Maybe you’ve seen that time-lapse video demonstrating Seattle’s recent growth—you know, the one that shows the jaw-dropping amount of development in just the last three years. In the clip, released by Google’s Ricardo Martin Brualla in January, skyscrapers emerge from the ground, barriers of steel and glass rising up like the structures in the Game of Thrones opening credits. And all around, dirt patches and green spaces give way to newly paved roads. What you may not have noticed, though, is how much that development cuts off much of the city from the natural beauty that surrounds it.
From an aesthetic point of view, Seattleites have always been lucky—Mount Rainier, Puget Sound, the Cascades, Lake Washington, and Lake Union provide endless eye shots.
“People are just drawn to it instinctively,” says Seattle architect Nils Finne. “You feel this level of connection, attachment, simply because you can gaze out over it. I just think human beings are drawn to that as a way of…maybe finding our small little place in the world.”
Finding and then clinging to those little places has recently led to desperate measures. In February, for instance, the city settled a lawsuit against a group of West Seattle homeowners who allegedly paid to cut down 153 trees, all so they could enjoy unobstructed views of Puget Sound and downtown.
In reality, single-family homeowners have little reason to worry. They, for the most part, are safe from surrounding rezoning that would add height to new development in efforts to create more affordable housing. So the question then becomes, Who’s affected most by disappearing landscapes when the majority of the U.S. population—over 80 percent—lives in urban areas? As views of nature become scarcer, and pricier, access to those green scenes for homeowners could inevitably fall to the wealthy few.
Finne estimates views can add $100,000 or more to a building’s value. Nationwide, a waterfront view can more than double the worth of the home itself, according to Zillow. A recent comparison between two identical Alki condo units revealed the unit a floor higher was worth $68,000 (9 percent) more than its lower-story counterpart.
Researchers for decades have highlighted the problem of limited access to desirable views. Studies show that hospital patients, workers, and students with access to green landscapes—even with something as simple as a window displaying some trees—tend to focus better, achieve lower stress levels, and recover or perform better.
In 2008, Peter Kahn and other UW psychologists published a study on recovery after surgery, including feedback from patients assigned to different rooms—one with a view of deciduous trees, one with a plasma window of the same virtual scene, and one view of a brown brick wall. The room with a view of real nature had restorative effects. The other two didn’t.
In another study, Canadian scientists surveyed 75 rooms—half with windows, half without—on the University of Washington campus and their effects on office workers. Employees with views of nature were more positive, more satisfied with their jobs, and felt a better sense of personal control in their work environment. Yet another UW study showed students whose dorm room windows overlooked trees performed better on tests.
“Bottom line: We need views of actual nature for human well-being and human flourishing,” Kahn says.
That’s a stark message, considering minority children also experience more environmental pollution and less access to nature in their homes and schools. Ironically, taller buildings and the push for more density largely stem from trying to help those low-income households and communities of color who are being pushed out of the city. As King County grapples with a homelessness crisis—16 unsheltered people died within the first cold winter month of 2018—city officials face immense pressure to build more, faster, taller affordable housing. But less access to natural scenery in urban life can systematically harm more vulnerable populations.
In short, everyone loses when green landscapes start to vanish.
Which is maybe one of the reasons that time-lapse video by Google’s Brualla was such a hit. Within a month of its release, nearly 500,000 people had watched it on YouTube. It drew both shock and dismay—nostalgic Seattleites resenting the growth, and the growing pains that come with it.