People in the Pacific Northwest are facing more urban density, and are trying to reconcile their environmental urges with their personal need for space.
One of my favorite cartoons shows a friendly, fuzzy, big-nosed wolf — not the sort that would scare you, much less gnaw your leg off — sitting on a snow-covered hill, stars dotting the icy night sky.
You instantly relate to this “Lone Wolf,” who is musing to himself:
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It’s a cosmic warning from a cartoon: Don’t be too ‘lone. It’s cold out there.
Like the wolf, we know this. So we gather others and keep them close: Families. Friends. Neighbors. Even enemies.
Like Bedouins in the desert, Northwesterners in the rain historically have welcomed strangers, grateful for the company and understanding that on the frontier, everyone starts as a stranger.
And understanding, more than most, that with community, with numbers, with wagons and horses and boats and trains and piggybacks and SUVs rolling across the country, comes commerce, prosperity and amenities: roads, jobs, Dolce & Gabbana.
Decent bagels. Rapid transit, or at least the hope. Restaurants that serve dinner after 10 p.m.
But now, with an endless din of construction, a crush of cars on the road, a months’-long wait to camp in the Enchantments, we’re having second thoughts.
Town house in your backyard, ma’am?
Three-month wait to get an appointment with your doctor?
“What??? You have no reserVAtion???!!!”
It’s no surprise that Seattleites have grown testy over town houses and traffic.
Both seem to intrude on “our” space.
And, as every case of road rage reveals, even though a space moves, we can still claim it as ours and fight for it.
Puget Sound’s population has grown rapidly over the past few decades and is projected to grow more. The latest predictions say King County will absorb nearly 100,000 more people by 2020 than was estimated just five years ago.
Nearly 20 years ago, as the sprawly specters of Houston and Los Angeles threatened, state legislators passed the Growth Management Act to attempt to corral people into cities. The goal was to spare rural areas and keep a lid on the costs and environmental intrusion of roads and sewers.
Seattle, the largest city in the state, hasn’t gained many residents since 1955, notes geographer-demographer Richard Morrill, retired from the University of Washington but an active participant in the spirited discussions over urban density around Puget Sound.
What Seattle has gained is houses and condos and apartments and town houses — each one sheltering fewer people, a trend echoed in nearby counties. In fact, of the 100 largest cities in the country, Seattle comes in dead last in average number of people occupying a household.
Where once there might have been four or more, 41 percent of Seattle residences are now home to only one person.
Northwesterners like some room to move. We like space in our homes, between our home and the next, between us and the next person in line, even the person we’re talking with.
We love solitude: in the mountains, on long bike rides, or just curling up with a book.
But like our early ancestors, we aren’t solitary animals. We happily pack ourselves wall-to-wall when we’re interested in dating, mating, celebrating or just feeling like we’re where it’s happening, whether it’s the Gorge or the mall, church or the latest hot nightclub.
And we crave the convenience that comes from a more dense, compact city — like, say, being able to satisfy a late-night jones for ice cream without having to get in a car.
As so many researchers have discovered, our relationship with the space around us is complicated.
In the 1950s, an anthropologist named Edward Hall began focusing on different cultures’ perceptions of space.
During his military service in World War II and later, as director of a foreign-service worker-training program, Hall realized that these internalized differences often hindered communication. He gave a name to this study: “proxemics.” His 1966 book, “The Hidden Dimension,” painted a picture of an unconscious, powerful force shaping human interactions in everything from intimate space with close friends and lovers to the design of neighborhoods and public spaces.
Over the years, dozens of researchers peered into this hidden dimension from many angles: sociology, anthropology, biology, psychology.
Anthropologists noted that humans had “roamed around in big spaces” for millions of years in small groups, says David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane. Like their primate ancestors, they were territorial and suspicious of strangers.
Animal researchers noted that when crowded, rats ate their young and got aggressive. Monkeys fought. Hippos defended their turf.
It just stood to reason that humans would do likewise.
Everyone just “knew” density caused “tensions, anxiety, family troubles, divorce, aggressiveness, neurosis, schizophrenia, rape, murder and even war,” said Columbia University’s Jonathan Freedman in his 1975 book “Crowding & Behavior.”
The conclusion fit with prevailing political notions, too.
But it wasn’t true.
Animal studies, it turned out, were contradictory. Even some primates don’t always follow monkey rules.
Zoologist and ethologist Frans de Waal found that rhesus monkeys — often considered the most fight-prone — react to crowding by getting along better. They make submissive gestures, avoid big guys with attitude and huddle with relatives after a dispute instead of getting into a free-for-all. Then they settle down to groom each other.
When it came to people, research findings in the 1970s were equally equivocal.
At Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Ted Fuller and John Edwards looked at how people reacted to urban density. They concluded that the sense of being crowded had little to do with the actual amount of space.
But if “objective crowding” did not account for the “subjective experience” of crowding, they asked, what does?
Household crowding and the demands of other people.
It’s not the space, it’s the people in your face.
Ever notice the distance between you and someone else?
In lines, for example.
In the grocery store, before I’m done sliding my credit card through the reader, some shopper is right there, crowding up close. Trying to see what I’m buying? Reading my PIN? Hitting on me?
OK, so I’m a Seattle native of Northern European descent. Someone from Brazil, Indonesia, an Arab country or even New York likely would be puzzled by my discomfort. In fact, if we were having a conversation, it might look more like a tango. The Brazilian approaches, I back up. Approach. Back up. Dum DUM dum dum, ta-Da-da-DA-da . . . .
Like sparrows on a telephone wire, each of us has a definite and exquisitely sensitive notion of “proper” distance.
“This is something that everybody in a culture knows, and nobody was taught,” says Dane Archer, a sociology and psychology professor emeritus at University of California Santa Cruz, who has studied and filmed people spacing themselves at urinals, in classrooms, on benches.
“It’s almost as if by computer,” Archer says.
But every culture calibrates its computer a bit differently.
And each of us thinks ours is right, says Kathryn Sorrells, who teaches communication studies at California State University at Northridge. So when someone violates the rules, “we find all sorts of things to think about them: ‘They’re dirty, selfish, rude.’ But they’re just playing by different rules.”
That’s one reason people have trouble making friendships across cultures, says Archer. He recalls a waiter from Brazil who bumped into people and touched them when talking. “He was offending without realizing,” Archer says. “It happens all the time.”
But very few of us will voice distress when feeling crowded.
In elevators, we take a breath and practice studied nonchalance.
If crowding lasts longer, most often we simply leave. Or adapt.
Chloè Callahan and Christine Rhoades, friends from California, gasped at the first glimpse of their dorm room at the University of Washington.
One hundred eighty square feet for three young women. For a year.
“I remember standing in the doorway and going, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ ” says Chloe. Her room at home is three or four times as large. “My mom thought it was a joke. She was like, ‘This cannot be your room.’ “
How were they even going to move around in this room, with its three bunk beds and three desks? And what about their clothes? Shoes. Bags, belts, leggings and makeup. These California girls do not dress in jeans and T-shirts for all occasions. Chloé arrived in her Ford Explorer stuffed with clothes and Christine schlepped three huge suitcases onto the plane.
Their mothers bought plastic bins, rearranged bookcases, went for vertical storage, and Chloé and Christine determined to make it work.
Dressing — they often change clothes several times a day — takes an elaborate choreography as they twist past each other, trading accessories and critiquing each others’ look.
“We’re three feet away from each other at all times,” Christine says.
“Thank God we’re such good friends,” Chloé adds.
The two have found benefits from their cramped quarters. Chloé, an insomniac, sleeps better with people in the room. “I just feel safer,” she says.
Most mornings, Christine settles down to French-braid Chloé’s hair.
Dee Williams didn’t just make peace with a small space: She planned it, built it, and has lived in it for four years.
A fourth-grader with a penchant for dimensions, visiting her Olympia residence, got it right: Her house is the same size as an African elephant.
For those not acquainted with elephant dimensions, Williams’ house measures 7 feet wide by 12 feet long and 13 feet tall — 84 square feet plus a 2-foot porch and a tiny loft.
Her house, a handcrafted wooden jewel, is on wheels, but in the past four years it hasn’t often left its spot in her friends’ backyard, enveloped in bamboo and tall grasses and surrounded by lawn and a garden.
Williams, 45, didn’t always live in a pachyderm’s footprint. In Portland, she owned a 1,500-square-foot house. Then she went to Guatemala to help build a school. Her host family lived in a tiny home.
Williams, a hazardous-waste inspector for the state, had just spent $500 on crown moldings. “It was a little shameful for me,” she recalled. “I felt I could make different choices, choices that would honor my values.”
Back home, the notion of living in a tiny house emerged — with doubts.
“Could I do it? Would I get claustrophobic? Would I get miserable? Would I make other people miserable? Would I lose friends and be unliked?”
She knew many people think living very small is very weird. The Unabomber’s tiny cabin, she notes wryly, “was a sign of his insanity.”
Still, she wanted to spend less time cleaning and fixing and working to pay a mortgage, and longed to be part of a community that valued greener choices. She bought plans from Tumbleweed Tiny House Co. in California, and began observing her use of space.
“How wide do the counters need to be? How much kitchen stuff do I need? Could I be OK not grinding my own coffee?”
