Can Seattle be a Slow City?

An international movement to change the ethic of growing cities seems right for the Northwest. But we'd have to check the boom-town impulses embedded both in our growth economy and our frontier DNA.
Crosscut archive image.

A sea of cranes. (Crosscut Flickr contributor <a href=''>Christine Howard</a>)

An international movement to change the ethic of growing cities seems right for the Northwest. But we'd have to check the boom-town impulses embedded both in our growth economy and our frontier DNA.

The dean of writing about the West, Wallace Stegner, once wrote that the West gave America two innovations: the motel and the ghost town. The ethic of the region has long been about movement and growth: to stay in one place is to stagnate and die. The 20th century added speed to mobility.

It's tough for Americans to see virtue in being slow and rooted, but in our genes we Northwesterners have leaned a little in that direction. Sure, Seattle's been a boom or bust town, but the old settlers sang about being contented with a life of ease while gorging on "acres of clams" on Puget Sound. That is a slacker hymn if there ever was one. If anyone in the West can slow down, it ought to be us.

You wouldn't know it from Northwest skylines and growth patterns, our New York Alki aspirations and Vancouver's Hong Konged skyline of skinny towers. We like the idea of preserving nature, but cities are for building, whether upward or outward. Grow or die. The boomer sees ghost towns around every bend in the economy.

Weirdly, many greens have hung on to the growth bronco and tried to ride it with ideas about density and urbanization. Some of that has been to ameliorate the effects of urban growth (crowding, traffic, pollution, waste), but often it's simply been an easier way of going with the flow — of glossing the impact of growth by making it marginally less harmful. For developers, that's been a godsend: American consumers love to be told their consumerism is good for the economy or the planet so we can consume without guilt or changing nearly hard-wired habits.

Growth addicts see more as necessary and justified by any circumstance. In boom times, for example, we're told we have to give Boeing tax breaks and subsidies to keep the good times rolling. In hard times, we're told corporate tax breaks are a must because we can't increase costs in tough times, even to close a budget deficit. In other words, there's never a time when greasing the skids of economic growth is bad policy.

The current economic meltdown, however, suggests that moderation is an idea whose time has come, that under-regulation, excess and greed are, just perhaps, things that can have a significant downside for us all. One compensation is the chance to rethink the way forward.

Our online brethren at The Tyee in Vancouver, B.C., are tossing out good ideas for the new year, and one is the "slow cities" movement, which grows out of the "slow food" concept hatched in Italy. The idea is for cities to adopt a different ethic, one not focused on growth but slower evolution, quality of life, history, tradition, local food and drink, sustainability.

Part of Seattle's split personality gets these things, and eating locally and cultivating local foods, wines and talents has long been a part of who we are. Preserving our history was once the cornerstone of civic revival. But we've lost momentum to the folks who love to think of Seattle as a blank slate, not a community to be crafted or shaped by time. Europeans are quicker off the mark in the so-called Cittaslow movement. Cities in Britain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Spain, Norway, the Netherlands and other countries have jumped aboard the slow-movement bandwagon, which is symbolically pulled by a snail.

Here, we recognize some of the virtues of the movement: Don't "Bend" Walla Walla is the bumpersticker of those who want to enjoy Walla Walla's wine country without turning it into a poster child for too much growth, like Bend, Ore. We all know people who have skipped town for places like La Conner, Lopez, Vashon, Port Townsend, Bellingham, or Twisp for a taste of the slow life. The question is whether big cities like Seattle or Vancouver could adopt the slow ethic, could re-commit to the virtues of thinking small, acting locally, and slowing down.

Of course slowing down is a relative thing culturally. The Spanish siesta seems civilized and sane in a culture built around it, but has been rapidly victimized by the standardizing rules of the European Union, which have also cracked down on such things as the shape, size, and weight of an acceptable carrot. In Scando-Asian Seattle, a siesta would be seen as indulgent, but not necessarily the occasional four-day week that allows an early escape to Hood Canal or Whistler.

Back in the late 1970s, I ran into an Irishman in the airport in Madrid who had lived in Seattle for a short time during the building of the Alaska pipeline. He worked for Lloyd's of London. He said, "the problem with you people in Seattle is you work too hard," noting eight-hour days with few holidays, grocery shopping in the evenings, frenzied scheduled visits to gyms or rigid jogging regimens. "You leave no time for life," he cried. Perhaps only an Irishman could see Seattle as workaholic.

If he thought we were crazed in the '70s, what would he think now? A friend and colleague, Larry Cheek, wrote recently that he'd seen an ad for an editing job at Microsoft that described the job's attractions: "Continuous deadlines, high pressure, demanding audience, and intense scrutiny." Is that Seattle's 21st century idea of a life? Wrote my friend: "When striving for excellence amounts to daily floggings, we should maybe re-examine our definition of excellence."

The Irishman aside, most Americans think of us as a place to kick back, a place that already understands slow and quality of life. But we're way behind our European counterparts, and what we have is endangered. Liberal globalists like Thomas Friedman see the way out of our economic problems as working harder and increasing productivity. The lash of the panicked Puritan is being readied: work, consume, build, grow.

This also seems a dangerous course down the same road that created so many of our problems. Could we, even in the West, learn to slow down, consume less, grow at a more reasonable pace? Is the current bust the perfect time to re-think our priorities as a city, region, and state? Much of our current budget crisis relates to the challenges of growth — the costs that are uncovered in our push to get big fast.

We've seen slow-growth movements before. As an editor on the Eastside in the 1990s, I observed the guerilla war that took place in East King County between suburban and exurbanites and developers aided by a dishonest, developer-enabled county government. While those battles were sometimes philosophical, they were more often strictly situational or even selfish. NIMBYs have a bad name because they're seen as pushing their own well-being at the expense of the community's. But they have virtues, too. One is they often value the local, idiosyncratic, and traditional over the generic and the new. Another is that they are a helpful symptom of the lack of faith people have in a purely market-driven system that favors money-making over any other value.

In the new slow movement, the NIMBY becomes a SIMBY, a person who starts sustainable slowness in their own backyard. Localism is no longer an enemy of the people. At the grassroots level in cities like Portland and Seattle, and even some planned communities in the suburbs, many people already get this.

The fast-growth urban model doesn't grow very rich communities, though they may evolve over time. Housing developments can be synthetic, new condo towers sterile. The model is better at displacement and setting citizens on a ride to ever higher taxes and ever greater demands for infrastructure at an ever greater cost to the environment. They generate new needs and desires in a booming population that doesn't care a lick for tradition, but wants problems fixed today. Where's my new road? My new school? My new multiplex? My new Starbucks?

The issue may not be that cities or suburbs are either bad or inherently superior to one another but that the market forces that create them don't care much what they turn into because the builders are always about what has not yet been built. They're not about stewarding what exists, or cultivating something that can sustain and endure, not as long as our economy is only based on rapid growth and expansion. Citta Slow looks like an alternative to those values, and it offers a chance to nurture communities that don't come out of a cookie cutter.

Such movements can also be a marketing ploy. They can also produce a kind of cloying, smug localism that panders mainly to civic ego. And living in a village of small-minded shopkeepers can be a real challenge. Not all change or innovation is bad. But being "slow" isn't about quashing innovation but channeling, integrating ideas rather than wiping slates clean and starting over time after time. Building a slow big city won't be easy, especially if, like Seattle, you have strong strands of DNA that also run in the opposite direction. In the American West, patience is not imbibed with mother's milk.

And there's always the problem of convincing the local Chamber of Commerce to go along. One strategy is to reassure business leaders that slowing down won't turn us into a ghost town but the exact opposite: a city with its soul intact.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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