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Urbanism needs to move beyond city boundaries

How are we going to keep the state's ferries afloat?

Editor’s Note: The following is adapted from a speech delivered last week to the American Political Science Association, which held its annual meeting in Seattle.

Urbanization is an unstoppable world megatrend. Over the past 60 years, the urbanized areas of the planet have gone from 29 percent in 1950, to half of the world’s population today, and by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population is expected to live in urban regions.

Scientists describe the large communities of plants and animals that occupy distinct climatic regions on earth as “biomes.” We should think of cities — and by my definition I mean whole networked urban regions — as the newest, rapidly expanding biomes of the earth.

Cities are already responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Accordingly, climate change cannot be addressed without their transformation through strategic alliances. I’d like to suggest some ways to get on with this project.

A central, compelling question raised by political scientists, economists, planners, and other researchers is that, if cities are the fastest growing systems on earth — and causing resource depletion, species die-off, and declining natural ecosystems of unprecedented scale — how can we manage the way that urbanization is drastically restructuring the ecology of our planet?

Let’s start with the United States, already one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. By 2050 America is expected to grow by 120 million more people, and it is estimated that an 90 percent of Americans will live in cities and metro areas. Most will be located in a handful of vast mega-metro urban regions that cross state and even national boundaries. The growth of these metro regions, some 360 in all, is largely unbounded, not contained in any one political jurisdiction, and unmanaged. 

Urbanist and philosopher Lewis Mumford in his prescient 1956 paper, “The Natural History of Urbanization,” wrote that “the blind forces of urbanization, flowing along the lines of least resistance, show no aptitude for creating an urban and industrial pattern that will be stable, self-sustaining, and self-renewing.” 

One reason for these “blind forces” is the pattern of local politics in the United States over the past half century, which has served to amplify the urban–suburban divide rather bridge it. This has impeded the healthy and efficient growth of urban metros.

Yet  most urbanists today see cities (meaning metropolitan regions) increasingly as hubs for innovation, places to experience urban vitality, and an answer to our global economic woes. Cities have an inherent urban advantage and the capacity for progressive and transformative change.

 As Bruce Katz with Brookings Institution says, our U.S. metro regional economies are what will make the U.S. competitive again with other developing nations if we can garner our interdependencies, link up, and  foster economic synergies among metro regions. In fact 82 percent of U.S. gross domestic product is produced in its metro regions.

According to economist Jeb Brugmann, author of Welcome to the Urban Revolution, urban scholars who have analyzed market flows have “discovered that global networks were patterned according to networks of cities.” They have concluded that “the growing commerce between cities has created hierarchies between cities that define the new economic order. Cities and their networked systems — not countries or individual corporations — are the main command and control centers of a new world City system.”

Brugmann continues: “The primary ecological challenge of the next decades… will be our ability to develop ecological urbanisms, …and [determining] whether the City evolves into a truly functional new ecosystem — a citysystem with stable if not synergistic relationships with natural systems.”

Harvard Economics professor Ed Glaeser, in his recent acclaimed book, Triumph of the City , espouses a different view of environmental policy through city-building. “If you love nature, stay out of it,” he declares. Build up, and up and up. Greater density is the goal, and the way to save the planet, he says.

But this is wrong-headed and simplistic. How will towers and more concrete save the planet, when they simultaneously increase human consumption, energy, and enlarging the ecological footprint of cities well beyond their borders? Furthermore, humans cannot separate themselves from nature, survive, and remain healthy. Nor do they want to.

The global challenge of urbanization in the 21st century will not be solved by concentrating people and separating them from nature. Theat creates what Brugmann calls “a parasitic system that disrputs the metabolism of Earth’s great green, blue, tan, and white biomes, triggering chaotic ecological collapse.”  

Urban forms and zones are neither uniform nor fixed. They can be designed to mimic nature’s efficiencies and productivities. So can buildings that attempt to use nature’s free services in a clean, regenerative way. Whole cities can do the same. And, as we’ve just seen again with the hurricane Irene in the Northeast, another big worry is disaster readiness and resilience. In addition to some of these demographic changes, cities are going to have to get used to responding to more frequent disasters whether from earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, bush fires and other severe weather catastrophes related to climate change.

Yet by and large, cities in the U.S. are often handcuffed by state governments through restrictions at every level on land use, regulation, and revenue raising. Outside of major cities, the metro regions — where most people live in North America — fare even worse when it comes to reach of regulatory authority and revenue collection. Very few full service metro or regional governments with any land use control even exist in the U.S. (the exceptions are Portland, Miami Dade County, San Francisco, and  Minneapolis).

