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The Dutch have a cure for 'Seattle Process'

The Netherlands achieve feats of great civic organization and accomplishment. Seattle should sit up and pay attention.
The 20 mile long Afsluitdijk

The 20 mile long Afsluitdijk G. Verkerk

Crossing the Netherlands' astonishing Afsluitdijk, a 20-mile-long dike built in the 1920s to span the former Zuider Zee in order to cut off, desalinate and tame its routinely terrifying floods, one gets a tangible sense of the historic ambition and effectiveness of Dutch political and civic decision making.
 
Likewise, seeing the vast synchronized redevelopment underway of Amsterdam's central station and moribund north side in order to let the thousand year old city grow, illustrates a Dutch kind of modern urban politics that tackles gigantic civic objectives, while managing to bring people together enough to actually finish said civic objectives in a coordinated functional way. 
 
The well-coordinated scope of Amsterdam's civic ambitions takes the breath away, particularly for someone from Seattle. Here, our efforts seem more a civic crap-shoot: fund a billionaire's new arena over here, build a fraction of a floating bridge over there, bury a four-lane road in a tunnel at the waterfront, scatter trains and tracks piecemeal through a few neighborhoods. Some paid for, some not. Let the cranes and 'dozers roll; we'll figure out how — or whether — it all works together sometime down the road.
 
Travelling through Holland, one perceives cultural aspects of Dutch decision making that could offer contrasting lessons for a young city like Seattle. We are a city that still searches for an enduring, cohesive story about itself, its aims, its politics and its increasing global prominence. And we also still seek ways to make our urban politics work, integrate and align to achieve greater things for the city and the region.
 
The oft-mocked "Seattle process" has become code for aiming for consensus, but never quite getting there: discussion without decision, tug of war to the point of gridlock. Ours is a surefire recipe for making getting things done more difficult, or for moving in civic lurches, at the least. 
 
So, it is particularly interesting to observe the Dutch civic culture, where the process of reaching consensus is the very essence of how to get big, bold, ambitious things done.
 
That Dutch process, the "polder model" is the particular way of decisionmaking that is centuries-old, yet enables people, politics and civic momentum to coalesce. It endures as a kind of Dutch cultural DNA in both business and civic affairs. Its essence is both gathering agreement and knowing the limits of trying to make everyone happy — and, at the point where all have been heard, moving forward decisively. Elements of the polder model might be useful in Seattle, where civic factions routinely hunker down to stasis: downtown v. the neighborhoods, north end v. south end, old Seattle v. new economy, ad infinitum.
 
The Dutch have built dikes, drained swamps, created land out of water for centuries. This "poldering" of Holland required enormous ambition but also demanded relentless practical cooperation: You may disagree with your neighbor about politics, religion or what have you, but when it came to building and maintaining the dikes and pumps on your property you could not "do nothing," no matter the disagreements, or else everyone up and down the line of polders — man, women, child, horse, cow — would drown. Political scientists have dubbed it "the democracy of dry feet."
 
The landscape imposes a tangible mutual obligation, a compelling clarity for a country where 40 percent of the land is below sea-level. The core of the polder model — not drowning — is so important as to focus all minds on action. But this sensibility spills into lots of other areas in politics and society — creating a presumption to act rather than stall or pontificate. The luxury of "standing on principle" crumples when faced with the imperative of the sea. People have a chance to be heard, to get their ideas in, to be challenged, to respond. With luck and enough patience, a consensus tends to emerge. But everyone understands that ideology alone must not ultimately stop action because, when all is said and done, there is the sea.
 
The polder model's mark is evident on city founding documents buried in the Amsterdam archives, simple contracts signed hundreds of years ago by family after family, draped with bundles of wax seals and ribbon after ribbon — keeping dike after dike after dike intact. Otherwise, the sea.
 
Once alert to it, one senses the polder model everywhere in Dutch life. Walk into a Dutch company and you'll see it in the way companies organize their teams and physical offices. Unlike America's ersatz personal space, the cubicle, Dutch offices typically have a large central desk, with an entire team arrayed around it facing one another; six, eight, twelve or more working shoulder to shoulder in continuous conference. It's odd to an American eye, but the advantages come clear watching it in action. Lateral communication is efficient. The decision process produces "buy-in" beforehand, so what the process costs in slowness at the start can be made up for in swifter implementation on the back end.
 
Catch the news on television and you'll see it in a political landscape dotted with so many political parties that intense collaboration is essential — even beyond voter support — simply to govern. The "informateur" in Dutch politics is the person whose sole job it is to create agreement, bring the parties together to form a governing consensus. 
 
