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What Seattle's Missing... From a Worldchanging Point of View
Alex Steffen, 9 Sep 04

This is a bit on what Seattle needs and doesn't have. It's probably of limited interest to those who don't live in Seattle, dwell on geeky urban sustainability concerns, or at least have strong opinions about these things, and probably of no interest to those who do.

Better, probably, for everyone's sake, to skip ahead to a piece containing actual new information and interesting ideas.

Seattle's great. I'm happy to be home. It's hard to feel at all bad about this place on a day like today, with little puffy white clouds drifting across the bluest skies you've ever seen and half a kick-ass latte sitting close at hand.

That said, we don't measure up. I find us lacking some basic pieces of the early 21st Century bright green urbanist toolbox:

1) Real urbanism. Vancouver's the model here. We really need a vision of ourselves which can swollow the West End model of really livable sustainably-high-density urban life and turn it into something particularly local. We need another layer of downtown neighborhoods in the semi-unused Sodo, South Lake Union and Interbay areas, as well as higher-density housing expansion into Lower Queen Anne, First Hill and the ID. We ought to be shooting for at least 60,000 new units of housing -- as well as retail, office, live-work and workshop spaces -- in the downtown vacinity over the next decade. We're nowhere near that, and still cringing from the reality that it's grow up or bleed out. If Vancouver can do it and make it work, so can we.

2) Real transit. Portland's the model here, weaving together their metro region with light rail and street cars while we dither with the monorail and plan an absurdly useless street car expansion. It's been almost a decade since PDX envisioned LUTRAQ, and despite some excellent advocates, we still have almost nothing in the way of an inspired imagined transportation future. We still have public officials who talk seriously about building "enough lanes to handle peak demand" fercryinoutloud. We need transportation choices for the next Century, not the last. I suggest we immediately kidnap Portland's entire transportation policy community, and endenture them to design us a better approach.

3) Urban planning advocates. Allied Arts rocks, but Allied Arts (and its allies at Action Better City, the AIA and elsewhere) simply lack the capacity to be a serious citizens' voice for planning. Compare them to worldchanging ally Gabriel Metcalf's SPUR, whose large, professional staff cranks out serious, hard-hitting reports on a variety of issues vital to San Francisco's urban design debate. I mean, yay for CityDesign, seriously, but we need more.

4) A regional think-tank. What SPUR does for the City of San Francisco, the Regional Plan Association does for New York's Tri-State Area. We need one, stat.

5) City-wide WiFi. You can't swing a sock monkey without hitting a leftie geek in this town: how come Austin's getting city-wide free WiFi and we got bupkiss?

6) A sustainable business center. Portland's got the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center. San Fran's got Kevin Danaher's plan to build an Eco-Industrial Center. Minneapolis has the Phillips Eco-Enterprise Center. Seattle? Bupkiss.

7) Fervor for Green Design. This is the one we're closest to having, I think. But still, our neighboring cities are cranking out the green buildings. Their design communities are abuzz with talk of green design, biomimicry, neobiological design, yada yada. We could have a bunch more LEED gold buildings and cool experiments than we do -- and we could certainly have a much more energetic public and professional debate... Again, the Office of Sustainability is fab, but we're nowhere near up to snuff on this front.

8) A good local politics blog. Something like BlueOregon meets Kos.

9) Better progress towards emerging advocacy networks in general. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, read this.

10) More applied research into computation and place. the kinds of tools I outlined in Way New Urbanism are coming through the chute, fast. It'd be nice to see more innovative local thinking on what they mean and how we can use them. It's not like there aren't enough smart, technically-equiped people around here to do the work.

11) More resources for bright green living. To be fair, no one does this well.

12) A third place for worldchanging types. The model here is Helsinki's Aula Cooperative. Especially in a place where water falls from the sky for years on end every winter, good places gather are critical.

13) More big-thinking events. Like the Long Now seminars, or the GBN presents talks.

14) A good, smart, geeky art bar, like the Odeon or Kaffe Van Kleef.

oh, and, 15) A decent, authentic mission-style burrito place.

