The folks at the Sightline Institute
take great joy in Seattle's skipping gaily over the edge into becoming a dense Pugetopolis. They and most of the environmental community have convinced themselves that growth is good, as long as it is stuffed into high-rise shoeboxes that someone has dubbed "green." Look at Portland's light rail! Admire Vancouver's skinny towers! Envy San Francisco's density!
While they act as a clearinghouse for new data and ideas of interest to greens, they are ever quick to applaud the urbanization of the region in the guise of "saving it." Like this recent blog post
that cheers the fact that finally, at long last, Seattle has more multi-family housing than single family homes. Welcome to the big leagues, New York Alki.
If you'll note, those who express skepticism about growth and development Seattle-style are labeled as gloomsters. I am "sackcloth." The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
's Joel Connelly is "ashes." We are not dense enough for Sightline.
The dense ones, however, believe they are on the winning side of history. Time for a "mission accomplished" lap, perhaps, along with the developers and big business interests that willingly greenwash their corporate goals to co-opt labor, enviros, and progressives into supporting urban development policies that roll over the little guy. This is the coalition that powers Greg Nickels' machine, the mayor who can't say no
We know that these green-backed policies are making the city more unaffordable. They are helping to drive the poor out of town. They are displacing long-standing communities. They are changing the scale of a once-egalitarian city that featured few poor people, few rich people, and a lot of folks in between. This old middle class Seattle is now seen as unsophisticated, not worthy of protection, backward even. Some politicians are finally taking notice: U.S. Sen. Patty Murray recently called this economic displacement Seattle's "silent epidemic
." Well, I guess we were supposed to be a hub for biotech, right?
Today's ecotopian vision
rejects some of the main tenants of the original Ecotopia
, which stood in defiance of the supposedly unstoppable free market. Todays greens don't think small, they think big. They moralize globally while disdaining locally. Sure, buy a locally grown organic parsnip. Fine. I do. But if you stand up for tradition and history, you'll be run over by their hybrids. For this new breed of ecotopians, Seattle is a blank slate to be manipulated like a Monopoly board, as if no one really lives here, except the Sackcloth and Ashes mossbacks who haven't seen the new dawn.
And while they're acting as generals on their land of counterpane, they often ignore – or are oblivious to – the downsides of the models they tout so often.
Take Vancouver, the Cascadian city green urbanists most admire. It's a dense Hong Kong in the making. But wait. Those skinny towers haven't stopped suburban sprawl; the tax policies that created the modern city are likely unsustainable; the cost of living is sky-high; and the boom in condos is making it more difficult for the city to offer the full range of jobs and services a city requires to be healthy. Downtown is so stuffed with rich, idle baby boomers that some critics worry that Vancouver is turning into Canada's Miami Beach
Portland is delightful in many ways, always a teacher's pet city when it comes to urban instruction. But their dirty secret has now been revealed. They've been outed. What made their urban planning work so well was that they were able to outsource sprawl across the Columbia River to growth-hungry Vancouver, Wash. On top of that, Portland-style urban planning has worked so well that it's contributed to a statewide backlash that sparked a property rights rebellion that may destroy Oregon. Hey, at least they have a new tram
And then there is San Francisco, the city many urbanists yearn for us to be. Which is funny, because I remember author Gore Vidal saying that he liked Seattle because "Seattle is the city San Francisco thinks it is, but isn't." And that's true in many ways.
I know San Francisco. I lived in San Francisco. San Francisco was a friend of mine, and Seattle, you're no San Francisco. Which is a good thing.
Don't get me wrong, I loved San Francisco when I lived there in the mid-70s – the era of Patty Hearst, Rolling Stone
, Harvey Milk, Tales of the City
, Herb Caen, and Italian mayors. I love it still when I visit. But what made San Francisco is something you cannot copy. It has to do with when a city is built, by whom, and when it comes of age. It has a unique essence we couldn't replicate if we built a thousand Victorian homes on our hills. Footnote to remember: Most of San Francisco's grand Victorians were built with wood that stood where Seattle now stands. Yes, our forests built their city so we'd have a place to build our city with someone else's forests. And so it goes.
But while many
of San Francisco's charms are intact – it was a city built for pleasure, unlike our nanny town – the city of today is less than it once was. Even in the 1970s, natives, the few you could find, complained that it had gone downhill, had lost it neighborly, even small-town, charm. As Vidal observed, the Seattle it always imagined itself to be. Since 1950, San Francisco has not only stolen hearts but robbed bank accounts: Real estate prices have increased at double the national average for the past half century. The New San Francisco is truly a Golden Gated community.
Today's San Francisco is unbelievably expensive. A city for rich people. Its black population all but driven out. Its families headed to the burbs. It's great for tourists – in fact, much of it is designed for them. The working waterfront is a Disneyland for monied visitors seeking things like hand-picked exotic mushrooms and artisanal chocolates. It even has that SoDo new-car smell that comes with taxpayer-funded stadiums and their upscale pubs.
But has San Francisco's density and affluence, has its progressive politics, redeemed the Bay Area? Did it save it from becoming a megalopolis? If Seattle doubles its density to match San Francisco's, if we take down the Alaskan Way Viaduct, if we cater to "knowledge workers," can we be assured that central Puget Sound will remain less paved?
The San Francisco experience offers no such assurances. The Bay Area is a sea of sprawl, despite density and despite mass transit (and maybe because of it). The Silicon Valley is ghastly and overpriced, trapped in a tech-boom economy that has turned sleepy towns into vast megacities. San Jose was dead in the mid-1970s, almost a tumbleweed town. Today, it eats the countryside. Same with the East Bay, where the Ken Behring-style mega developments of the '90s are now dwarfed. Yesterday's McMansions are mere bunglows. Sprawl hops the mountains and spreads into once rural valleys beyond. Mass transit and rail make the commuting easier, but they've greased suburban growth too. Yet the freeways are still packed.
Does Seattle really
want to be a so-called "superstar city" like San Francisco, a magnet for trustafarians who love to live in elite urban environments? There's evidence to suggest that this model is reaching an economic dead end, especially since the vital middle class is fleeing to less glamorous, more affordable cities like Charlotte, Dallas, and Riverside. Joel Kotkin, fellow of the New America Foundation, pokes holes in the superstar city syndrome
. We may be grasping for San Francisco status just as the market for such things is about to tank.
Yet this ideal is at the core of Mayor Nickels' and Gov. Chris Gregoire's hype about global competitiveness and the upside of being a sparkling, expensive metropolis instead of a workaday town. Even more strange, it points up how twisted progressives and enviros have become in terms of their priorities. Kotkin observes that "the fashionable 'left' defines successful urbanism by its ability to lure the superaffluent, the hypereducated and the avant garde. ... One wonders what true progressives like Harry Truman or Fiorella La Guardia would think of such an approach."
Is San Francisco uninhabitable, an unremitting hellhole? No. Will Seattle be one if it follows its urban footprint? No. Is density itself evil? No. But let's be honest: A bigger, denser Seattle is no panacea for sprawl; it's no assurance that what we love about Seattle today will still be affordable or even available in the future; it means sustaining a vastly larger and more complex city in an extremely sensitive ecosystem, Puget Sound
, that our devotion to growth is already destroying.
Let's admit, too, that you can do real damage if you ignore a city's past, if you threaten a settled urban culture with displacement, if you dismiss experiences and memories as mere obstructionism. You can do irreparable harm if your theories are built on the shaky premise that only elites can save us from global doom. And you disrespect the place you profess to love if your fantasies seek to replicate urban theories that sound good on paper but ignore the roots that are sunk deeply in the soil of an actual place.