In Amsterdam itself, roughly comparable to the Seattle area in population, you can see a very big consensus in how the city is now developing. Along the city's north side, abandoned factories, drydocks and vacant corporate headquarters are being transformed. A former shipyard is now a thriving arts incubator, a thriving arts culture having been deemed essential to new development. New residential neighborhoods are being built. And across the river, in the old city, the National Monument central railway station is expanding to integrate trains and bus systems into a multi-mode transit hub. A long-delayed (and billions of euros over budget) central subway will run underneath to connect north and south. And the face of the station will become once again a pedestrian plaza, connecting to the city in a way it hasn't since before the automobile took over.
 
This grand effort has countless parts and phases that will all work together. And on the north side, there is a brand new flagship. Four major arts organizations were merged into a single national Film Institute and housed in a thrilling new building, directly facing the historic city and station as a kind of ultra-modern counterpoint. The stunning result is set to take its place, Sydney Opera House-style, as a global visual icon of the city it represents.
 
A Seattleite pondering what it must have taken to get this all in motion is struck by a depressing thought: There is no way that Seattle, in its current political state, could pull off anything this ambitious or well-synchronized. Yet we can learn something from the Dutch polder model and perhaps apply it here in our own way.
 
There are three useful aspects: 
  • First, the sense of overriding objective; that some things are so important that blocking action for the sake of ideology is — or should be — unconscionable.
  • Second, understanding and upholding the idea that coming together over differences is in fact the key to success, not the barrier to it.
  • And third, the ability of leaders to bring together all factions; to get everyone in the same room and begin, continue, and insist upon working things through, however long it takes; to remind everyone that in the absence of action, it's the sea for us all, metaphorically.
That kind of thinking could help Seattle sort our vital public safety challenges, fix what is long overdue in public education in the city, help preserve Seattle's socio-economic and cultural diversity, tackle true sustainability. Perhaps it's as simple as applying the polder model's insistence that when faced with disagreement, the conversation does not stop because it cannot stop, given the severity of the consequences. So people will stay in the room, keep working on it and purely ideological objections will give way to more practical considerations.
 
When it works, the polder model is a way of classifying fundamental issues above and beyond those that are simply important or merely interesting, and then setting a higher bar for how to work through them together — with a lower tolerance for ineffectiveness or inaction.
 
As Seattle prepares to choose its next round of leaders, mayoral and otherwise, some "polder thinking" would help clarify issues that are bound to emerge in the campaign ahead, not to mention the choices yet to be made.
 

Contributor Matt Fikse (Twitter: @mattfikse) has covered urban affairs, politics, tech, and business at Crosscut since 2009. His work has also been featured on KUOW 94.9 FM, GeekWire.com, Q13 television, The Stranger/SLOG, and elsewhere. He has worked as an entrepreneur, CEO, consultant, and past Special Projects Director for the Mayor of Seattle.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 7:07 a.m. Inappropriate

If Seattle was located in Holland the whole place would be underwater.

Cameron

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Re: the author's endorsement. That's not disclosure; that's just an endorsement. I made no connection between this essay and the mayoral race until I read that. Is that really appropriate here?

MStanger

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 10:12 a.m. Inappropriate

Be-you-tea-full work of writing, metaphor, history and issue storytelling. Congratulations. I must only disagree that Seattle ends rather than extends discussion of actually important concerns, and that is why Seattle Process lengthens interminably; not that rambling nonsense doesn't go on forever. Ug. Actual concerns left unaddressed continue to arise and a distraction toward lesser concerns is more exclusively useful than collectively productive. Think Governor Mcginn gut instinct proven wise. Don't do it

Wells

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

We did this. It was called neighborhood planning and it was so successful cities around the globe copied it. Certain politically powerful people didn't like it, so we've abandoned it.

So much for "polder"

ddmiller

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 12:05 p.m. Inappropriate

What Seattle DID produce 'IS' the worst traffic & transit system management in the nation.
Your bore tunnel is widely considered "frightening" by peers around the country.
MercerWest considered terrible. The Seawall considered weak.
The whoop-dee-do Alaskan Way Promenade overrun with traffic
while hundreds try to cross routinely and bicylists too threatened.

SOME PEOPLE WANT "THIS TOPIC" LEFT UNADDRESSED.

Seattle & State DOT DIRECTORS ARE WRONG. Both DOT Department employee neather fairly consider
nor fairly nor completely respond to constructive criticism. Seattler PRIDE refuses to admit how their 'favored own' attempt the worst engineering stunts repeatedly.

Shall we NOT talk earthquake considerations, just so that we may better understand what could possibly, if not IMO probably, happen? Such casual attitudes about weak foundations in weak soil.
Pride blinds the willful reckless mind with leadership pretensions.

Wells

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 11:08 a.m. Inappropriate

"First, the sense of overriding objective; that some things are so important that blocking action for the sake of ideology is — or should be — unconscionable."

You would be so bold as to propose what that might be?

afreeman

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 6:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually moving forward in an economical, sensible fashion.

