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Future City: Seattle on the Threshold
Alex Steffen, 30 Sep 10

In preparation for our Future City event this Friday, we're comparing progress towards urban sustainability in Portland and Seattle.

In its Cascadian context, Seattle is the middling city.

It's true that it retains a vibrant central core, that it has had neighborhood planning since 1993, and that in general Seattle is more and more compact. Yet it is no Vancouver, where new development has brought the sustainability benefits of compact community to much of the city.

It's also true that Seattle has a bold (if as yet underfunded) bike plan, a high level of commuter transit ridership, and a terrific new light rail line. Yet it is not Portland, where biking, walking and transit are more woven into the fabric of the city and its culture.

Seattle falls in the middle of the three Cascadian cities in all sorts of ways, from green building to green infrastructure. It excels in a few areas at the city level -- for instance, Seattle's utilities are national leaders in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, preparing the region for the impacts of climate change and promoting conservation -- but as a metro region it is falling, by some measurements, behind cities like Denver and San Diego, at which, frankly, Seattle's long turned up its nose.

The Seattle metro area's growth management is weak, its regional transportation plan is hopelessly out-dated, and the political powers that be are driving forward a number of major new highway projects -- including a waterfront tunnel and new cross-lake bridge -- that are bound to not only soak up scarce transportation dollars but also lock the region into further car dependence. Meanwhile, the State of Washington has fallen to the back of the regional pack in legislating the kind of incentive shifts that are driving forward green development, renewables, district energy, sustainable design and innovative retrofit programs in other states. Perhaps nowhere else on the West Coast are the politics of sunk-cost thinking so powerful, even in supposedly progressive circles.

So bad is the regional record on land use, transportation and bright green economic issues that there are honestly times Seattle's situation seems hopeless. Despite all its natural advantages and many achievements, it sometimes looks like Seattle will simply be drowned in a sea of sprawl, choked in traffic, and left to rust economically as the world moves rapidly into a post-carbon future.

But a countervailing force is showing itself as well: a concentration of some of the best bright green thinkers and innovators in North America. Seattle is home to an array of really brilliant people working in think tanks like Sightline and Stockholm Environment Institute; in advocacy groups like FutureWise and Great City, in start-up bright green tech businesses like FrontSeat and 3Tier; in leading design organizations like the Cascadia Green Building Council (authors of the Living Building Challenge) and AIA Seattle; in architecture firms like GGLO, LMN, Mithun, NBBJ, and Hybrid Architects and ORA Architects (winners of the 99K house competition); in media outfits like Publicola and Grist (and, of course, Worldchanging itself); and in a host of other great innovative projects. Writers, artists, designers, coders, engineers, ecologists, urbanists, food advocates, transportation geeks: Seattle has something just short of a bright green scenius emerging.

Perhaps even more importantly, these thinkers have a goal: carbon neutrality.

Now, it's a little weird to write about the goal of the entire city of Seattle becoming carbon-neutral by 2030, since I'm the one who proposed it last Fall. I'm saved from immodesty by the fact that it's no longer my goal at all: I'm pretty much superfluous to the carbon neutrality movement at this point. The goal is now on its way to becoming official city policy, driven by hundreds of smart, dedicated advocates and a responsive City Council (especially Council President Richard Conlin and Council member Mike O'Brien [disclosure: I campaigned for both of them as a private individual]). Carbon neutrality hearings are packed. Asked to form public teams and present recommendations for action, scores of leading citizens stepped up and just two weeks ago presented guidance on everything from zero waste to transit-oriented development policies. There is serious public momentum behind the effort, of a kind perhaps unmatched by any other North American city right now.

Smart people, a bold and necessary goal, and momentum: that's a recipe for real change. Seattle's well positioned to take leadership on thinking through the full implications of a bright green future. Which is good, because here's Ecotopia's dirty little secret: all the region's cities are anything but sustainable, now.