For the Western Washington region, home to hundreds of local governments, the jurisdictional boundaries have very little to do with how we live and even where we work, and shop. This is true for most other metro regions in the country. Just think about how often you cross the boundaries of the city or town where you live to go to work, to recreate, or to shop. Three or four times a week, or three or four times a day?

Though we don’t identify as such, most Americans are regional citizens living in highly networked yet seemingly invisible regional citysystems. The Seattle metro region, for example, is a large and multi-faceted area encompassing 5,894 square miles. That is almost the size of New York’s metro area of 6,720 miles but with 15.5 million fewer people. Seattle metro includes 31 cities and towns and dozens of employment centers.

Amando Carbonell, Senior Planning Fellow at Harvard’s Lincoln Land Institute, says:  

We live in regions — territories defined primarily by function and only rarely by jurisdiction. The places where we work, live, shop, recreate, and socialize constitute a territory that seldom corresponds to a single town or city. Regional planning is concerned less with the exercise of jurisdiction and more with the search for new forms of habitation based on a clear commitment to advancing sustainability.

 Even if we do live and work in the same town, the ecological fall out of our day-to-day living patterns will be felt upstream and downstream throughout the region, not to mention the ecological footprint. 

And now my central point:  a regional approach is necessary for managing land use, water, utilities, population growth, and transportation, and ultimately for addressing climate change. 

Take the City of Seattle’s audacious goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. Absent  from the carbon analysis are contributions from external yet  urban-generated sources such as the interstate highways, ferry traffic, and municipal waste hauling — all which extend the carbon footprint well beyond Seattle’s political borders. SeaTac airport, for example, generates  GHG emissions (largely from jet take-offs and landings) of 4,650,000 metric tons, which is nearly 70 percent of Seattle’s total annual output (6.770,000 metric tons).

Who are we fooling? If the goal is to seriously cut carbon emissions and advance urban ecological balance and sustainability, the heavy focus on densifying the urban core of the hub city may be misplaced or way too myopic.

Consider Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, a model of urban densification. Vancouver is leagues ahead of most any other city in North America in  both planning for center city urban density and achieving it, through a Living First strategy for downtown Vancouver and comprehensive regional planning (their Living Region Strategy) for the metro area.

With its impressive forest of dense residential high-rises, Vancouver has one of the densest urban cores in North America. Even so, the Metro Vancouver area, just like most metro areas in the U.S., has outstripped the city of Vancouver’s growth rate by more than four times that of the center city over the last three decades.

Vancouver has achieved a regional compactness twice that of Seattle’s metro area. This has been done through  regional comprehensive planning, strong land use controls, and Metro Vancouver’s urban rapid transit system with 42 miles track over three lines and 47 stations.

But is this the best model to follow? Most North Americans (not that they can’t change) prefer to live in less dense neighborhoods than places like New York city. Or, if they prefer urban density, they may find it difficult to afford. Vancouver, despite its focus on compact growth, is the third most expensive cities in the world to live in (as figured by housing costs measured against median income).

Compared to Vancouver, Seattle feels a lot more suburban with 70 percent of the city’s land area comprised of single family homes on sizable lots of 5,000 square feet or more. The land use code, which protects this low density land form, has hardly been touched in over 30 years.  Maybe that’s why Seattle in 1960 comprised over 60 percent of the metro area population yet today represents less than 17 percent in population. It’s not that people left Seattle, but the region grew up around it. Urban growth in metro regions the United States, by and large has vastly outpaced population growth in hub cities, a few of which have seen sharp declines in population.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the concentrated urban growth emphasis. Cities can address multi-sector issues in ways that counties and unincorporated areas cannot. But the plain fact is most cities today are buried in, and inseparable from, the metro areas they are within. And the typical North American city is too small in area (the city limits of San Francisco and Boston are nearly half the land area of Seattle) — and with marginal impact on the regional urban eco-system

My second point: there is more than one type of “sustainable lifestyle,” and so to solve the climate crisis future growth does not need to corral everyone to live in the center city.

High-towered city living, although it has become increasing popular among empty nesters and those who can afford the views, is not the only sound environmental option. A regional solution can offer a range of lifestyles and community types without compromising, and possibly even improving, urban/regional ecologies. Suburban cities and towns, where most people in the U.S. live, need to be seen as a large parts of the solution, not the whipping boy of the density ubanistas.

