How Utopian thinking leads to Seattle's gridlock

Too often, opposing civic forces are looking for perfection. But that can lead to political gridlock or, worse, unworkable compromises.
Utopia in the making? A rendering of Seattle's waterfront without the Alaskan Way Viaduct

Utopia in the making? A rendering of Seattle's waterfront without the Alaskan Way Viaduct

As I've studied the history of Seattle and Pugetopolis, I've noted how two forces are often clashing. It's more than Greater vs. Lesser Seattle, growth vs. stability, fat cats vs. social justice advocates, the Chamber of Commerce vs. the Sierra Club. The lines of battle are far more complex, even before you get to the issues of Balkanization and parochialism, with which our region is rife. We were born in dog-eat-dog competition, each city on Puget Sound trying to be the biggest and best, mostly as defined by industry, but also in terms of lifestyle and appeal. Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, cities and suburbs, are still locked in competition for growth, prosperity, clout.

The clash of forces I'm talking about tends to be between people who come to the region believing one of two things (and this is common in the West). One is that Seattle represents an opportunity to replicate where they came from, often to obtain what they were too late to get in, say, New York or Chicago.

This is embodied in the name the first settlers here gave to the settlement: New York Alki, meaning we'll be New York someday. Seattle was a place you could replicate familiar ground, but without the baggage of people on top of you in the economic and social food chain. If you couldn't be a Vanderbilt or Astor or Trump in Manhattan, the path was wide open in Seattle. Look at our two recent mayoral candidates: the finalists (and winner) were political outsiders few could have named before their campaigns. In Seattle, anyone, not just the cream, can rise to the top.

The counter-force is from those who come here wanting to escape and create something entirely new. Puget Sound is rife with utopian experiments, from turn-of-the-century anarchist and socialist collectives to the Love Israel family. But utopianism isn't owned by cults or outliers alone, it suffuses our public life evidenced in our desire to make, or keep, Seattle special, a city better than others. It makes the case for Seattle exceptionalism, be it the greenest city, the most literate, the most "metronatural." It is also often driven by fears of disaster: We must transform dramatically, or face the end of life as we know it.

All sides in civic debates draw on uptopianism. There is a sense that we can have it all here: prosperity, nature, industry, wealth, social justice, growth, solitude, wilderness, a clean Puget Sound. The problem I have with the utopian impulse (which I too possess) is that it is often driven by two false assumptions. First, that there is only one way to do things right. And second, that the city or region is a tabula rasa, or a new iPad.

Utopianism is reflected in both forces for change, especially in the desire to break with the past. Those who would recreate New York (or Vancouver or Copenhagen) here are usually for starting from scratch. They tend to dismiss local history and customs and the older built environment in favor of whatever moves most boldly in the direction of rebuilding. From R. H. Thomson's washing away the inconvenient hills to the mass makeover of South Lake Union, the future is achieved through dramatic restructuring.

Those idealists who want to escape from New York (or Los Angeles or the Old World) to create something new also work on the blank-slate theory. They tend to see local history as easily swept aside. The severing of connections is crucial, or the remaking of consciousness. Any New Age must, by definition, be new. You see this in expressions of the urge to drop out, or secede, as modeled in Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel Ecotopia. Our Cascadian region and its cities are often imagined as something apart, remote, or separable from a more corrupt or compromised whole: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver are metrotopias to be perfected and copied, even envied.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

On the vilifying one's opponents front....how about your assertion that infill/densification proponents want a "blank slate" or are somehow against preservation?

Infill does involve tearing something down sometimes, unless it's on a parking lot. But it's also generally dependent on fitting into the existing structure of the neighborhood. Regarding preservation, I suspect the vast majority of infill proponents (including me) put a high priority on preservation, but on a selective basis rather than preferring that entire districts remain as museum pieces.

Another point you made was that your opponents tend to be from elsewhere. It's funny that some others assume the precise opposite, that locals want change and newcomers want to lock the door behind them. Both assumptions are misleading, because both natives (like me) and newcomers have opinions all over the map.

You could say that infill/density/tunnel advocates are about growth. I say many of us are about preservation. Personally I like infill and density for their own sake, but they're also about preserving farmland and forest, reducing carbon footprint, etc. The tunnel is about preserving Downtown (for liveability, transit, pedestrians, etc.) and keeping the city functional economically (preserving the seaport for example).

As usual you claim the high ground while attacking and being intellectually inconsistent.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

We have been all about minimalism, or getting he biggest bang for our buck.
Instead of urban renewal for Pioneer square and Pike Place market, we have continued history and added cultural enhancement. That continues in other neighborhoods like Ballard, Columbia City, West Seattle, Capitol Hill, etc.

Through the Forward Thrust Bond Issues, we adaptively used such things as bathhouses for dance studios, theatres and art facilities Buying parkland in flood plains conserved money and gave us much needed waterfront openspace.
And more and more...

The new people who come here, assuming it isn't just for the job they are coming to, feel their previous hometown/city has changed, not to their liking.
The grass looks greener in Seattle. But what they learn when they get here, is that if they don't participate, speak up, get active in some forms of community and/or political process, the sights they have run from, will just follow them. And that is what has happened recently.

