Fifty years ago this summer, Seattle was in the middle of a major transformation. Planners were rushing to build the first World’s Fair in America since World War II. Construction was under way on a second floating bridge across Lake Washington, and the I-5 freeway was marching toward the Canadian border as a few Seattleites protested the fact that it would cleave the city with a concrete “ditch.”
Seattle was being spruced up to host the world, but the focus was also on the future. The theme of the fair was “Century 21” — just what would the world be like in the year 2000?
The fair was filled with futuristic fantasies and predictions: Space travel, à la 2001: A Space Odyssey, would be routine. In the next century, Seattle itself would be contained under a climate-controlled bubble dome serviced by monorail mass transit — at least that was the local future portrayed in the fair’s Washington State Pavilion in the building we now know as KeyArena.
But there were also much more specific, down-to-earth projections made for the region. In the wake of the fair in 1962, The Seattle Times published a series of stories on “Pugetopolis,” the name for the emerging, sprawling urbanized Puget Sound region. It’s fascinating to look back 50 years and see what the experts said would happen, and compare that with what actually did.
Here are some of the predictions printed in the Times:
“Today’s first-grader grown to manhood . . . may be employed in the integrated steel industry forecasters predict will develop because of abundant water here.”
“His work-week will probably be four six-hour days, but will seem longer as he joins the army of motorists over one of four Lake Washington floating bridges.”
“Often he will be tense and irritable (just like his ’62 Dad), complaining about crowds and the lack of elbow room and yearning for ‘the good old days.’”
“No need to mow the lawn. Chemical spray trucks will take care of that chore each spring, reducing growth to about half an inch each season.”
“Real estate values will continue their upward trend . . .. The $20,000 home, once a luxury item, is now a normal yardstick.”
“Seattle still will be . . . the cultural and entertainment hub, and the best place for 21st Century Man to buy a mink coat or a pleasure boat.”
A Seattle Times cartoon by Alan Pratt pictured a chaotic and paved Puget Sound region: Bainbridge Island was a university campus crossed with highways; much of Kitsap was a regional airport, to complement a vast heliport in SoDo. Weyerhaeuser had a “synthetic lumber” factory next to an “over 40” home for seniors on the Eastside. The vision was of paradise paved with more than parking lots. In the Olympics, a single remaining evergreen is labeled “Tree.”
The cartoon was just that, but it was in response to the real estimates under the bold headline “Population Explosion Forecast Here.” By the year 2000, it was predicted that King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties would have a combined population of nearly 3.9 million, up from 1.5 million in 1962. University of Washington urban planner Myer Wolfe predicted that Pugetopolis “will be a little Los Angeles in 38 years.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Now, we have the benefit of hindsight. The population figure? It was significantly off. In 2010, the new census is 3.6 million. That is big growth, but still nearly 400,000 fewer inhabitants than predicted. If people are working four six-hour days, they are probably state workers on furlough due to budget cuts. The steel industry fizzled. Lake Washington only has three floating bridges, not four. Chemical management of your lawn is about as politically incorrect as it gets, unless you’re wearing a mink coat in Seattle.
But many of the basic worries were on target: Pugetopolis has urbanized, farmlands have dwindled, home prices soared, and sprawl laps against the foothills. We’ve ameliorated some of the worst of the cartoonist’s visions with growth management, open-space protections, land trusts, and lower birthrates, yet we haven’t dodged the overall challenge of managing a huge city in a sensitive ecosystem.
The good news is that smart choices have mitigated some of the harsher effects of growth. That’s a reminder that our imaginations really can steer us to better outcomes when the future we’ve seen on paper doesn’t live up to our dreams.
This essay first appeared in the July issue of Seattle Magazine.