Please address these shortcomings immediately and get back to me.



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Seriously, did you move here recently?

I mean you've got excellent points about the complete mess in our mass transit policy and our total lack of vision in urban planning. As a militant pedestrian, I have no arguments there.

But geeky art bars? Holy cow! You can hardly spit a meter without hitting one of those on Cap Hill, Fremont, Downtown, the International, and, yes, even Queen Anne. Heck, it's even happing over in Ballard, Alki and encroaching on the CD. The failure rate of these things is astounding and I'd prefer to keep that way.

Having lived here since the reign of JP Patches, Rainer Brewing's "funny period" and Ivar's subversive salmon on the Smith Tower, I sort of miss the obscure, blue-collar, Boeing-machinist Seattle. Back then MS was still in Albuquerque and Starbucks was still a hole in the wall at the University Village. Gentrification is nice but there is no need to rush it.

Or was that just an authenticity test you were throwing out?

As far as grass roots wireless, I assume you are aware of the Seattle Wireless group?

Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 9 Sep 04

I've been wanting an Aula type place to congregate in for years. For a few years, the Speakeasy Cafe served that function for many of us in the geek set who worked in downtown Seattle but it faded over time (and then burned down...).

Posted by: Al on 9 Sep 04

Burritos are easy: Gordito's on 85th, near Greenwood. Wear earplugs, though, and come very, very hungry.

I hereby nominate the U District as the official Area Where Worldchangers Hang Out in Seattle, since it has the Campus Way transit center, since the Worldchangers seem to be heavily academic anyway, and since it's an easy walk to the Arboretum. I also nominate Espresso Roma and/or Bulldog News as the place(s) which have a reputation for appealing to Worldchangers. Worldchangers can go ahead and change their minds about this, of course, as long as there's consensus. :-)

Posted by: Paul on 10 Sep 04

Great comments, thanks.

Al, I loved the Speakeasy, too: that was definitely the hub for a few years. I assume there must be another place filling some of that role, but I don't know what it is.

I think an Aula-style clubhouse could definitely work here.

Farlops: I too am nostalgic for "Boeing-machinist Seattle," even though I moved here in 1992, after MS and Grunge and Starbucks and Singles had already started the immigration/ gentrification avalanche.

Just because a bar's full of geeks and has art on the walls doesn't make it a geeky art bar. GABs are a special breed: places that provoke people in creative ways. Someday I'll explain more what I mean...

Paul: I'm in the U District quite often these days, though I did hanging with the hippy kids at Chaco Canyon Cafe, soaking in Wifi and sipping a ginger carrot juice, in between cigarette breaks.

I am a little more, um, familiar with Gorditos than I really ought to be. It's probably the best in Seattle, but it's still no El Buon Sabor...

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 10 Sep 04

Great piece!

If Seattle and the surrounding area were not so breathtakingly beautiful I'd have given up on it already. I feel like adding to your list, but it is late and the caffeine is wearing off so I'll just touch on one - I feel very unsafe riding a bicycle in this town. I logged a billion miles on my bike in NYC and consider myself skilled, reasonably cautious and appropriately aggressive. I've nearly retired my wheels of late as drivers seem intolerant towards bikes (and pedestrians) and the few bikelanes that do exist are next to curbside parking - a great way to get doored. I'm considering a moped simply for the added safety of brakelights, turn signal and an easier to assert right to the road. I've become a grumpy old man wrt this topic.

Your beef #8 is spot on. Someone should be drafted.

I would like to feel that there was a nexus of these impulses here in town. The vanguard-geek "scene" here seems pretty subdued in comparison to the total geek pool. I'm not sure if Victrola on Cap Hill meets the criteria for your optimal gathering spot, but the wi-fi is free and the coffee is fantastic if I do say so myself.

Posted by: tonx on 11 Sep 04

Bikes would get more respect if they'd make up their minds about whether they wanted to share the road and follow the road laws or not... I hear my bike riding friends talk about intolerance all the time but then I see bikes, at least a couple of times a week, doing the "bob and weave" around cars in traffic, running lights and generally doing things that would get me arrested if I did them with my car.

