Strains in the green-growth coalition

The battle for candidate endorsements reveals some ideological divides between local environmentalists, developers, and independent thinkers who wonder if all urban growth is good.
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Jesse Israel, City Council candidate

The battle for candidate endorsements reveals some ideological divides between local environmentalists, developers, and independent thinkers who wonder if all urban growth is good.

People in Seattle are green green green. We're a leader on Kyoto, we hate plastic bottles and shopping bags, and our politicians often jockey over who is more green than the other. Candidates for office vie for key endorsements from groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club, Washington Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club.

But candidates also need business support too, and Mayor Greg Nickels has led the way over the years in forging a lamb-and-lion coalition of green and development interests. You'd think these two would be more at odds, but part of the secret to Nickels' success has been exploiting an urban green paradigm that essentially equates urban development with the true green agenda.

Making Seattle into a denser city will save undeveloped outlying lands from growth; in-fill is more carbon-friendly than sprawl. In this world, high-rise office and residential towers are the way to save the planet. Density, walkability, transit-friendly, and sustainability are the watchwords. Whether a bigger, denser, light-railed Seattle will actually result in less sprawl in our region is still mostly theory, but it's accepted as gospel by many. A pro-development stance pleases greens, business, and the labor unions. And politicians.

Erica Barnett writing at Publicola offers an interesting window into how the green-growth coalition is finessed. She writes about how city council candidate Jessie Israel managed to get endorsements from both pro-density Washington Conservation Voters and the pro-growth Seattle/King County chapter of the Washington Realtors Association. One group hates sprawl, the other thrives on growth, including sprawl.

She's not the first Seattle candidate to get the endorsements of both, but it's interesting to see at whose expense the endorsements were made. Both groups found Israel more to their liking than her opponent, incumbent City Councilmember Nick Licata, one of Seattle's most progressive politicians. Barnett wanted to know why Israel over Licata? There were several reasons:

Asked why the Realtors supported Israel, association public-affairs director David Crowell pointed to two issues, both of which would appear to conflict with her environmental-community support. First, Crowell said, Israel told the group she would not let tree protections stand in the way of development within growth management boundaries (i.e., in cities). "She remarked that trees are very important, but if it's a question between trees and urban areas...density would trump trees," Crowell said.

Israel also apparently opposes home sellers having to conduct mandatory energy audits to let buyers know just what they're getting. As to why the WCV made its choice, Barnett reports:

Sudha Nandagopal...says the group decided to endorse Israel because she "really showed that she'll be an environmental champion" on the council, by supporting "walkable, transit-oriented communities — things that are also very important for tree canopy protection."

As for why WCV didn'ꀙt endorse Licata, as they have in the past, Nandagopal said, "Nick has been a strong opponent of Sound Transit for many years, and he's not really on same page with us on density issues. When it comes down to it, Nick Licata is not running with the environment as a priority."

Pretty amazing that Licata is now considered some kind of green apostate, despite his backing of numerous green efforts, including the Green Line monorail project which was the very definition of "transit-oriented" and the darling of the pro-density crowd. It's also interesting that one group sees Israel as willing to sacrifice urban trees while another believes her overall policies will protect urban trees.

Israel gives voice to a green segment, echoed by some Sierra Clubbers like city council candidate Mike O'Brien, that urban trees are expendable, an easy trade-off. If you cut a few urban trees to save a patch of suburban trees, you are ahead of the game, carbon-footprint wise. At the same time, however, many Seattle grassroots greens, and city council members, are fighting to get stronger tree protections. There is worry that in-fill will cut down too many trees in a city whose tree canopy is already a little more than half of what it should be. Cleaner air, cooling, preventing Puget Sound run-off and erosion — urban trees are an essential part of this. And then there's the livability factor: people like their trees.

The city itself has embarked on a major tree-planting effort to re-green the city. Protections are being sought particularly for mature trees, which do much more for the city canopy than newly planted trees. They're also wonderful in themselves, something you would think you wouldn't have to explain to Sierra Clubbers, a group founded by a man who loved trees and who hated cities. (By the way, there's a lively debate over whether the Sierra Club supporters running for public office are green enough, or practical enough, too. Check out the controversy at

One growing point of tree contention is whether to allow in-fill with detached dwelling units, a way to increase neighborhood densities without relying solely on high-rises and big apartment blocks. But the city's own studies show that the greatest depletion of tree canopy and habitat has occurred on private property. Accelerating the cutting of trees on private property and failing to protect bigger, older trees will exacerbate an already serious problem. Tree advocates like Michael Oxman fear a boom in detached dwelling units could be "catastrophic" for the urban forest.

It seems like stricter tree protections and in-fill need not be in conflict. Some developers say Seattle has no shortage of developable land and that there's room to build without cutting trees. You could, they say, kill two birds with one stone by targeting parking lots for development.

Ask Licata about his supposed apostasy on green matters and he says that some environmentalists don't like his "pragmatic approach." Licata says he is a critical thinker first, and a cheerleader second. He expressed reservations about Sound Transit's cost and management and he supported a slimmed down Alaskan Way Viaduct re-build. The waterfront has seen a major clash between greens with some, like former Sierra Club chapter chair Mike McGinn, opposing the cost and carbon foot-print of the bored runnel, and others, like Mayor Nickels, supporting it.

Sound Transit also saw a divide, with some pro-transit progressives alarmed at its return on investment, and others seeing it is a system that will only work if massive redevelopment takes place in transit corridors, development that will favor big developers and drive up housing prices. Rail skeptics have been frequently painted as anti-environment.

Licata sees the need to balance interests. "Unlike a more idealistic approach which would support anything that could help the environment I want to know how such a measure fits into the larger picture of creating a sustainable and socially just society," Licata says.

That sense of social justice sometimes puts greens at odds with other progressives. John Fox, head of the Seattle Displacement Coalition, is another progressive who has done battle with greens over affordable housing and transit-oriented development. Scholars have also seen tension between environmentalism and a kind of populist sentiment over time. Matthew Klingle's book on Seattle environmental history, The Emerald City, called out a number of historic green and outdoors efforts for being too elitist, too classist, even too racist. The "let them ride bikes" mentality has a precedent.

Licata sees something in Seattle that reminds me of my years at the Evergreen State College in the '70s, where it was easy to be marginalized as politically incorrect for doing something as outrageous as, say, wearing a tie to your seminar or not joining in a minute of hate against the latest American outrage. Perhaps it takes a guy who once lived in a commune, as Licata did, to be wary of always hewing the PC line. He says:

In some ways I feel that my critical thinking approach, which I applied to the anti-war movement in college and which also garnered me criticism from those on the left who were anti-war to the point of not seeing anything good about our country, is reflected in the current day attitude of some environmentalists towards me; because I dare to ask questions that do not necessarily lead automatically to accepting every project that is labeled as green as a benefit to our society.

Let's hope the current debates over who is green and who isn't won't drive all progressive skeptics and critical thinkers out of office. As any ecologist knows, a mono-culture does not make a healthy ecosystem.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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