At yesterday's Planning Commission retreat, in addition to making an off-the-cuff comment that Ballard is the new Capitol Hill (see my explanation for that remark here), I got into a discussion with Crosscut's Knute Berger about self-sufficiency. Berger—generally a density opponent—argued that backyard cottages in single-family neighborhoods are an acceptable form of density because they promote self-sufficiency, allowing homeowners to make extra rent. (As a renter, I was initially confused by Berger's point, until I realized he was speaking from the perspective of the homeowner, not the cottage renter).

Image via Seattle Daily Photo on Flickr.
Paraphrasing here, Berger said Seattle has a long tradition of enabling people to live the good life and pursue their dreams without having to work high-paying jobs at big corporations.

The problem with Berger's argument, I said, is that it misunderstands what self-sufficiency means in 2010. Backyard cottages and similarly incremental solutions aren't going to solve the very real, very immediate problems of sprawl, climate change, and our environmentally defunct transportation system. (Indeed, as of late 2009, only about 20 backyard cottages had been built.)

The solution to those problems consists, in significant part, of making it easier for people to live close to where they work. (Driving, in Seattle at least, is the problem). To do that in a city of limited land capacity requires density in places that aren't currently dense.

What about the self-sufficiency part? That, I said yesterday, will consist of redefining what we mean by self-sufficiency. Instead of living off the land in the isolation of our single-family homes, self-sufficiency in the future will mean sufficiency within a community—community gardens, community kitchens, community tool shares, community cars. As Worldchanging's Alex Steffen likes to say, we don't want the drill, we want the hole. Self-sufficiency in the cities of the future will mean owning less space and less stuff but still having everything we want.