On an area rug in her dining room in Portland, she masked out her new floor plan and worried. “I wasn’t sure I could live my life on an area rug.”
Three months, $10,000, a lot of sawing and scrounging later, she and her cabin-on-wheels hit the road to Olympia.
It’s worked out, with a little help from her friends and their aunt, who own the two-house compound where she’s parked.
Except for showers, which she takes in one of the homes, the tiny solar-powered cabin has everything Williams needs — in miniature. Not much into cooking, she makes do with a jug of water, a simple sink (waste water goes into a container and then the garden) and one propane burner. Her composting toilet reduces waste to dry flakes that are disposed of in regular garbage.
Her tiny closet holds jeans, a shirt and jacket that do fine for work. A little black dress and a pair of nice heels, with a change of jewelry, recently went to the ballet, a funeral and an awards ceremony.
Williams hopes more people consider buying a house that’s “too small one day out of the year, instead of too big 364 days of the year.”
The rewards? Plenty she didn’t even know she was wanting: “a sense of quiet, with no noise, no appliances; a sense of accomplishment. Walking my talk in a way that makes me feel deep-in-my-gut happy. That’s a pretty cool gift to myself.”
She loves to show her house to kids, and talks to them about giving up stuff — a necessary part of downsizing. What could they give up? They always offer the same sacrifice: Underwear.
But it makes them think. “They’re amazed that a grown-up would choose to live in a tiny space like this.”
Humans are nothing if not adaptable.
Doubters should rent “Surfwise,” a movie about the Malibu surfer Dorian “Doc” Paskowitz, who, with his wife, raised nine kids in a 24-foot motor home.
“We were just like puppies,” daughter Navah recalls in the film. “There would be three or four people on that little lower-bed thing, and there would be a couple guys on the side, couch beds or whatever, and at least two or three on the floor.”
Many Northwesterners live closer to the other end of the space spectrum.
George Schnibbe, a contractor, lives alone in a 4,000-square-foot Burien home. His living room has a 7-foot-long grand piano.
“It’s the perfect house for entertaining,” says Schnibbe, 58, who has hosted parties for 100. “I wanted entertaining to be part of my life.”
When Robin Petrossian and her husband, Tony, realized how they used space, they went the other direction.
After their daughter was born 2 ½ years ago, Robin said, their 3,000-square-foot suburban Austin, Texas, house was too much. “We just wanted to be in the same room all the time.” They drove everywhere and rarely used the yard.
Tony, originally from Tehran, and Robin, who grew up on the East Coast, weren’t frightened by density. When Tony recently took a job at Microsoft, they sought it out, choosing a 1,572-square-foot condo in Bellevue Towers downtown.
“Living in the middle of the city where everything is going on around me feels more calming than having to drive to everything,” said Robin. “It’s back to basics.”
That’s another reason people aren’t like rats: When it comes to space, they can make choices.
What such choices will mean for Seattle’s future isn’t clear.
Architect Brandon Nicholson, who sits on Seattle’s Southwest Design Review Board, says density is coming. The question that occupies him: “How do we get Seattle to take on the density it should as a city, but not compromise the quality of life?”
At this point Seattle’s density, at about 7,000 people per square mile, isn’t on the same planet with, say, Manhattan, which packs 10 times that many into a square mile.
Will the financial crisis push new choices? In Los Angeles, people have adapted to high housing costs by doubling up with extended families or renters, says Morrill, the demographer.
Gregory Johnson, director of Resourcesforlife.com and co-founder of the Small House Society, says miniaturization and convergence — smaller stuff that does more, like iPhones or copier-scanner-fax-printers — have made going small easier. People also can “outsource” cooking or exercising and their need for space.
To Nicholson, building a city that works means, in part, creating smaller, more affordable spaces, including town houses, that work for families. The key: Design for people, not the automobile.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. In his West Seattle walk-up office, Nicholson slashes a black pen across tissue paper, cross-hatching the space given up to cars on a single-family lot: 20 percent, with garage and driveway. For a typical town house following inflexible building codes, it could be 50 to 60 percent of the ground-level space.
Living, breathing human beings don’t need concrete. They need gardens and family rooms and places to walk and to gather and to be alone.
“If it’s well-designed, a very small space can feel very comfortable,” Nicholson says. “If it’s poorly designed, a large space can feel crowded and overwhelming.”
That’s as true for outside design as for inside, he adds.
In the Northwest, where the landscape attracts us, shapes us and holds us, we search for balance as we build our spaces, muttering expletives when we feel ourselves tipping.
We are frontier and metropolis, loners and joiners, extravagant and conservative.
Maybe, just maybe, if we understand ourselves well enough, we can have it all.
Carol M. Ostrom is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Mark Harrison is a Seattle Times staff photographer.