Urbanites from Whistler to Monterey tend to overlook the importance of scope, scale and speed when we think about the strides we've made in sustainability. We like to ride our bikes (or talk about it at least), buy our local organic food, mention the latest green building, donate to environmental groups, go hiking or kayaking on the weekends. Yet the simple fact is that our lives are profoundly unsustainable, both in the sense that if everyone on the planet lived like we do, our combined impact would be catastrophic, and in the sense that the cities we've built are extremely vulnerable to the climate chaos, resource disruptions and economic turbulence we know lies just ahead. Our cities as they are now cannot last, period.

The region's cities have achieved a small fraction of what they need to accomplish, and time's running out. Current climate goals demand that the developed world be essentially climate neutral by 2050 in order to facilitate a 80% total global reduction in emissions and have any chance of stabilizing CO2 at 450 ppm -- but a swelling number of climate scientists are shouting that even that goal is far too lax and our progress towards it too slow. Our observable emissions have been rising faster than predicted. Our existing national commitments are too weak to save us from a 4 degree Celsius rise. What's more, our models have failed to take into account rapid and huge climate feedbacks we may be seeing, like the melting of the Arctic permafrost already underway. I suspect now that a realistic climate strategy -- if by realistic we mean "one that won't leave our grandchildren a catastrophic hell" -- is something much more like carbon neutrality in the developed world by 2040, and worldwide by 2050, with a global goal of stabilizing greenhouse gasses at 350 ppm.

To do that, we need to rapidly decouple prosperity from pollution. Bill Gates is the most notable leader to take up the cause of a climate neutral economy this year, but thousands of others are seeing the outlines of the economy of the future in zero emissions technologies and designs. We know it is possible to build that economy. We also know that cities are the best leverage point we have for doing it. At the city level, systems are big enough to make a difference on big problems like climate change and materials depletion, yet small enough to grasp. If carbon-neutrality is going to happen, it'll be lead by cities.

In short, we need trailblazing cities. That's why we need cities that are willing to commit to carbon neutrality and back up their talk with funded plans and strong policies: establishing the greenest building codes in the world, rapidly reducing vehicle miles traveled per person, participating in regional foodshed protection, building green infrastructure. Perhaps most important are strong incentives for transit-oriented development, the political courage to override NIMBY opposition to compact communities and the willingness to massively shift money away from auto infrastructure and towards transit and complete streets (a shift Seattle's Mayor, Mike McGinn, is a strong advocate for). All that coupled with a shift of philanthropic funding to support more political advocacy for urban needs, increased networking of urbanist interests, and more venture capital for design innovations -- walkshed technologies and bright green industries -- will make carbon neutrality not just a dream but a hard, achievable target.

For our region, the wealthiest and most naturally abundant corner of the Earth, anything less than that ambition tars us all with a profound moral failure. We have a chance, right now, to help lead the world in redefining what urban life can mean. No amount of virtuous living, not even a tidal wave of small steps, will make up for that lost opportunity, if in fact we lose it. Without action that responds to the scope, scale and speed of the challenges we face, nothing else much matters.

Seattle may well lag behind the rest of region in implementing change, but it stands on the threshold of taking a step that's perhaps more important: committing to the right goals, and throwing the muscle behind those goals to set real, systemic change in motion.

Feature image of the Seattle waterfront courtesy of WSDOT via The Architect's Newspaper.

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speaking in cliches, something died in seattle in the 80's yuppification and yours is the first writing that has giving an inkling that there is hope

Posted by: gregorylent on 30 Sep 10

Seattle has a much higher rate of transit use than Portland... Sure, Portland has an established light rail system, but because it's not nearly as dense as Seattle, it can't get the kind of ridership that Seattle gets.

Posted by: alexjonlin on 30 Sep 10

"The Seattle metro area's growth management is weak, its regional transportation plan is hopelessly out-dated"

This is too harsh. The Transportation 2040 plan advocates a mass transit and bike-friendly investment plan that is both ambitious and realistic. It may not be perfect, but it's FAR better than the status quo in terms of per capita greenhouse gas emissions (especially given a huge population increase over the next 30 years) and, if implemented, will go a long way toward making Puget Sound a region where you can live comfortably without a car. It is the most ambitious proposal that is also realistically feasible.

Posted by: Mark Bardwell on 1 Oct 10

And yet all I see in the so-called "progressive" SF Bay area is nothing but open space rip-downs to put up massive million-dollar condo-townhomes and low-income housing.

