Retro ideas from the Seattle World's Fair that today's urbanists should embrace

Ten reasons Seattle's urban advocates should look at Century 21 as a role model, not a relic.

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Seattle Center: enduring icons of 1962

Ten reasons Seattle's urban advocates should look at Century 21 as a role model, not a relic.

It's easy to dismiss the Seattle Center and the world's fair that birthed it as more suburban than urban affairs. It largely has the feel of an outdoor mall, with too much concrete to be a park. Deep in its DNA were ideas taken from Disneyland, such as keeping it walled off from the surrounding neighborhood. Efforts at further Disneyfication were resisted in the 1980s.

Some years ago, Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat suggested taking a jackhammer to the Center, criticizing its tackiness and the fact that Center House's food offerings could be found at "every commercial mall in America." University of Washington history professor John Findlay, wrote in his excellent book on urban cityscapes, Magic Lands, that Century 21 "brought the suburbs to the city center" and represented what he called a kind of "suburban invasion" of the city. This wasn't only a statement about the physical nature of the place, but also its draw on regional suburban audiences.

But it's a mistake to regard the Center as strictly a suburban relic. Urbanist Roger Valdez has written here that Seattle is often infatuated with big ideas, and that perhaps this is because "Maybe we never got over the 1962 World’s Fair." I would argue that the fair and the Center, rather than being merely leftovers of 50-year-old suburban sensibilities, were in fact engines that helped restart and drive Seattle's urban machine. Urbanists today would find a lot to like in the city-building tool that was Century 21.

Here are 10 reasons for urbanists to embrace the model offered by the fair:

1. Seattle process was never more efficient than during the run-up to Century 21. While the fair concept was highly risky and speculative, it managed to achieve a near civic consensus as a means to develop Seattle.

2. Seattle's fair was atypical of previous U.S. world's fairs in that it was built in the middle of a major city. Most previous major American fairs were suburban or built on the urban edge on large, underutilized tracts. Frequently the legacy was a park or new residential neighborhoods. Seattle's site was small (74 acres), but it was compact and dense with attractions, and accessible to city dwellers. It was an attempt at urban renewal (supposed slum clearance), expansion of downtown, and the clustering of major civic facilities. The hope was to revitalize the urban core in the face of creeping regional sprawl.

3. While most people think that expos are thrown to thrust a city or a nation onto the world stage, or to propagandize the latest version of corporate colonialism, they are often at their roots city-building machines that have helped remake cityscapes throughout the industrialized and emerging world's major cities, from Paris and Vienna to Chicago and New York, from Spokane and San Antonio to Shanghai and Osaka. Fairs are often less about the future than they are a practical means to achieve local urban transformation.

4. The fair was designed to demonstrate regional mass transit by servicing the site with the Monorail. A diorama of the future of the 21st-century Puget Sound megalopolis in the Washington State Pavilion (now Key Arena) showed a monorail crossing the Sound to serve and link major cities. In 1962, writers saw Seattle's mass transit vision as cutting edge.

5. It also worked. In the run-up to the fair, the city and organizers massively built new parking lots to accommodate the expected millions of visitors. Nearly 13,000 parking spaces sprouted near the fairgrounds. Even though the fair drew a larger overall attendance than predicted — more than 9 million people — parking reached capacity only on a few 100,000-attendance days (average daily attendance was about 50,000).

While a majority of visitors came to Seattle by car from nearby Western states (only 10 percent arrived in Jet City by plane), they tended to stay with friends and family and chose to leave their cars behind on fair days. Some 30 percent of visitors to the fair came via rail (the Monorail) or public transit (the bus). Instead of showcasing only the car, the fair was a demonstration of how to move millions of people within the city by public transportation, one reason the Monorail was kept after the fair and is still running.

6. John R. Mullin, Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Massachusetts and a professor of urban planning, wrote his master's thesis on the impact on city planning of American world's fairs. He singled out Seattle as being the first city to use a fair to accomplish a major element in a pre-exisiting master plan. Fairs have often been events in search of a mission, or designed to boost local economies or tourism, but Seattle's was the other way around: It was the means to build a long-planned, lasting civic center. It was opportunistic, practical, and allowed Seattle to leverage its investment by attracting state, federal, and private dollars to build infrastructure that was part of a specific urban vision.

7. The fair allowed the region to leverage money for other projects and add urgency to their completion: the 520 bridge, I-5 expansion through downtown, newly planted street trees, the rehabilitated waterfront and piers, expanded facilities at the University of Washington, newly acquired park lands (the land that became Gas Works Park was acquired in '62), and extensive private development and expansion. Its success also gave impetus to other regional improvement efforts, notably Forward Thrust.

8. While Seattle's fair focused on an urban, space-age future, it came before the onset of mass green consciousness, though one very early suggestion for the Century 21 site did propose establishing a salmon stream connected with Puget Sound as part of the expo. Fairs now almost always have a green theme (the first was Spokane's). At the massive 2010 fair in Shanghai, an entire section was the Urban Best Practices Area devoted to showcasing green urbanism from around the world. At Century 21, new building materials and techniques were showcased (plastics, ceramics, epoxies, plywoods, steel, laminates), along with high-tech communications (cordless phones, satellites, video conferencing, computers). It helped to lay groundwork that high-tech innovation was the essence of modern problem-solving.

9. One wonders if, for example, today's urbanists could better sell visions of development if they could capture the public's imagination by demonstrating these green solutions on a mass scale. In thinking about the connections between the deep-bore tunnel, the surface option, Highway 520, I-5 repairs, the Mercer Mess, citywide high-speed Internet access, SoDo and waterfront redevelopment, expanding rail and transit, etc., one wonders if these challenges couldn't be met in a more integrated way.

While world's fairs have fallen out of favor in North America, they flourish elsewhere. Short of another fair (And why not? The San Francisco Bay Area has had three and is bidding for a fourth) is there some other dynamic civic process that would catalyze urban problem-solving? That would neither Balkanize projects nor result in endless community design charrettes? That could excite the public? The fact that Century 21 was not only effective, but also fun and profitable makes the option seem even more extraordinary when compared to today's processes.

10. The fair allowed the city to put visions of a high-tech, democratic future into a historical context. It's theme was Man in the Space Age, but the urban mission was often couched in terms that placed the city as a launch-pad for a renewed kind of urbanism and energy fulfilling the "go West" injunction of Horace Greeley. One of the fair's "big ideas" is that we in the West were redeeming the concept of the city by making it clean and smart, not dirty and stuck in the past like eastern cities. That we are green, innovative and seeking "social justice" is the current iteration. The Seattle of the fair era wasn't only infatuated with big ideas, it was the embodiment of one.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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