City of Destiny or city of density?

Density is coming – but is it who we are?

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Population density, whether you love it or hate it, seems to be inevitable.

Those who hate it raise issues of rising crime and increasingly anonymous and alienating encounters with  others jockeying over parking places and waiting in lines for everything from coffee to groceries.

Some who love density have in mind local urban villages with the population for the best cultural amenities (usually including mass transit options) and a strong, interwoven and growing sense of identity and neighborhood.

Both visions – of utopia or blight – might be illusions, and we in the Pacific Northwest, as much as we argue, worry, fantasize or object to the next project in our neighborhoods, can barely imagine the scale and density of other cities around the country – or even more, around the world.

We don’t know that much about density, but what we do know is that we don’t like it.

The United States, for example, has ten cities with a population over one million –

China has over one hundred. The Pearl River Delta (Southern China) has three urban centers, each one over ten million, rapidly moving together.

Are these “mega-cities” the future?

In China several individual cities have more people than many entire nations. (1*)

Across the world, one in six people live in Africa – 13 million in Lagos alone.

Population growth is not evenly distributed. Several cities in the US and around the world are shrinking in population. In the US Detroit and Cleveland are prime examples –

Everywhere you go in and around Tacoma lately, you see projects in motion. Photo: Morf Morford
Everywhere you go in and around Tacoma lately, you see projects in motion. Photo: Morf Morford

We in the Pacific Northwest barely register demographically on the world stage, but if you want to know what is coming in your local neighborhood, take a look here;

Summary of Planning Commission 

Recommendations for Specific Locations

* Narrows (Skyline and Howard): Recommendation is to defer for additional study and public outreach, no specific zoning proposal is being forwarded to City Council.

* Stadium: Recommendation is to keep the existing zoning and change the Comprehensive Plan. High Density Multifamily is not recommended.

* 34th and Proctor: Recommended to be rezoned from R-2 to R-3 as proposed in the public hearing draft.

*  26th and Alder: Recommendation is keep the current R-2 zoning in place for existing single family residences, but to rezone the two multifamily properties to R-4L.

* 6th Ave (at Monroe): Recommendation is to rezone from R-2 Single Family to R-4L Low Density Multifamily.

* Dometop (including Strawberry Hill/E L and 29th): The Recommendation is to keep the current R-4L zoning in place and to change to Comprehensive Plant to reflect current zoning. High Density Multifamily is not recommended.

*  S 72nd and Alaska (Wapato Lake): Recommendation is to rezone properties from R-2 Single family to R-4L Low Density multifamily, but not including current single family residences that are identified in the Comprehensive Plan for Commercial Use.

* N 12th and N Yakima: Recommendation is to keep the current single family zoning for those properties on N Yakima, except that the existing multifamily use at the corner of N 10th and N Yakima is recommended for R-4L zoning.

* Portland Ave: The Recommendation is to rezone the proposed Low and High Density Multifamily properties, excluding two sites with existing Commercial and Industrial zoning and uses, and furthermore, the Commission recommended a broader corridor planning effort to consider additional capital improvements for this area.

* S 56th and M: The Recommendation is rezone from C-2 General Commercial to R-4L Low density multifamily, with an exception for the properties at the corner of 56th and L Street, which would be deferred for additional consideration as part of a commercial zoning update.


My biggest concern is not whether Tacoma grows in population or not. I have two things I do care about, one practical and one philosophical;  first I’d like to see more jobs and career opportunities based in Tacoma and, second, I absolutely do not want Tacoma to become just another look-alike suburban sprawl with endless strip-malls packed with nationally known chain stores.

I know that Tacoma is changing – and that it has always changed. I just want it to become more, not less, of its own place. In other words, I don’t care that much if Tacoma becomes a city of density, as long at it, and we, remember that above all, it is a city of destiny.

This is not yet another expression of NIMBYism – we, and anyone who cares about a community, care about the character of a neighborhood.

Density may contribute to community, it doesn’t need to threaten it.

More and more of us are recognizing what a special place we have. How to keep it while making it welcome to others will be our ever-growing challenge.


(1*)    New Zealand, Kuwait, Panama and Croatia all have populations under 5 million.

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