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 12:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Ah so, and exactly which "fashion" would that be?

afreeman

Posted Sun, Dec 30, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Expediency.

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

The Dutch include German, French and English in their school curriculum because the Netherlands has always had an economy that depends on international trade; they see themselves as part of a greater world.

Contrast that with Seattle Exceptionalism, the absurd notion that Oklahoma City-by-the-Sound is the center of the universe, not the provincial (not to mention clueless) backwater it in fact is. Meaningful discussion, never mind actual progress, cannot take place in a city so completely fetishized by so many of its residents...

orino

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 4:25 p.m. Inappropriate

The author's Burgess endorsement casts an interesting light on the rest of the piece. Presumably, if we apply these ideas to the waterfront highway, Burgess represents "polder"--- consensus, working together to achieve goals--- while McGinn is the bad guy letting ideology stand in the way of progress. The problem is that consensus and 'working together' are only as good as they outcome they achieve.

It is clear now that the funding schemes for the waterfront tunnel were a figment of someone's imagination-- the tolling projections were utter nonsense, and we now have no idea how the tunnel will be paid for. So far, we've started fishing for federal money that otherwise might have been used for a more worthwhile projects such as mass transit. As this unfolds, I strongly suspect that Seattle will wind up getting thoroughly screwed. McGinn attempted to ask tough questions about those obviously-wrong projections--- how very "un-polder" of him-- and he was shouted down by the faux-"consensus" crowd. It is now obvious, and will become even more obvious as this debacle unfolds, that Burgess and the rest of the "let's-work-together-with-the-state (no matter how backward their transportation policies)" crowd should have been less concerned with "polder," and more concerned with defending Seattle's interests against a car-worshipping state government that regards mass transit as a communist plot.

monorail

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 5:35 p.m. Inappropriate

It might have been wiser to put the author's political endorsement at the top of the article. While Matt Fikse-Verkerk (Dutch origin?) skirts the direct relationship between the Netherland's polder model and Seattle, the suggestion is clear.
Seattle is not Amsterdam and the USA is not the Netherlands. Amsterdam has a population that has diversified in the last decades but it is still overwhelmingly "Dutch" with family roots going back centuries. That is true of much of the Netherlands. That offers a homogeneity and potential for consensus available in other small and homogenous countries as well, Norway, Denmark, Finland jump to mind. The inside view of their political system is not necessarily as benign and rosy as the author indicates. Appearances can deceive particularly at a time the USA is going through its fiscal crisis rant.
Seattle is less diverse and more diverse in population than many American cities, but it is far more diverse than Amsterdam and therein lies as much of the problem as anything else. Seattle also prides itself on its liberal open-discourse spirit that does indeed strangle many public debates. Echoes of the stasis in the national political system of the country. In Seattle there is no common threat like the sea. That is unique to the Netherlands and has indeed put polder into their consensus. But Seattle's sea is a well behaved waterfront by comparison. Take the sea away from Holland and I wonder if polder would have developed. Give Seattle the sea, and perhaps, over a few centuries, Seattle might have its polder.

pherford

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 6:52 p.m. Inappropriate

The environmentalists that have overtaken Seattle would never allow the wetlands to be filled, diked or dammed, drowing cows or not.

Sounds silly, but the entire Seattle "process" is because of overwraught environmentalists who apparently value time being wasted more than any other thing, including the environment. They are also so against cars that they defie reason.

So, the Dutch polder model would fail here in Seattle, home of absolute, wasteful process. We used to be able to get things done here, but you probably were not born yet.

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 8:22 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Process doesn't reach consensus because it is not an authentic process. It is typified by public hearings which are neither public nor heard. The key to the Polder process is early engagement by a wide range of stakeholders while the key to the Seattle Process is the late emulation of engagement after a select few have decided.

coolpapa

Posted Sat, Dec 29, 1:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Witness:
Of all the things that would benefit from a "full environmental impact statement with alternatives" (an EIS in politico talk) what before our wondering eyes does appear but a second EIS, supposedly to finally "wrap-up" a very long-in-the-tooth but very short trail completion.

Seattle has not put the process to its intended use for so long that the correct term for a second EIS —a Supplemental EIS—has escaped its ruling knowledge pool. Either that or the first one was such a dud as to best be forgotten. Admittedly, the law is silent about the latter:
http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/sea/sepa/handbk/hbch03.html

afreeman

Posted Fri, Dec 28, 11:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle could get a lot more done if it went Dutch on it's dates.

Djinn

Posted Fri, Jan 4, 7:17 a.m. Inappropriate

I prefer Seattle to Amsterdam.

Has there ever been a time in Seattle's history that we're building more big stuff? Tunneling all over the place. Major road improvements. Huge new development underway downtown. Thousands more new jobs on South Lake Union. More on the way. Boeing going gangbusters. There's more.

I was in Amsterdam earlier this year. It could use a good scrubbing.

Jan

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