Designing Inclusive Cities

by Allison Ross

The allure of cities is undeniable, attracting residents by providing an array of opportunities, diversity, access to cultures, cuisine, and new experiences around every corner.

Cities draw in new residents, consumers, and investments, but the influx of ­­­­resources does not always fall equitably across the urban realm. While some areas may surge ahead, other areas begin to fall behind.

In the past ten years the city of Seattle experienced dramatic growth, and projections see this trend continuing far into the future. With unprecedented growth in the Seattle metropolitan area has come unprecedented change. We will continue to see the city morph to suit new and diverse needs.

While cities nationwide are facing growth, planners and activists across the U.S. are working to reform zoning regulations to keep pace with and to keep control over these rapid changes while creating urban spaces that are inclusive and available to all. Zoning in the Emerald City has become a contentious topic between land planning agencies, developers, and neighborhood associations, to name a few. The reality is, nearly everybody in the city has an opinion for what Seattle is, what it was, or what it should grow into.

Cities are using a variety of approaches, each of which provides a case-study of how we might guide this transformation in Seattle and how we can work to create an urban environment that adapts to new and diverse needs. As Seattle moves forward with the development of location-specific regulations, we can learn from other cities.

“Seattle seeks to be a diverse, prosperous, and equitable community where individuals and families can build good lives in vibrant neighborhoods. Housing costs rising faster than incomes threaten to make that aspiration unattainable.”


Recently, the Minneapolis city council voted to enact a revolutionary comprehensive plan, Minneapolis 2040, largely focused around single-family zoning.  The plan intends to combat the negative side-effects of urban development by focusing on housing and equitable development, specifically how the most vulnerable communities among us tend to be left behind during times of growth.

The city of Minneapolis chose to eliminate the single-family zoning classification to address its affordable-housing crisis, a classification linked to perpetuating historic injustices and segregation in urban areas. This zone change enabled the most restrictive zone in the city to allow up to three dwelling units per lot in developments such as duplexes and triplexes – in every neighborhood city-wide. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said, “[…] I believe that affordable housing should be in every neighborhood. There’s a right to live in a great city.”

“We can’t afford not to do this. The risk is too high, and the status quo isn’t an option anymore.”


The city of Denver, much like Seattle, has seen extraordinary growth in the last decade. In 2018, the city council adopted a new five-year housing policy titled Housing an Inclusive Denver. This initiative created the city’s first ever fund dedicated to affordable housing. The plan boosts subsidies and inclusive housing programs throughout the city. It’s aimed at supporting the construction and preservation of income-restricted rentals and for-sale homes. The money in this fund comes predominantly from impact fees obtained from new commercial and residential developments, but also includes small amounts sourced from property taxes city-wide.

The goals of this initiative include the creation of affordable housing in a variety of neighborhoods, promoting equitable and accessible housing options, and providing stability to residents at risk of displacement from the rapidly changing city. The city intends to support housing as a continuum that serves all residents, and to embrace the diversity that is so valuable to the community.

The Seattle City Council recently passed citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA). While our recent citywide policy changes are different from Minneapolis’ revolutionary end to single-family zoning or Denver’s bold development of resources to fund new and accessible infrastructure, the Seattle area will begin seeing a change in the status quo in housing development.

“As a city, it is time to move beyond the static view of neighborhoods and embrace this requirement to harness the capacity and resources of the private sector…”


Among other initiatives, MHA requires projects to take one of two paths to contribute to affordable housing; either by including affordable units on site or by making a payment to support the creation of other affordable housing through a dedicated fund.

When the on-site approach is pursued for a new development, Seattle will see an increase in mixed-income buildings and an increase in diversity and inclusion. With the payment in-lieu of on-site performance option, the city can use these funds to address areas most in need, such as specific development types or neighborhoods.

At HEWITT, we are looking forward to the opportunity to work with our clients and the city to contribute to the well being of our community in meaningful ways. As stated in the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) executive summary, “Today’s Seattle faces a new set of challenges, which demand that – once again – we rethink urban living and how we shape the environments that we call home.”

Economic disparity is one of the pivotal challenges as the city changes, but with planning and care, we see a future that fosters multi-use and multi-generational urban spaces that will serve – and care – for all.

Want to learn more? Seattle Affordable Housing week, organized by the Housing Development Consortium, kicks-off on Monday, May 15th. Events during the week include panel discussions, building tours, lectures, and information sessions, among many others. The week will be filled with community-oriented discussions and strategies to better address the complex urban issues around us.

Allison Ross has a master of architecture degree from Montana State University, and is assisting with architectural design on housing and public utilities projects. She is passionate about community development and the role of architecture in equitable development. When she’s not busy at work, Allison enjoys skiing and mountain biking throughout the Pacific Northwest.