Images composed by the author in Glasgow. Prior photos also composed by the author in Seattle and in Fayence and Annecy, France. Click on the images for more detail. © 2009-2014 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.