Where to begin?

People new to thinking about urban zoning and land use policies ask me where to begin… and this is an incredibly complex question.

I seek out connection to people who are activists in multiple spaces. By the time they are asking me this question I have to honor their previous learned and experienced knowledge of cities. These days I primarily focus on interacting with womxn and non-binary folks that want to learn about land use.

In a general sense…

  • public health leaders understand how our well being is linked to walkable communities
  • bicycle and pedestrian advocates understand that transit infrastructure often mirrors patterns of development but it can also precede and determine where new people have access to live
  • affordability and renters rights advocates are passionate about understanding the root causes of physical and economic displacement
  • anti-poverty and houseless advocates are correctly frustrated at the lack of resources for public housing and are driven by a strong moral sense that housing is a human right
  • policy makers understand the extent to which every issue is interrelated and issues become overly compartmentalized which unfortunately leads to counterintuitive and counterproductive policies

When people ask me where to begin learning more about land use and zoning I want to say “Continue on the path you are on”.

Sometimes folks just want a glossary
of common jargon & acronyms…

I started writing “Acronyms for Action” and want to continue that series but hey, urbanistas… we’ve got a problem:

HALA, FAR, Density Bonus, MIZ, MHA, FTS, OPCD, DPD, SDCI, DON, SLI, SEPA, Design Review, PLUZ Committee, Exclusionary Zoning, Restrictive Zoning, AMI, MFTE, Open Space, TDR, TOD, Neighborhood Design Guidelines, “Comp” Plan, Urban Village Strategy, Urban Village Boundary, LR123, NC5, Ground Floor Retail, Vacancy Rates, Rent Control, Rent Stabilization, Gentrification, Economic Eviction, Economic Displacement, Physical Displacement, Suburbanization of Poverty, ISRD

The language around planning, land use and zoning prevents people from engaging in the topic. It excludes people. It makes people think that the topic is too technical for them to participate in. This is a big problem. Someone told me that with all the acronyms being thrown around in urbanist circles it makes you feel dumb if you ask people to define the words they are using. I remember feeling that way about 22 months ago. Now I’m the one who forgets to define acronyms. I don’t do it to show off but have completely forgotten what is common knowledge and what is special knowledge. Thank you to people who bravely call me in and remind me to carefully think about how to make land use advocacy and education more accessible.

And then there’s a weird gossip column aspect to all of this.

People spend a lot of time asking me about “who’s who”, which politicians believe what, who are the nerdiest political and housing wonks, why are there so many male transit bros, why are there warring factions of urbanists, what motivates the housing obstructionists, how do you feel about the nimbys who want homeless sweeps, which media are sympathetic, which media are combative, who gets paid to organize and who is doing this as a volunteer, who is convince-able and who isn’t…

The social and political aspects of this work demand that you don’t just become knowledgeable about policies but about the policy makers.

In a previous career, I coached students with learning challenges and we spent a great deal of time discussing metacognition. What do we know? How do we know it? How do we know what we don’t know?

Seattle is seen internationally as an example for all other growing cities. There is a national spotlight on Seattle in the urban planning world. Everything we do is being studied and dissected in classrooms and written about in nonfiction books. People hope that if we “get cities right” other cities could copy us. Think of us as a pilot project for the rest of the world. Now think about the pressure this puts on people who are legislating, or who work at citybuilding non-profits, or who build any type of housing here. It is very stressful and we have a housing crisis and a climate crisis. Humans do not always make the best decisions during crises.

5 Homework Lessons and Study Guide

  1. What did the city look like 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 25 years ago? Who controlled those decisions? How were those decisions controlled?
  2. If you had full control, what would the city look like ideally 50 years from now? 100 years from now? What barriers stand in the way of your ideal city? Who has the right to control these decisions?
  3. Have you read the HALA report? It is long but worth reading.
  4. Have you read the Equity and Environment Initiative? It was written by Seattle’s communities most impacted by our climate and housing crises.
  5. Have you watched PLUZ committee hearings on the Seattle Channel? This gives you a sense of how decisions about land use are made and the kinds of conversations happening around land use in Seattle.

Reference List

  1. Seattle’s Land Use Code
  2. Settle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (65 ideas to help us welcome more neighbors at all income levels)
  3. Planning Land Use and Zoning Meetings
  4. Equity and Environment Initiative
  5. Extra Credit Readings to Challenge Your Urbanism (a rad list!)

Note: The following community resource list is a work in progress… not complete by any means. Check twitter for publicly accessible info if you’re not on facebook since unfortunately a lot of organizing is happening exclusively on facebook.

Advocacy groups that I reach out to for guidance…

Puget Sound Sage:

Got Green:

Seattle’s Artist Coalition for Equitable Development (ACED)

Africatown-Central District:

SAFE in Seattle

Tenants Union of Washington:

Humbows not Hotels:

Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/TAG:

El Centro de la Raza:

Front and Centered:

Transportation Choices Coalition:

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways

Sightline Institute:

Rising Tide Seattle:

Idle No More Washington:

Sierra Club Washington State Chapter:


Forterra NW:

Urbanist Groups, Seattle

Seattle for Everyone

Welcoming Wallingford

Seattle Tech 4 Housing

Housing Now

Capitol Hill Renter Initiative

The Urbanist

Intersectional Densinistas

And the group that inspired me to do this work:

San Francisco YIMBY Party:

*Email me to complain if I’ve left out an important group!

** The title of this blog post was inspired by the great work by Jay Lazerwitz and others at the Roosevelt Neighborhood Association to educate neighbors about land use.