How Utopian thinking leads to Seattle's gridlock

Too often, opposing civic forces are looking for perfection. But that can lead to political gridlock or, worse, unworkable compromises.
Crosscut archive image.

Utopia in the making? A rendering of Seattle's waterfront without the Alaskan Way Viaduct

Too often, opposing civic forces are looking for perfection. But that can lead to political gridlock or, worse, unworkable compromises.

As I've studied the history of Seattle and Pugetopolis, I've noted how two forces are often clashing. It's more than Greater vs. Lesser Seattle, growth vs. stability, fat cats vs. social justice advocates, the Chamber of Commerce vs. the Sierra Club. The lines of battle are far more complex, even before you get to the issues of Balkanization and parochialism, with which our region is rife. We were born in dog-eat-dog competition, each city on Puget Sound trying to be the biggest and best, mostly as defined by industry, but also in terms of lifestyle and appeal. Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, cities and suburbs, are still locked in competition for growth, prosperity, clout.

The clash of forces I'm talking about tends to be between people who come to the region believing one of two things (and this is common in the West). One is that Seattle represents an opportunity to replicate where they came from, often to obtain what they were too late to get in, say, New York or Chicago.

This is embodied in the name the first settlers here gave to the settlement: New York Alki, meaning we'll be New York someday. Seattle was a place you could replicate familiar ground, but without the baggage of people on top of you in the economic and social food chain. If you couldn't be a Vanderbilt or Astor or Trump in Manhattan, the path was wide open in Seattle. Look at our two recent mayoral candidates: the finalists (and winner) were political outsiders few could have named before their campaigns. In Seattle, anyone, not just the cream, can rise to the top.

The counter-force is from those who come here wanting to escape and create something entirely new. Puget Sound is rife with utopian experiments, from turn-of-the-century anarchist and socialist collectives to the Love Israel family. But utopianism isn't owned by cults or outliers alone, it suffuses our public life evidenced in our desire to make, or keep, Seattle special, a city better than others. It makes the case for Seattle exceptionalism, be it the greenest city, the most literate, the most "metronatural." It is also often driven by fears of disaster: We must transform dramatically, or face the end of life as we know it.

All sides in civic debates draw on uptopianism. There is a sense that we can have it all here: prosperity, nature, industry, wealth, social justice, growth, solitude, wilderness, a clean Puget Sound. The problem I have with the utopian impulse (which I too possess) is that it is often driven by two false assumptions. First, that there is only one way to do things right. And second, that the city or region is a tabula rasa, or a new iPad.

Utopianism is reflected in both forces for change, especially in the desire to break with the past. Those who would recreate New York (or Vancouver or Copenhagen) here are usually for starting from scratch. They tend to dismiss local history and customs and the older built environment in favor of whatever moves most boldly in the direction of rebuilding. From R. H. Thomson's washing away the inconvenient hills to the mass makeover of South Lake Union, the future is achieved through dramatic restructuring.

Those idealists who want to escape from New York (or Los Angeles or the Old World) to create something new also work on the blank-slate theory. They tend to see local history as easily swept aside. The severing of connections is crucial, or the remaking of consciousness. Any New Age must, by definition, be new. You see this in expressions of the urge to drop out, or secede, as modeled in Ernest Callenbach's 1975 novel Ecotopia. Our Cascadian region and its cities are often imagined as something apart, remote, or separable from a more corrupt or compromised whole: Seattle, Portland, Vancouver are metrotopias to be perfected and copied, even envied.

For both tracks, this actual place doesn't matter much except in that it is ripe or uniquely situated or timed for radical transformation.

Both sides are uncomfortable if change isn't blueprinted. Both want a plan, a program. Paul Allen makes dioramas to sell the South Lake Union vision; some yearn for a new "Bogue Plan" to remake Seattle. Others rely on the Growth Management Act to guide all future development. The Seattle Planning Commission stewards the Comprehensive Plan, ostensibly our city's roadmap. The Puget Sound Regional Council is forever releasing reports on how to achieve regional prosperity. Some see Greater Seattle as ideal if it is dense with high-rises and without cars; others if its highways are made more robust (as Bellevue developer Kemper Freeman used to exhort, "Finish the grid!").

With utopia at stake, pragmatism and incrementalism can be dismissed as failure to do enough, to change enough.

We've hosted two world's fairs designed to outline visions of the future, one a "white city" based on turn-of-the-century City Beautiful ideals, another a showcase of mid-century modernism and the Space Age. Our civic debates become contentious because they are cast as portentous: the difference between a surface option or a tunnel on the Seattle waterfront is fraught with meaning because it is a utopian battleground.

That's part of the reason for civic gridlock. With utopia at stake, pragmatism and incrementalism can be dismissed as failure to do enough, to change enough. Those who object to big ideas are obstructionists, or guilty of moral failure. As one density advocate recently characterized them, "nudniks, nay-sayers, and NIMBYs." We live in a city where potholes, bike lanes and public parks aren't civic amenities but carry the weight of moral symbols.

Utopianism can bring out our best ideas, but it also makes us suspicious of those with whom we disagree. One reason our civic compromises often fail is that they are not very pragmatic. Too frequently they attempt to make every side happy so that every "stakeholder" can claim moral victory, and every utopian vision is advanced, even if in opposite directions.

The new 520 will carry more traffic, and more transit, and bikes and pedestrians, and be wide, but also narrow, and possibly rail-friendly, but will have low impacts, yet be transformative, with lids, tunnels, new bridges, and fix Montlake, and safety hazards, and make the University of Washington happy, and Microsoft, and the tribes, and the Arboretum. It will reduce the carbon footprint and help drive sprawl. That's what it takes to make Seattle and Eastside utopians happy, even if it makes little practical sense.

Our region's utopian designers once embraced a kind of minimalism (the old 520 bridge itself is a fine example), a modernist elegance that did a job, but no more. (Often, this came about only after beating back the forces of big change, like harnessing the freeway builders.) But even as our spending is more limited, projects seem to be getting more robust, more mega, more expensive. Everything is played for huge stakes. Supposedly pragmatic solutions, like the waterfront tunnel and the 520 "preferred option" are costly, unwieldy, and politically shaky. Such "compromises" are hard to settle, which is why they are second-guessed ad infinitum. In Seattle, few dare to think small. Our boosterish utopianism suffocates the doable. In short, we need to lighten up.

Idealism is a positive trait; utopianism has limits in the civic sphere because it is dogmatic and seeks perfection, instead of betterment. On the other hand, it has its uses. It's an imperfect impulse that pushes us to try new things, to see the future as something other than a consequence of our society's worst social and economic impulses.

That said, you cannot, I believe, create a better city by willfully not knowing what it is and where it has come from. A utopian flaw is to believe you can erase the white board of the past. One thing to remember about nearly all utopian communities is this: They don't last. A better path might be drawn on shared values, practical ideas, reasonable (affordable) costs, and be rooted in a sense of place and history. We should consider embracing an idealistic minimalism instead of a robust utopianism that often gets us nowhere.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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