Rather than writing off the suburbs, we need strategies to bring the qualities and conveniences of city life to suburban communities. A well planned and functionally efficient region that combines aggressive conservation strategies, good transit systems, and green technologies can offer many types of sustainable lifestyles and affordable housing options to meet American preferences more sustainably and more broadly.

 Says Peter Calthorpe, architect, author, and co-founder of the Congress of New Urbanism, “We now lead regional lives, and our metropolitan form and governance need to reflect the new reality.”

There are other compelling reasons, besides accommodating future growth, why regional urban strategies are so desperately needed.

Puget Sound. the second largest marine estuary in the United States, is manifestly the single biggest, most intractable environment challenge facing Washington state today.

The iconic chinook salmon along with 20 other marine animals are endangered, dwindling pods of Orca whales are among the most PCB-contaminated mammals on earth, and entire marine ecosystems are dying off. Millions of pounds of toxic pollution flow into Puget Sound every year, mostly from storm water run-off and combined sewer overflows, carrying deadly poisonous chemicals from urban areas to the sea.

Now here’s the problem: The Puget Sound basin, home to 4.4 million people, is bordered by 90 cities and towns and an unfathomable maze of overlapping jurisdictions and regulatory agencies. They share in common a local economy (Boeing, Microsoft, global container shipping, etc) and networked urban infrastructure (airports, roads, utilities, energy, water, food distribution network, etc.). Yet no one agency controls. As Kathy Fletcher, founder and retiring director of People for Puget Sound, says, ” our biggest challenge now is the fragmentation of decision-making and lack of enforcement of existing regulations.”  

It’s been over four decades since Sen. Warren G. Magnuson first warned of a looming “environmental catastrophe” facing Puget Sound, meaning oil tankers. Today, it’s not the oil tankers but unmanaged urbanization that is the single biggest contributor to the ill-health of the Sound. What would Glaeser and the build-upward urbanists say about that? Cities of today, regardless of how compact they are, do not contain their hazardous wastes from spilling into and destroying fragile ecosystems. The spread of hard impervious pavement, the proliferation of cars, trucks, and steady increasing vehicle travel (VMT) is, more than any other source, causing the continuous poisoning of Puget Sound and its estuaries that the urbanized areas encompass.

Bill Ruckelshaus, former EPA head and past chair of the Puget Sound Partnership, grew frustrated at the slow pace of clean up efforts and suggested convening regulators and others to come up with a more cost-effective way to improve water quality in urban areas like Seattle and King County. It hasn’t happened. More recently, Ruckelshaus said in response to failing water quality and clean up efforts in the Puget Sound Basin, “Governance is the screaming need here. We need an intervention!”

This makes my Third Point: Puget’s Sound’s failing health is symptomatic not of a collective lack of will, but of our politically fractured urban metropolis . It’s the sydrome known as the tragedy of the commons. Consider this: By 2040, the region is expected to grow by nearly 2 million more people. The decline of Puget Sound will accelerate unless a regional low-impact growth strategy is put in place and enforced across multiple jurisdictional boundaries. The state so far has steadfastly refused to impose necessary regulatory restrictions of polluter fee collections. The marine die-off will continue until there is a Puget Sound-size solution to deal with the enormous problem.

So what can be done about it? Simple. Fill the governance gap. Implementing a bold plan for the future requires coordination and consolidation of local power into a new regional form of governance.

The place to start is recognize the region’s common economic, social, and environmental interests, and by building strategic institutional alliances that  knit metro communities together across jurisdictional boundaries. I’d suggest a Congress of Puget Sound, consisting of democratically elected representatives of municipalities, as a strong, common voice for the region while preserving local independence at the municipal level. 

Rather than be divided through prolonged infighting and turf wars, why not create an institutional mechanism  for intra-local priority-setting and inter-local decision-making that can transform the metropolitan areas such as the  Puget Sound basin into much stronger strategic regions? After all this was the genesis of the European Union on a much larger scale.

Such efforts are beginning to form around the country, to address growing complex needs and the governance gap of metro regions, and as a means for advancing economic, social and environmental progress while preserving sense of place.

Cities in the 21st century are the future, says economist Jeb Brugmann, and the strategic city-region will have the “urban advantage.” The success of cities in tackling global problems will depend on values-driven, transformative urban alliances and progressive strategies that achieve resiliency and greater ecological balance with the planet. Competing interests will need to re-align themselves against chaotic, disorganized, and destructive forces, or face more global crises, ecological disasters, and ultimately sharp economic decline.

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