Prosperity, opportunity and enjoying the actions of others, have continued their laziness to add their voice to the frey. Financil improvement and world-classness are the only identified aspects as positive.

Their lack of understanding that previous Seattleites also came from elsewhere, and fought to make our communities what they are today. is obvious This is not to say that the deal is done. We need new blood that will advance our quality of life, not rest on their laurals.
The easiest way to get involved in issues is to start as a minimalist and learn to grow from within. Big, expensive projects or political favoritism can't work in the long run. And, they threaten the previous progress that we have so valiently fought for.

Let's keep it together and get going on seeing new sensitive leaders that understand the past so they can build on it for our future.

Art

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 9:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute -- This is a very interesting topic. However, I do think Seattle is in a slightly different spot than some other Puget Sound cities. Tacoma's public institutions and local government are much more pragmatic and focused on economics and jobs -- that may be because they have had a harder time of it. Bellevue's government manages to keep the snow off the streets and focuses on the nuts and bolts of local government without becoming enamoured with changing the world. By definition, local government must be prgmatic and focused on the basics to fulfill its mandate. But the pull to be global leaders sometimes causes us to take our eye off the ball. I recall a group of Seattleites visiting Portland to observe their station area planning some years ago, before we had light rail: some in the group declared that we could do it better, until they were reminded that we didn't even have light rail yet. You are correct that the perfect is often the enemy of the good here. Sometimes good enough is just that.

Jordan

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not just Utopians vs Pragmatists.. We also attract the "music men" from elsewhere who seek their fortune in selling Seattle a vision. Often that vision has been sold to other cities so those of us with some actual vision can see the results.

It's also the oil burning past and the something else future that is competing. No one really knows what the future is best, but it's pretty clear to me, that continuing to build for a cheap oil past is the wrong direction. And we can also see cities which have moved to a different future than our past and how well that works.

There is also "I just came from a city that did XYZ, and it was horrible, why are you advocating doing the same?" groups. For instance those cities which tore out their street cars, or failed to build central city parks.

The failure of the South Lake Union Commons is going to be rued in 50 years when the density of the city shows how necessary open space is.

GaryP

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Even with cheap oil, the rate of driving will probably remain similar due to 1) population growth, and 2) fuel efficiency. The former might be a 1% to 1.5% per year effect long term. The latter could be much quicker...people will adopt small cars very quickly if gas gets into the $5-6 range.

(I don't drive...just being pragmatic, as I think the "cars will disappear" crowd has their heads in the clouds.)

mhays

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 2:08 p.m. Inappropriate


As something to read that was a pleasure to read Mr. Berger. Refreshing to read a compare and contrast piece.
4th paragraph from the end was very sharp. Now that would be a fine bridge as described, is that really so much to ask.
The next paragraph was the home run "we need to lighten up". If someone was there to say "and cut" would be perfect. That's just my ideal side whereas my utopian side was just upset i wasn't reading it on an ipad.
thanks for the continued work.

uncletim

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 5:17 p.m. Inappropriate

mhays:

There are lots of blank slate people throughout Seattle's history, people who have reshaped the land drastically, or who have helped to erase entire districts, whether for industrial development (SoDo, Duwamish), a powerful developer remaking a neighborhood (South Lake Union) or to deal with blight and civic remaking (Seattle Center). They are driven by visions of building a city on the hill from scratch, not as you suggest slowly evolving the urban landscape, or gently in-filling it. Plenty of individual developers prefer the wrecking ball, and Seattle's lost landmarks are legion. Much of the attitude often has less to do with history than with class and culture. I suggest Matthew Klingle's superb environmental history of Seattle, The Emerald City, which is guaranteed to find fault with nearly ever civic faction, from do-gooders to rapacious robber barons, including mossbacks!

I did not mean to imply that this debate is only between newcomers and old-timers. In fact, I specifically point out that both civic forces are utopian, just in different ways, and that the forces are resident here. Big city (or I could say hugeasscity) aspirations have been with us from Day One (New York Alki). So my idea isn't just that people are arriving here physically, but I include even the native-born who arrive at their civic viewpoints. You are right that there are many old time Seattleites who want more growth and density. It is also true the many newcomers are more interested in and sensitive to local history than the locals, partly because they come from cities, often big eastern cities, where history is part of civic culture more so than here.

This piece is not to be about density vs. non-density; not at all. But I'm trying to get at aspects of why compromises are so difficult to come by, and so inadequate when they are arrived at. Many are simply unsustainable in all senses of that word.

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

We have different definitions of "blank slate". Seattle Center certainly was, aside from a bit of adaptive reuse. SLU is transitioning sort of like Belltown with the main difference being one developer being involved with the majority of it...both SLU and Belltown have, and will always have, a mix of new and old, even if some of the old stuff also changes in use over the years.

For the best examples of recent "blank slate" activity, go to Portland (Pearl, SoWA), Vancouver (Expo site, the other side of False Creek, and a huge number of other mixed-use megaprojects often involving clusters of highrises), San Francisco (Ballpark area), Denver (Central Platte Valley).... Seattle has nothing like any of that, at least since the last World's Fair.

mhays

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 7:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I must have missed the part where Mr. Berger explained his vision for something New And Different for Seattle--as opposed to that icky New York or Vancouver import stuff he seems to detest.

