A design-savvy city defined

A report lays out a road map, backed by polling that revealed surprising attitudes of Seattleites and Portlanders about their hometown architecture.
A report lays out a road map, backed by polling that revealed surprising attitudes of Seattleites and Portlanders about their hometown architecture.

I got a copy of the report I wrote about in "The Rose City Blooms and the Emerald City fades." The study, by architectural firm RMJM, attempts to identify America's top 10 best-designed cities. Portland and Seattle both made the list. The fuller study confirms that there are some significant differences between the two cities that tend to favor Portland.

An initial summary of the report mentioned that historic preservation was was one of the criteria used to judge the cities and that Portland has a better track record than Seattle if you use National Register sites as a rough measure. But beyond history, in polling of residents in top 10 cities, the study reveals that Portlanders are much more pleased with their urban architecture than Seattle residents. In fact, the only people who are less happy with their city are Los Angelenos.

The study breaks down the categories it used to judge cities. I give summaries of the criteria below and have added (in italic) some observations of my own. Also, I've included some of the polling results, where relevant.

So, as the report asks, "What makes a design-savvy city?"

  1. Public transit and urban infrastructure: Public transit systems can't stand still, even in mature transit cities like Boston and New York. There, city governments are planning to invest more than $9 billion in upgrading their subways alone, yet "... people are still looking for more. Only 47 percent of New York City residents have a favorable impression of their city's pubic transit system." Between them, Boston and New York have more than 30 types of public transit. The report says new ideas are being tried: gondolas in Baltimore, high-speed trains in Taiwan.

    Transportation (roads and transit) satisfaction was lowest in mass transit cities like New York and Chicago, about average in Seattle (53 percent rated it favorably compared with 55 percent overall). But Portland was off the charts in transportation favorability, rating a higher approval than any of the top 10 cities at 79 percent. The next closest was Philadelphia with 67 percent approval.

  2. Sustainable design: It's important to make things greener and some cities, like Seattle, have ambitious greenhouse goals, but the report found that in the top-10 designed American cities, only 45 percent of people surveyed were even aware of their city's sustainable initiatives. Those numbers were higher in Seattle (59 percent) and Portland (64 percent).

    (Mossback aside: It isn't only the general public that's a step behind. As revealed in Robert McClure's Seattle Post-Intelligencer story, even our greenest politicians are reluctant to mandate anti-pollution strategies that would help save Puget Sound. One suspects "sustainability" means what is "sustainable" for developers to grow their businesses.)

  3. Art and design education: "Creative schools, especially at a university level, spawn creative businesses and endeavors and, in turn, elevate design sensibilities in their local communities," the report maintains. Boston, with top architectural programs at Harvard and MIT, is an exemplar. The gist: Break the barriers down between city and classroom.

  4. Innovative architecture: The report says the "Bilbao effect," where one stunning building can put a city on the map, actually dates back to the ancient Greeks. The Parthenon was the first Guggenheim. World's fairs and the Olympic games are occasions for creating legacy structures which act as statements "of investment in a city, demonstrating commitment to the future and driving up tourism."

    (After two world expositions (1909 and 1962) and a firm rejection of hosting the Olympics, what does Seattle do for an encore? How do we overcome our tradition of hiring great architects to do mediocre work (Frank Gehry's EMP, Robert Venturi's SAM). Do the ephemeral Rem Koolhaas library or Olympic Sculpture Park get us off the hook? Or should we be satisfied that the Space Needle will make a great ruin one day?)

  5. Creative community: Great cities, it seems, are filled with idea people, the creative class who, if they are not lucky to be architects are perhaps their social and creative equals. San Francisco is cited as being "one of the most well-known havens of the creative economy."

    (Great cities, in other words, need to have a high tolerance for over-educated trustafarians and a capacity for vigorous self-regard.)

  6. Art, galleries, theater spaces, and museums: All the places where the creative class does its business are important, but so is bringing art to the masses. The study points to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper's public art initiative, timed to coincide with the 2008 Democratic National Convention there in August and featuring, according to a press release, "10 site-specific art installations catalyzing public discourse in neighborhoods" throughout the city. "Catalyzing discourse" is always good for bonus points in a "savvy city" competition.

    (I envy the Denver media because they have a mayor to make fun of named Hickenlooper.)

  7. Preserving historic buildings: The report says, "How a city treats the past says a lot about its values for the future. And anecdotal evidence suggests that cities that take care of their old landmarks are likely to embrace new ones." In addition, the study encourages sustainability through preservation by touting an effort in Boston to "revitalize the existing City Hall in Government Center as opposed to relocating it to the South Boston waterfront, claiming adaptive reuse would provide more environmental benefits than building a new sustainability designed building."

    (Putting adaptive reuse over the green building excuse is the right way to go. Too bad we didn't get the message before we built the new City Hall.)

Beyond the study's seven criteria, its survey of urban residents reveals that Seattleites are a lot less happy with their city's design than people in other top-10 cities. Only 13 percent of Seattleites said the city's architecture was "excellent" compared with an average of 24 percent overall. Twenty-one percent of Portlanders said their city was excellent. The only city rated worse than Seattle was Los Angeles. Even more Philadelphians think their city architecture is excellent (17 percent). If you add in people who said "good," Seattle's positive vote comes to 64 percent. The overall average positive ranking was 72 percent overall, and Portland's was 76 percent.

Not surprisingly, Seattle was regarded more negatively than average. Thirty-five percent gave the city a negative rating, compared with 25 percent overall, and 24 percent for Portland. Again, the only city in the top 10 that was ranked more negatively was L.A. at 45 percent.

People ranked the quality of life here about the same as folks in other cities, which suggests that Seattleites enjoy their lifestyle but have major issues with the built environment.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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