How to build a better Seattle

To make civic change positive and exciting, try a lot of vision, a little inspiration and some intellectual jazz.
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To make civic change positive and exciting, try a lot of vision, a little inspiration and some intellectual jazz.

Seattle City Council president Sally Clark made an observation last week, one that got a roomful of up-and-coming urban planners thinking. Clark was serving on a panel at an event called New Directions in Urban Planning and Design at the University of Washington's Gould Hall. It was part of an annual gathering where faculty, planning professionals, students and prospective students of the UW's Masters in Urban Planning program look at the future of the urban planning profession.

The panel was moderated by Jill Strerrett, president of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association. Besides Clark, the panel featured Sound Transit's Joni Earl, the Downtown Seattle Association's Kate Joncas, Futurewise's Hilary Franz and me, the token male and sole mossback. We discussed the challenges ahead for the city in terms of planning, transportation and quality of life.

Clark was late (damned traffic!), but she said something that resonated. In discussing the challenges of managing the city, she observed that in her experience, people weren't afraid of change, they're afraid of loss.

It's an important distinction. NIMBYism is often attributed to people clinging selfishly to the past. But really, people often feel threatened by the new because they suspect that it will bring displacement, higher rents, a worse quality of life. The notion of progress as an unqualified good has taken a beating, and people suspect, often with some reason, that change will come at their expense.

Downside of the Environmental Impact process

As we discussed the idea further in a small breakout session, the planners and would-be planners in our group focused on Clark's observation. The Environmental Impact Statement process, said one, is all about negative impacts. Often, projects are evaluated by how much harm they do, and what can be done to mitigate the damage. Indeed, the EIS process grew out of an understanding that took shape in the 1960s when we finally began to come to terms with the toll of development on the environment.

Still, it sets up a process where tallying the benefits of a project takes a back seat to enumerating its potential harm. Then too the benefits are often articulated by those with strong self-interest in the projects, such as developers and their consultants, the same people who often shape the EIS scope in their favor. Often, the first time the public hears about some new project is when the white signs go up, harbingers of neighborhood doom. No one at the urban planning event suggested dumping the EIS, but the process does raise a legitimate question about how change is framed.

Public skepticism is often justified. A question I posed to the planners was this: Why is it that we often do the wrong thing even when we know what the right thing is? Seattle's legendary Fred Bassetti, for example, created a fabulous post-World's Fair design for Westlake Mall, but decades later we remade it into a civic mediocrity or worse. Architect Paul Thiry warned of the damage that would be done to the fabric of downtown, Capitol Hill and First Hill by digging the I-5 freeway trench and splitting the city in two. He argued for a lid. He was ignored and despite attempts to bridge the gap with an over-the-freeway park and convention center, the damage remains.

In other cases, the public itself lacked vision. We failed to vote in enough numbers for the Bogue Plan to build a civic center, for the Commons proposal for South Lake Union, and to make a regional mass transit system part of Forward Thrust, to name a few examples. It could be argued that all three failed despite having the support of planners in their respective eras as well as meeting standards of what we today believe helps to make vital, transit-friendly and sustainable cities.

There's something in the urban planning process that seems to favor mediocre or worse design decisions and short-cuts. It shouldn't be entirely surprising that many members of the public equate change with loss. Resistance to change is more than generational stubbornness; it's of a piece with our lack of trust that government will spend our money wisely, or do something good with those police drones. We've seen too many benefits of "change" flow to the haves, not the rest of us. We've seen self-interest often gussied up as community good.

Planning for a "less bad future"

How to gain public confidence? One answer has been endless process and "buy-in" from stakeholders. Everyone agrees this is tedious, and often group-design produces worse results. But many projects are greatly improved by public input and protest. Some of the wisest moves we've made have been the result of citizen architects leading the way to a better urban vision. Creating and saving the Pike Place Market neighborhood is one example. Demanding the I-90 lid, parks and bike trails in the Central Area is another — though that happened because the city's negotiators made it clear they wanted whatever the rich, white people of Mercer Island were promised, or else.

Someone in our discussion group pointed out that instead of positive visions, change is often framed as planning for a "less bad future." This happens when groups, like the Puget Sound Regional Council, announce that millions more people are coming to Puget Sound, sending up an alarm. "Where are we going to put all of them!" To generate a sense of urgency, we stoke panic. Newcomers are regarded as a horde of in-laws moving in to stay.

I remember the California developer and onetime Seahawks owner Ken Behring, who was planning to develop Grand Ridge above Issaquah, announcing that we'd better get ready for a "tsunami of growth." Tsunamis are hard to view in a positive light. A sensible person's reaction to a tsunami is to run. The message is that growth will overwhelm. It's a change that's all about loss, except for those on the high ground.

Two suggestions were made for addressing the issue. One called for planners and architects to do a better job of drawing a picture of the city to come, and how it'll work better. That kind of visioning is what grand scale events like the World's Fair do well. They sell an image of the future. But it can be done on a smaller scale too, as Paul Allen and Vulcan have done in his South Lake Union Discovery Center. There, Allen fully laid out his vision for the future of South Lake Union and the adjacent downtown with images and an impressive scale model that echoed the dioramas you often see in fair pavilions.

The other suggestion called for architects and planners to be visibly engaged in civic life. The UW's own faculty ought not to shy away from taking active and activist roles, putting forward proposals and critiquing public plans. (Think of the historic contributions of people like Victor Steinbrueck, Myer Wolfe and Rich Haag.) For one thing, academics operate outside the bureaucratic silos. They are not beholden to agencies or developers or specific projects. We need people who can steer us toward great design and away from institutional- and process-generated mediocrity.

John Owen, a partner in MAKERS Architecture and Urban Design of Seattle and an organizer of the UW event, liked the notion of university architects and planners playing a more public role, especially for the "intellectual jazz" it would bring to civic debates. Yes, better to have more jazz than the intellectual MUZAK we so often hear.

For the young generation of planners and students, my sense is this is an incredible time to live and work in the Seattle area. A huge number of public infrastructure projects is underway and will be coming on line in the next decade: Link Light Rail north, south and east; the new 520; the waterfront makeover and downtown tunnel; the transformation of SLU, SoDo and Yesler Terrace; the expansion of downtown Bellevue with the new Spring District; more streetcar lines; the imperative to deal with Puget Sound pollution and global warming. The list is long, expensive, dynamic, and the need to integrate all this is crucial. (I've talked about it in the context of the mayor's race here).

We could either be ringing in a Seattle Golden Age, or rolling out a series of lost opportunities. We'll need the help of young planners in navigating the change, making new leaps and in ensuring that the change is about real gain for everyone.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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