Indeed, the notion that Seattle has carved a unique path by scorning rail for so long (lest it become Vancouver or Portland) or standing by its waterfront freeway (lest it tear it down and become San Francisco or Portland) is giving the place way too much credit. Density haters are hardly unique to Seattle--to the contrary, they're everywhere, which is part of the reason so many places in the U.S. look like so many other places in the U.S.

But Mr. Berger does, as usual, give voice to those who can walk the tightrope of planning for expanded freeway capacity while dragging their feet on rail, all while patting themselves on the back for their heartfelt eco-consciousness.

TLjr

Posted Wed, Jun 2, 9:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's civic 'gridlock' may in part be a result of the impracticable pursuit of utopian perfection. But its wholly unrealistic utopianism is more an orchestrated ruse meant to distract Seattlers as their resources are exploited, their labor manipulated, and their pockets picked. Seattle's verdantly veiled defining character is the Gold Rush. Its history is dominated by the reckless pursuit of purloined extravagant wealth, not egalitarian societal perfection nor harmony with nature.

Wells

Posted Thu, Jun 3, 8:23 a.m. Inappropriate

The profit motive is the main reason behind everything that any business does in every city, with few exceptions. If there's a difference between Seattle and elsewhere, it may be that idealism alters the way of doing business more often, and in other cases at least alters how businesses try to be seen.

I don't see many businesses pursuing egalitarian societal perfection, aside from paying good wages perhaps. But many are doing something on the sustainability front, whether mostly real or mostly PR. While some measures of sustainabilty are flawed, any real improvement in this direction is to be applauded.

mhays

Posted Thu, Jun 3, 9:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Good last post, mhays.

The missing distinction:

The "problems" industry makes a good and steady good living because it makes sure, intentionally or otherwise, that the problem addressed persists. This is done by focusing people's attention upon first order change— keep the categories, change the magnitude—add heat to solve cold, except it just gets colder. The last thing a problems industry needs is people asking the critical question: what are we doing that's growing this problem—making it persist, just getting worse?

That thought is the essence of second order change—change the categories—a step almost always nonsensical when first considered, yet as simple as the police officer who knows how to change the tone, diffuse, reset the course of events, and as complex as consuming less and focusing on, even celebrating local and manual skills. Folklife still on the mind, I guess, but there are so many skill about to disappear from the face of this earth. And of the skills still healthy, even gang members have some that can be put to better use. If that's pragmatism, I'm all for it.

afreeman

Posted Thu, Jun 3, 4:23 p.m. Inappropriate

TLjr: I am not in favor of expanded freeway capacity. Where did you get that?

Posted Fri, Jun 4, 6:02 a.m. Inappropriate

In a State that relies on the Growth Management Act to define growth, there doesn't seem a way for the GMA to be enforced, other than via lawsuits.

I recently asked CTED for referrals to help with some GMA questions, since the CTED doesn't truly "approve", ie: actually READ in depth for adherance to law a communities Comprehensive Plan. CTED referred me to futurewise.org, a very "new urbanism / smarth growth" organization, which in my view, is directly against most current State laws.

CTED and many other Counties and Cities in WA are also annually participating in a symposium sponsored by a group called "Local Government Commission". This is NOT an official State funded department.

How is it that our regions of government continue to affiliate, bond, support and recommend such organizations? Is the infiltration by those who have agendas that do not follow property rights agendas this deep that the governmental bodies do not realize they are being manipulated? Or, worse, do they want this manipulation?

Here is the website that bothers me: http://www.newpartners.org/2010/program.html

Posted Fri, Jun 4, 6:03 a.m. Inappropriate

By "bond" I mean bonding, like with a friend.

Posted Fri, Jun 4, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

1 sense,
Don't miss Chuck Wolfe's account of the last junket of: http://www.i-sustain.com/
The transit first folks will be happy to know those bonding learned that in hindsight it might have been better to do BRT first.
Only on Crosscut!

afreeman

Posted Sat, Jun 5, 6:23 p.m. Inappropriate

1sense, could you explain this sentence a little better: "Is the infiltration by those who have agendas that do not follow property rights agendas this deep that the governmental bodies do not realize they are being manipulated? Or, worse, do they want this manipulation?"

Are you accusing governmental bodies of being masochists because they pay attention to non-property-rights-agenda orgs? Surely not.

sarah

Posted Tue, Jun 8, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

The Growth Management Act is essentially a policy document, not enforceable relative to specific local land use decisions. I understand that Washington State courts have regularly held that the GMA, like various municipalities' Comprehensive Plans, sets general rules and guidelines, but unless specific ordinances are passed by a municipality, the GMA does not provide a basis to decide local land use disputes.

In Seattle this means that only those provisions of the GMA and the Comprehensive Plan that have been codified in specific amendments to the Seattle Municipal Code have produced legally enforceable provisions that may actually achieve what the GMA and the Comp Plan propose.

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