It's hard to treat bikes like real vehicles when you can't predict where they are going to go or what laws they are going to break every time you see them. If they just followed traffic laws, people might give them a bit more respect.

Posted by: Al on 12 Sep 04

I've made some 30 visits to Seattle over the last few years, trying to affect the light rail, monorail and streetcar projects, usually staying at Green Tortoise or AYH or with an arch-conservative friend in Lower Queen Anne who drives like a maniac and acts understanding but won't volunteer an opinion publicly. Go figure.

The best Lake Union Streetcar route was proposed in 1996, Puget Sound's Light Rail Society's "Phaze Zero", running on Terry Avenue to Convention Place Station and connect to the DSTT rail. One would think connecting two compatible rail lines oBveeous, hello? Westlake Avenue's 6-way, diagonal intersections are operationally difficult and accident-prone. Whoops.

To marvelously direct 21st century regional land-use and development, South Center should be directly on the Link LRT line, as the City of Tukwila has long argued to deaf ears at Sound Transit Board who keep saying the I-5 bypass saves money, but this is untrue. A spur later cannot replace lost potential. Whoops.

Greenline Monorail should go to Ballard via one of the 'East Alternative' routes, (Dexter/Westlake to SPU), rather than Interbay which will remain industrial and undevelopable. More practical to to extend the Waterfront Streetcar to Interbay.

Sorry to be so critical, but since I expect these big transit projects to backfire - create more traffic congestion - I'm duty-bound to sound a warning. I expected Sounder South and Tacoma Streetcar to do well, having reviewed those rail projects beforehand as with Seattle rail projects. When the TV guy says cars cost less at Friendly Freds, don't believe it.

Posted by: Art on 13 Sep 04

Alex, thanks for the props on You should know that Jon Stahl is thinking of starting a "Blue Washington" -type website.

Posted by: Kari Chisholm on 14 Sep 04

I don't think Starbucks opened in University Village until 5-6 years ago.

Posted by: David Sucher on 14 Sep 04


"I don't think Starbucks opened in University Village until 5-6 years ago."

Beep! Sorry, but you haven't been paying attention these last 25 years.

Maybe you're thinking of the revamped one they added recently but, Starbucks has had an outlet at the U Village since I was in high school. My mother used to buy ground beans there. (Now we know who to blame!)

This was before they changed the logo to the crotchless number, back in Seattle's "there's nothing else to do here so let's open a restaurant," period of the late '70s.

Anyway, I guess I can't fight progress. Every new wave of immigrants changes the city, usually for the better. I just worry that sometimes we're making our diverse cities more and more like each as time goes on. Is McDonalds in Osaka really a good thing? I ask this with profound irony as Starbucks is as guilty of this as any of them. I've worked at MS. I'm as guilty as the rest.

Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 15 Sep 04

Al -

this is probably not the place to get into a debate on the bike thing, but I have to take some issue with your argument as its one i hear alot...

Inside of the city limits, pedestrians have the right of way at any intersection. period. crossing against a crosswalk will get you a jaywalking citation, but driving into a pedestrian in any circumstances can get you a charge of manslaughter. But putting the abstraction of law aside for a moment, running down a soft, fleshy human, on foot or bicycle, with a thousand+ pound hunk of speeding automobile is simply, inarguably wrong. The law may offer certain guidelines, but the brutal laws of physics will be the final arbiter.

Many would take this to be an extremist argument but its the common sense foundation of urban cycling and pedestrian customs in many european cities (and to some degree east coast cities). I would go so far as to say a paradigm shift towards this way of viewing the auto/person dynamic is a necessary prerequisite to having a civilized urban transit environment.

That said, I agree that cyclists ought to behave in more predictible ways. Asserting their right to a lane of traffic when necessary, signalling all turns, and generally paying more attention to whats around them.

Posted by: tonx on 16 Sep 04



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