What's the latest 'big idea'? And does it solve anything for Seattle?

Consider the city's intense discussion of street food. Could we just be trying to promote something here because it has proved popular elsewhere? Some careful reflection may help us determine whether we are really on to something that will make a difference.

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Portland has street food. Seattle wants more.

Consider the city's intense discussion of street food. Could we just be trying to promote something here because it has proved popular elsewhere? Some careful reflection may help us determine whether we are really on to something that will make a difference.

Seattle is not in short supply of big ideas. We strive at all times for sure to be a "world-class" city, courting the Olympics, hosting the World Trade Organization, or looking to big-time architects like Rem Koolhaas to design our public buildings, for example. But we extend the same kind of self-conscious desire for attention to other big ideas like going carbon neutral or remaking the waterfront.

Maybe we never got over the 1962 World’s Fair. Or maybe we’re just trying to figure out how to act like a truly big city. Whatever the reason, we love big ideas. But how do we sort the great ones from the faddish, the visionary from the retrograde?

On the Huffington Post, Seattle's Chuck Wolfe has posed this idea, suggesting something along the lines of a checklist:

I suggest no moderation in the generation of big urban ideas, no doom-saying.  But I hope amid all of the vision, the checklists are forming.

I'm going to form a checklist for evaluating big ideas, and then I'll run the idea of street food, another big idea being discussed by Seattle City Council, through that checklist. The point of idea management, as I see it, is twofold. First, we ought to ask the question: Does the big idea help us become sustainable, or is the idea, for example, merely a symptom that we've succeeded?

Second, idea management can help keep us on track, avoiding faddish things from other cities that may not work here. It's the immunization, in a way, from always finding the civic grass always greener somewhere else or the kid-brother syndrome, acting from  weakness rather than from our strengths.

My checklist is pretty simple, and it’s in the form of three questions. And I’d propose that it be used whenever the latest "must-have" civic solution is proffered. I’d love to see serious ideas on improving this, adding to it, or starting over in the comments.

First, Is the big idea an outcome or does it help achieve an outcome?

Often, the big ideas we argue over are intended to take advantage of an opportunity to create jobs or reduce our footprint on the environment. Often, though, the big idea itself is an outcome, like ending homelessness or achieving carbon neutrality. But which is it? Overcoming confusion about whether a big idea is supposed to be part of a bigger solution or is the solution itself can help put it in proper perspective.

The proliferation of street food or mobile food carts suffers from this confusion. I can’t figure out whether advocates see street food as a solution to a problem or a means to an end we want, like more activity on the streets. Often it seems like the latter, but often the issue is presented and argued about as if street food is something that we need because other cities have it and, doggone it, we need it, too.

Second, what opportunity or problem does the big idea address?

Big ideas usually are presented as the fix for a civic problem we’ve been facing for years. The package of Forward Thrust ballot measures years ago was intended to clean up Lake Washington and create mass transit, among other things. Today, the proposed waterfront tunnel is supposed to create jobs and facilitate freight mobility. Answering this question seems easy, but when pressed it's important that advocates show how the problem will be solved or whether all those jobs are real.

When it comes to street food, it's not clear there is a problem. Downtown, on Pine between Third and Second avenues, there is actually street food almost every day. On a recent day when I walked by, there was a hot dog stand and a mini-donut stand in full operation. On other occasions, other food trucks park there, and I have seen ice cream trucks and construction site lunch trucks all over town.

There doesn’t appear to be a problem with getting permits. One thought has been that street food will flush people into the streets, activating them and promoting walking, biking, and other benefits of density. Maybe. But there has to be density first, which is why the carts I mentioned work: There are lots of people downtown to generate demand. 

Third, does the big idea reflect local values or imported values?

You might guess that "local values" is the right answer. That not necessarily so. Take for example, Seattle's "consensus culture" in which civic "solutions" can become a tepid, flavorless broth, a reflection of the least challenging parts of many views. Even worse, as in the case of the tunnel, we outsmart ourselves, creating a monster that appears to solve every problem on paper — jobs, mobility, and waterfront improvements — but in fact is chimerical. Sometimes, importing values or resisting local ones is a good thing.

When it comes to street food, I’d conclude that food fads fit entirely within our urban ethic. We've had the Taste of Seattle for years, and we're always beguiled with the latest culinary concupiscence. As I mentioned elsewhere, we have a deep love of waiting around for food, an analog for our love of process. We have the demand for food carts and it doesn’t seem like we need to do all that much to boost supply.

I have to conclude that the big street food idea is yet another solution wandering around looking for an appropriate problem. And there are downsides to filling our vacant spaces with food carts: What happens when we need those spaces for higher and better use like housing? Are we creating a nascent pro-food cart movement that will paralyze development in the future?

I love street food. But I think street food is the outcome of good land use and planning. If we get density right we’ll get more street food. When’s the last time you saw a cluster of taco trucks in Laurelhurst or Magnolia?

As for the checklist, I think it’s a start. But we’ve got to get more serious about distracting ourselves from the distraction of the big ideas that we think will solve our local civic problems or fulfill the opportunities. The best and biggest idea of all is to do what the best demographic science says we should do: Open our doors to growth and welcome it with more housing and an effective transit system. 


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