Author Roger Sale, who wrote one of Seattle’s must-read histories, Seattle Past to Present, argues that we’re at our best during busts, not booms. Seattle boom times tend to bring out our worst qualities, a tendency to overdo development and be derivative, copycatting New York or Los Angeles with “world-class” ambitions. Economic busts turn us toward homegrown innovation.
During the Boeing collapse of the 1970s, for instance, the region successfully worked to diversify the local economy to make it less Boeing dependent. It cut Boeing job dependence in half by the 1990s. One reason: During the early 1980s recession, while Boeing itself struggled, high-tech jobs here increased by 28 percent with one of the emerging companies being founded by a local boy named Bill Gates. For the first time, “high tech” became an economic sector here, and the Silicon Forest was born.
So there’s room for optimism in the current economic downturn. Operating budgets are slashed, unemployment rises, but in a city shaped in part by hard-working Lutherans and Asian immigrants, there’s a sense that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. There are already signs that some good things might come from hard times.
Seattle has already prepared for the future by passing major infrastructure investment measures last November, including rehabbing the Pike Place Market, investing more in city parks, and expanding light rail. With the promise of millions of dollars in federal stimulus funding, the state has also fast-tracked numerous regional road projects that were deemed shovel ready. (When you hit a roadwork backup on I-90 or I-405 this summer, remember: Those are jobs.) During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration funded a wide array of projects in King County that are still part of our vital infrastructure today: field houses, parks, airports, bridges. While nothing of that scope is proposed now, the new administration is looking to boost projects (like alternative energy) that could have long-term benefits.
We’re also seeing an increased demand for public transportation. In 2008, that was fueled by $4-a-gallon gas, but transit ridership has stayed high even with gas prices down. Metro ridership was up a record 7 percent in 2008, nearly double the national growth rate, thanks in part to expanded service. Nationally, public transit ridership has hit a 52-year high. One theory is that the surge of new riders from high gas prices saw the time and cost savings of public transportation. While the recession is threatening transit budgets — King County’s Metro has said it could face a shortfall next year of $100 million — there’s hope that the new, expanded constituency for public transit will both help make us less auto dependent and create more opposition to service cuts.
Healthy schools are a key to a livable city, and Seattle’s system is, and has been, troubled. In 2005, the Gates Foundation, frustrated by the school district’s leadership, opted not to renew a major grant to the district. But with a new superintendent and board majority making tough decisions on things like budgets and school closures, Gates money is now flowing again (a $7.2 million grant this year). Some speculate the recession will reduce enrollments at the city’s private schools and the result will be an influx of middle-class students back into the public system. Seattle has long had one of the highest percentages of students in private school (25-30 percent). The recession could have the effect of reengaging many Seattle families in public education.
The slowdown is also giving developers a breather. With so many projects on hold, the city has a chance to manage growth better. Slowing the wrecking balls highlights the importance of other development strategies. The National Trust for Historic Preservation opened its Seattle “Green Lab” this spring, part of a national pilot project to integrate sustainable development and historic preservation by helping cities rewrite rules and regulations to enable more adaptive re-use of existing structures.
The slowdown also encourages planners to consider how to accommodate growth without massive new construction: zoning changes to permit more mother-in-law housing, a return of boarding houses, new historic districts to spur redevelopment. A slower pace also allows neighborhood and grassroots groups to plan better without being under the gun of demolition permits and developer deadlines.
Finally, boom times are always accompanied by excess, but Seattle is at its heart an egalitarian city that values fairness and used to eschew conspicuous consumption. Perhaps these tough days can return us to a civic ethic that again values the bungalow over the McMansion, prudence over excess, and reminds us that overconsumption is neither good for the planet nor our souls.
This essay first appeared in the June issue of 'Seattle' magazine.
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