I attended the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, and it shaped my expectations for the 21st Century. I expected to live in a world of atomic cars, video phones, and Space Needle penthouses. I can take pictures with my cheap Nokia cell phone, but other parts of that future remain elusive, perhaps for the better. Would we really be happier if road ragers had nuclear reactors in their personal Batmobiles?
The future is still being showcased at world’s fairs. Last year, I attended the biggest one ever, held in Shanghai, China. Its focus was on improving city life. Exhibits featured what cities around the world were doing to solve urban problems, from addressing poverty by erecting better shantytowns to building dikes to deal with global warming. IMAX-style shows gave us 4-D digital looks into the near future of 2030, when we’ll all be riding in computerized smart cars, or zipping about a green hometown that looks like a high-rise Oz.
Pavilion exhibits offered Zen-like sayings that were often bland and circular: “Imagining the cities of the future is imagining the future of our cities.” Apparently the future is not free of banalities.
Back in Seattle, I pondered some of the near-term changes and long-term impacts that are reshaping the area. Seattle has changed a lot in the past 50 years, yet it is still recognizable. But if we held a world’s fair today projecting 40 years forward, there are a number of factors we’d have to take into account to draw a convincing picture, and I’m not simply talking about building a new seawall that can ameliorate the impacts of global warming.
One is that economic cycles are, well, cyclical. Our Great Recession will end in some kind of recovery. But we need reforms, too. We need to find ways to streamline, downsize, and make our state, county, and city governments more efficient and effective. We don’t want Washington to become like Texas (too anti-tax and run by big bidniss) or California (bankrupt welfare state). So imagine shaping a progressive region of intelligent, compassionate restraint. We need government crafted by Ikea: well designed, cheap, and useful.
Imagine also a region that emphasizes the self-sufficiency of its citizens rather than a continued reliance on global corporate employers (Boeing, Microsoft) that could easily move elsewhere. Seattle should not simply hope to inflate the next bubble (gold rush, dot-com, real estate). It should find a more sustainable way of living. That ultimately means doing with less, and doing more ourselves. Can we apply the neighborhood P-patch approach to other aspects of our lives?
Demographics of the city are also shifting. Diversity, children, and poverty are moving to the suburbs. Thirty-one percent of Bellevue’s population is foreign born. The poor are concentrating in places like Burien and SeaTac, making us more like Paris. Suburban cities are also becoming less suburban in the classic sprawl sense. Urban growth will occur in nodes. These areas of concentrated activity, called Puget Sound Regional Growth Centers, range from Totem Lake and Silverdale to Lynnwood and South Lake Union.
Seattle does best when it cultivates and sells ideas blended with inspiration from elsewhere. How odd is it that a Seattle company figured out how to sell Italian lattes on street corners in China? We’re at our worst when assuming that we know better than everyone else.
Pugetopolis is a blip on the global urbanization map. There are 160 cities in China alone with populations of more than 1 million people. Cities are growing worldwide, but most of them are bigger, rougher, and poorer than Seattle. Our asset is to continue to evolve as a city on a more manageable scale, one that cultivates creativity and social justice over growth and manpower.
At the Shanghai expo, the German national pavilion showcased what it called Balancity, a city that balances man and nature, work and home, innovation and tradition. In the Northwest, we already get that. It’s what Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver are all about. But going forward, we’ll need a way of governing — and an economic system — that allows us to make balance achievable.
This column originally appeared in the February issue of Seattle Magazine. Reprinted with permission.