The outsider's guide to sustainable Seattle government

Dispatches from a day at King County's award-winning government sustainability conference.

Field notes from a day at Seattle's Government Confluence 2013, "an intensive day of inspiration and peer-to-peer learning" around sustainability in local government.  

10:30 am: Arrive at Town Hall amid a hubbub of government employees and strike up a conversation with Maria about her work on affordable housing for the homeless in King County. She says her department's focus is mostly on areas outside of the city, since Seattle has its own affordable housing program. Of those, the Eastside has been most resistant to their efforts; South King County the least, though they try to spread out housing pretty evenly around the county. We jam for a few minutes over coffee and a Danish about generational differences and racial equity in government and planning communities.   

11:04 am: Pop into a session on using data to increase the sustainability of your business led by Bryan and Candice, an attractive pair of young data wonks. Bryan speaks without much enthusiasm, but the few people who leave the session in the first few minutes miss out on the impressive portfolio of tech tools (iPad apps, wireless monitors, real-time energy dashboards) he whips out to help a savvy building manager cut energy and water use.

Real-time energy use monitoring. Photo: Powerhouse Dynamics, Inc.

Candice takes us earnestly through a series of math exercises that prove we can build consensus and make decisions even if we don’t have all the data. Sure enough, I’m able to determine (relatively accurately) the number of piano tuners in Chicago, using only the Fermi system and some wild guesses about population and piano prevalence. “You know more than you think you know and you need less data than you think you do,” she explains.

12:20 pm: Farestart caters lunch – turkey chutney sandwiches – which we eat over a panel on something called the Dutch Dialogues. I am sure my urban planning V-card is showing, because I have no idea what these are. Still I listen patiently, hoping no one asks me any questions. On-stage the planning types go on about how long they’ve dreamed of bringing these panelists here.

1 pm: I am no closer to understanding the methodology behind the Dutch Dialogues, but I have learned that they facilitated some pretty mind-blowing urban planning work in New Orleans. Both the Netherlands and the Big Easy have faced huge challenges with water management and flooding and the trio of architects and planners before me have helped bring the Netherlands’ way of thinking to post-Katrina NOLA.

“The Netherlands and, we think, New Orleans should go from flood resistant to flood accommodation,” explains Dale, a Senior Economist from the Royal Netherlands Embassy. That means creating ways to store water under streets and in underground parking garages. It means creating parks and green spaces that turn into lakes in times of intense precipitation. And, as architect David Waggoner explains, it means fundamentally rethinking the design around people and water and how they interact, using water management to create inviting spaces and walkways that draw people in.

The plan for a revitalized New Orleans water management system. Photo: Dutch Dialogues.

“There’s an area in New Orleans where they tried to pave everything. Supposedly, you can see it from space,” he quips, eliciting the first real laugh I’ve heard all day. Most planners, it seems, aren’t hired for their witty banter.

1:53 pm: Like most industries, urban planning has its share of secret passwords; those phrases you drop in conversation just to let the other person know you belong to the same club. “Adaptive reuse” is one of them (Mention Split, Croatia in the same sentence for bonus points), which is why I find myself listening to a presentation about Portland’s Brewery Blocks. The project, a rehabbed Henry Weinhardt brewery downtown, turned a 5-block urban parcel from a vacant set of old warehouses into a thriving mixed-use development: 200 jobs grew into 1500 and 400 housing units.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, May 20, 4:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I am not glad that there is so much environmental messaging being put forth by planners with agendas.

Stop shoving BS down our throats, and get out and learn some new jargon that actually makes sense. Quit making up new words to obscure true meaning.

As taxpayers, we are clearly considered "outsiders". That must stop.

Berit, you sound young and not certain whether you should be impressed by all those you heard speak at this conference. Please, trust your gut. Do not be impressed.

Sustainable doesn't mean force-fed, it doesn't require new weird words, and most certainly the wealthy Bullitt Center may be 'vaunted', but certainly not affordable for public entities.

Be cautious, do not drink the planners tea.

Posted Tue, May 21, 9:53 a.m. Inappropriate

The father of four is an environmentalist, huh?
Bet he'll tell you that every fucking day.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, May 21, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Remember, growth pays for itself.

In higher taxes, fees, tolls, now that's sustainability.

salmonjim

Posted Wed, May 22, 3:32 p.m. Inappropriate

"Sustainable government" sounds like a log ready made for throwing into the Tea Party furnace. In the United States governments at virtually all levels are democratically elected, but from the top down they are run like rigid corporatocracies. That's why on a typical day the earth loses over 100 square miles of rainforest, another 100 square miles are so are lost to desertification, and the number of species lost is uncountable because governments aren't highly motivated to count, let alone save, species. Most governments treat the fact that the human population increases by a quarter of a million or more people daily as a taboo topic. The US hasn't even ratified the Law of the Sea convention, let alone any of the climate treaties. In the wake of the massive loss of life due to collapse of a single factory building in Bangladesh I read the astounding statistic that 85% of the staggering amount of clothing Americans purchase each year wind up in landfills. In my opinion, governments everywhere are powerless to stop any of this. In fact, most of them actually cause these problems.

Mud Baby

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