Until the "environment" movement stops supporting unlimited massive immigration both legal and illegal - for political and racial purposes only - you can talk all you want but the end result will be pavement from here to eternity and millions upon millions more people - many of whom will not sign on to your vision.

Ask yourself - what do you think the U.S. population will be in 50 years, and who will comprise that population given the massive influx of non-stop immigration? Those who are "green"?. I'm not betting MY green on that.

Posted by: nightliter on 1 Oct 10

Seattle seems very focused on the Bicycle Master Plan lately and bike improvements, but let's not forget the even more unfunded Pedestrian Master Plan. Walking requires no vehicle or particular physical ability--it's universal. The Ped Plan has some really great experiments, ideas, and policy changes in it too. Walkability goes hand in hand with bikeability and transit, but may have the broadest political appeal across the city.

Posted by: Jon Morgan on 4 Oct 10

Thanks for giving insights on the way of thinking on the transition of Seattle to a sustainable city. It seems to me that there should be emphasis on one essential way of approaching this challenge. Now the vision is based on enhancing efficiency. Less energy, materials and water-use, down with the milages and so on. It also needs a strategy based on effectiveness: how to add value to your city? This can be done by aiming at a profound materialmanagement (closing the material-cycles as well biological as technical), gaining excellency in green energy, enhancing the diversity in the city, as well social, cultural as the biodiversity and in each activity: add value to the city. Why cut down the milages when there are cars that clean the air, able to use clean energy and so on.
This is a positive policy, whilst reduction is a negative policy: we need to address the future, like captain Sparrow addresses the beast! Mankind has the intelligence to realise the change, it's the will and courage that needs to be strengthened. So, working on the positive agenda can be added value for the cities politics!
Think about the work of Cradle to Cradle, biomimicry and so on. It starts to work here in the Netherlands as the start of a real transition.

Posted by: Douwe Jan Joustra on 6 Oct 10

Very good post. We need to walk it how we talk it in Seattle if people are to take us as seriously as we take ourselves when it comes to all things green.

As an expat Seattleite, who grew up and spent 24 years in the Greenlake neighborhood, I think one of the most disappointing things about the city's sustainability bona fides, or the lack thereof, is a failure to promote and safeguard local businesses and merchants. While some of the world's most powerful and profitable corporations such as Boeing, Microsoft and Starbucks call the city home--or did, in the case of Boeing--it's small businesses that make a city truly vital.

One cannot help but compare Seattle to neighboring Vancouver or Portland and the reasons why we measure ourselves against our neighbors is a topic for endless debate. However, what is beyond argument is the strong emphasis on and pride Portlanders derive from boosting their local economy by supporting its merchants.

The city has more microbreweries than one could ever count and a lively restaurant culture as well as an enviable bike scene, to which a commenter previously alluded.

Driving less, walking and biking more, and pouring money into businesses that will keep dollars flowing around the community are some of the easiest, cheapest and most effective ways to boost sustainability in a holistic manner. Seattle needs to get with it!

Posted by: Chikodi Chima on 7 Oct 10

Seattle has somewhat changed from the images of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, its now one big City. I suppose you have ´Micorsoft and Boeing to thank for that and not to forget Starbcuks its all quite a change and different to where I live

property sale Costa del Sol

Posted by: Susana on 9 Oct 10

Have cities ever invested in 0 emission cars?

Posted by: Alex Gore on 14 Oct 10

Think big. Start small.
Sustainable design is rooted in the considerations that have always guided good design: the essential nature of the site itself, the orientation of buildings to topography/sun, designing to minimize construction waste, appropriate choices for building systems and material palette, and building for long-term durability.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all of the “green” standards, products, and building practices out there. King County’s is a great online resource for ways to make your home make your home more sustainable and healthy, one step at a time.
Whether you are making small changes in your home to conserve water or energy, or embarking on a major building project, it is important to consider that every decision you make to “go green” will contribute to the long-term health of our community and environment. Think big.
So go home tonight and change an incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent . Or turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater. Or unplug your phone charger from the wall when not in use. Start small.
Baby steps almost always lead to bigger things!

Posted by: Bob on 20 Oct 10

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