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Planning Not to Plan: Seattle’s Planning Zen

Sep 01, 2009

by Roger Valdez, Sightline Institute

The best urban plan is no plan at all. The statement is kind of like a Zen koan, those pithy, dissonant little statements, stories or questions like “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The koan is intended to jolt our cognitive mind into a more enlightened state.

Here’s another koan from the zen master himself, Yogi Berra, an improvement on my poor attempt: “If the world was perfect it wouldn’t be.” Planning should create perfection. On the other hand (the one not clapping), perhaps trying to achieve perfection in our cities is likely going to lead us to imperfection. Think Cheesecake Factory or Buca di Beppo, places that seem to be one of a kind but are truly perfect duplicates of a model, stamped out in city after city.

So what does a city without a plan look like? Take a look at my favorite Seattle microcosm, 14th Ave East on Capitol Hill from the edge of Volunteer Park to Mercer Street.


A walk down 14th leads you from mansions (left) to low income high rise (right) in less than a mile with everything (fourplexes, single family, multifamily) in between.

We know what happened after World War II. People began to sprawl and aided by subsidized highways and cheap gasoline started to divide their worlds. Home, work, park and entertainment were all different worlds, miles apart joined by ribbons of highway. The plan then was to keep things separate. Indeed zoning itself was a plan to keep the pig out of the parlor. Now, oddly, we’re trying to bring the pig back inside (see Farmadelphia). And the idea of zones seems counterintuitive to the idea that people want and can have everything—home, work, park, entertainment, farmer, market—all within a walk or bus ride of each other.

From Farmadelphia

So here is the plan. Let’s begin the process of letting our single family neighborhoods do what they did before zoning took off after World War II. Let’s bring back the corner store, small lots, back yard cottages and a mix of housing types and materials. A sustainable city plan would be molded around human needs and interactions with nature rather than lines on a map. Essentially we need to look back rather than forward for our plan.

Easier said than done, it is true. Seattle is trying with efforts to diversify single family (Northwest EcoBuilding Guild Livable Walkable Project) and to save the town home (Congress of Residential Architects Townhouse Proposals). These efforts need more support from neighborhoods and planning professionals in the months ahead as Seattle tries to match its rhetoric with its land use policies.

Sheep on white house lawn c.1917

One Comment

  1. “A sustainable city plan would be molded around human needs and interactions with nature rather than lines on a map.”

    very cool, check out the work of kathy wolf, urban forest guru at UW, regarding the “ergonomics of the city”

    cheers, nate