2007 in review: The Seattle density debate

Trying to find a saner, more just "ethic of place." Good luck with that, Seattle. Two important new books explain why.
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Trying to find a saner, more just "ethic of place." Good luck with that, Seattle. Two important new books explain why.

Few stories I wrote this year generated as much discussion, anger, and web traffic as my rant against the religion of urban density, "How dense can they be?" I criticized those who promote increased densities as an inherent good and ignore the downsides of their agenda.

I was – and am – incensed by many of the class assumptions in these policies that are pushed by the city, exploited by developers, enabled by labor, and green-washed by environmentalists. In the name of density, we are making the city uninhabitable for the poor and middle class. We are driving out diversity (Bellevue is more racially diverse than Seattle is now). We are even degrading our urban environment in the name of saving it as we continue to clear-cut our "urban forest" to jam in more housing. Politically, an alliance of these interests is turning Seattle into a monoculture as surely as a crop bioengineered by Archer Daniels Midland Corp.

Our leaders' endless mugging and boosterism for world-class status pivots on the notion that our future lies with attracting an elite class of global "superstars," a concept that suggests to me that we're little more than suckers lapping up civic snake oil. And despite token efforts to create more "affordable housing," the juggernaut that funnels growth into Seattle favors the wealthy and privileged in the name of "saving the planet."

Needless to say, many people disagreed. Few like to have their good intentions "shat" upon, as my father would say. Crosscut posted an official response from Clark Williams-Derry at the Sightline Institute. I had used the Sightliners as poster children in the density debate. I later responded to my numerous blog critics.

I have come back to the topics of growth, density, and place many times since. My thinking has also evolved. Two books I read this year have influenced me.

The first is Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, which argues that a new localism and a non-growth-oriented economics – a kind of capped capitalism – is essential to our wrestling with global warming and the economics of consumption. What impressed me is that McKibben points to a positive way forward by building on many of the things Seattle is already doing, particularly in the local food and farmer's market movements.

But while Seattle "gets" it on the micro-level, on the macro we are still captive to the Boeing and Microsoft agendas, the bigger is better initiatives (embodied so well by Greg Nickels), and non-sustainable economic growth models. Such approaches can never be accommodated because nothing we do – nothing we build, nothing we create – will ever be enough. You find a stark example of this in the agenda of the more-roads lobbyists who still believe that bigger and more highways will lift us out of congestion. A good sign: voters rejected that foolishness as embodied in Prop. 1 which, I think, struck one blow for starting to think small.

McKibben writes the following: "A single-minded focus on increasing wealth has driven the planet's ecological system to the brink of failure, without making us happier. How did we screw up?" One answer is that we keep on doing what's worked in the past. We try to feed the beast of over-consumption – catering to the market's whims – while never trying to deal with the cause: the culture of growth. We're trapped in an economic cycle that equates prosperity with more and more with prosperity. Contentment, health, spiritual uplift and happiness are not part of the equation.

What kind of city would we build if it we stopped trying to accommodate what business and industry demands but rather what makes people thrive? I have a hunch it wouldn't be more glass towers and $1 million bungalows.

This brings me to a second book, Matthew Klingle's Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. This book offers an unvarnished look at how the modern city came to be and, quite frankly, the amount of eco-devastation involved – wiping out salmon runs, despoiling the Dumwamish, logging forests, attempting to ethnically-cleanse the city of Native Americans and Chinese, privatizing the commons, hosing the hillsides into Elliott Bay – ensures that our past is not a pretty picture.

The interesting thing to remember was that most of this was done with good intentions: to build a safer, healthier, more prosperous community – for most, if not all, its inhabitants. Klingle doesn't let anyone off the hook, not the well-meaning engineers who built the sewer systems yet massacred watersheds, to conservationists who wanted to protect wildlife in order to preserve their right to hunt and fish recreationally at the expense of those who needed to hunt and fish for subsistence, such as Indians and immigrant groups. In short, Seattle's history is that of a big, complicated city with no single, happy story-line that tells the tale. We are a product of consequences, intended and unintended.

The important take-away from Klingle is his last chapter, "The Geography of Hope" in which he calls for a new "ethic of place and a city of justice." His point is that we cannot be a city that worships nature – a metronatural Emerald City – without factoring in the cultural biases that go into our idea of how we see nature. Environmentalism, he says, has become a "secular faith," but it really needs to be more rooted in history and more pragmatic. It needs to account for all the people, not simply the urban elites.

The cataclysm of the Duwamish River is a case in point – a waterway that was altered to suit industry and polluted, in part, to keep Lake Washington clean for the wealthy who lived on its shores. The result helped to create prosperity for workers and a lovely, fresh-water amenity for lakefront property owners, some of whom made their money pumping waste into the river. But the people who lived along the Duwamish, the people who subsisted on its fish or the poor who lived on the industrial margins, were poisoned by those policies. And those toxics continue to spread throughout the food chain. We need an ethic, Klingle says, that takes into account "environmental injustice" throughout the greater city.

Judging from some of the reaction to my story, many greens do not like to have their good intentions questioned (who does?), and faith in the new urbanism runs deep. But an environmental movement that is reflective and willing to look at itself in hard ways will be a stronger force – if for no other reason that it can learn from history and find a more congruent way forward.

I was steeped in the conservation ethic and hold to a spiritual, if not religious, sense of nature. Northwest men like Justice William O. Douglas and Gov. Dan Evans were early eco-heros – men who combined a love of the outdoors with progressive politics. As a youth, I exchanged letters with Douglas at his retreat in Goose Prairie, Washington. As a college reporter, I watched the fit Republican Evans rappel down the clock tower at the Evergreen State College, an alternative institution he would later head. Both men embodied a kind of independence and lack of predictablity that is so attractive to many of us raised in the West.

With early role models like these, it troubles me to think that environmentalists – people with good, green intentions – could ever turn out to be wrong, misguided, racist or classist. But knowing that we're imperfect – and Klingle makes a case for that – ought to encourage us to be more rather than less willing to call bullshit on ourselves.

If saving the wilderness or Puget Sound can only be accomplished by turning Seattle into a wealthy enclave of "superstars" who perch in glass towers while they help drive a global economy that is devouring the planet, I would hope that even the densest among us could take a few moments to see what's wrong with that picture.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.