The outsider's guide to sustainable Seattle government

Dispatches from a day at King County's award-winning government sustainability conference.
Dispatches from a day at King County's award-winning government sustainability conference.

Field notes from a day at Seattle's Government Confluence 2013, "an intensive day of inspiration and peer-to-peer learning" around sustainability in local government.  

10:30 am: Arrive at Town Hall amid a hubbub of government employees and strike up a conversation with Maria about her work on affordable housing for the homeless in King County. She says her department's focus is mostly on areas outside of the city, since Seattle has its own affordable housing program. Of those, the Eastside has been most resistant to their efforts; South King County the least, though they try to spread out housing pretty evenly around the county. We jam for a few minutes over coffee and a Danish about generational differences and racial equity in government and planning communities.   

11:04 am: Pop into a session on using data to increase the sustainability of your business led by Bryan and Candice, an attractive pair of young data wonks. Bryan speaks without much enthusiasm, but the few people who leave the session in the first few minutes miss out on the impressive portfolio of tech tools (iPad apps, wireless monitors, real-time energy dashboards) he whips out to help a savvy building manager cut energy and water use.

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Real-time energy use monitoring. Photo: Powerhouse Dynamics, Inc.

Candice takes us earnestly through a series of math exercises that prove we can build consensus and make decisions even if we don’t have all the data. Sure enough, I’m able to determine (relatively accurately) the number of piano tuners in Chicago, using only the Fermi system and some wild guesses about population and piano prevalence. “You know more than you think you know and you need less data than you think you do,” she explains.

12:20 pm: Farestart caters lunch – turkey chutney sandwiches – which we eat over a panel on something called the Dutch Dialogues. I am sure my urban planning V-card is showing, because I have no idea what these are. Still I listen patiently, hoping no one asks me any questions. On-stage the planning types go on about how long they’ve dreamed of bringing these panelists here.

1 pm: I am no closer to understanding the methodology behind the Dutch Dialogues, but I have learned that they facilitated some pretty mind-blowing urban planning work in New Orleans. Both the Netherlands and the Big Easy have faced huge challenges with water management and flooding and the trio of architects and planners before me have helped bring the Netherlands’ way of thinking to post-Katrina NOLA.

“The Netherlands and, we think, New Orleans should go from flood resistant to flood accommodation,” explains Dale, a Senior Economist from the Royal Netherlands Embassy. That means creating ways to store water under streets and in underground parking garages. It means creating parks and green spaces that turn into lakes in times of intense precipitation. And, as architect David Waggoner explains, it means fundamentally rethinking the design around people and water and how they interact, using water management to create inviting spaces and walkways that draw people in.

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The plan for a revitalized New Orleans water management system. Photo: Dutch Dialogues.

“There’s an area in New Orleans where they tried to pave everything. Supposedly, you can see it from space,” he quips, eliciting the first real laugh I’ve heard all day. Most planners, it seems, aren’t hired for their witty banter.

1:53 pm: Like most industries, urban planning has its share of secret passwords; those phrases you drop in conversation just to let the other person know you belong to the same club. “Adaptive reuse” is one of them (Mention Split, Croatia in the same sentence for bonus points), which is why I find myself listening to a presentation about Portland’s Brewery Blocks. The project, a rehabbed Henry Weinhardt brewery downtown, turned a 5-block urban parcel from a vacant set of old warehouses into a thriving mixed-use development: 200 jobs grew into 1500 and 400 housing units.

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Portland's revitalized Brewery Blocks project. Photo: Henry Lam.

The icing on the cake: The project includes one LEED Platinum and five LEED Gold buildings that save an annual $340,000 in energy costs, 1.4 million pounds of CO2 and 3.5 million gallons of water.   

2:20 pm: I seek out writing space and urban planning solace in – oh, irony of ironies – Seattle’s Freeway Park. My verdant surroundings and the rumble of cars on I-5 below me are the perfect urbanization lullaby.

3:15 pm: Amble back to Town Hall to learn more about successful rooftop farming. What I had thought of as an amorphously positive gardening trend begins to take shape with the expertise of Gundula and Susan, both UW architecture profs. There are three types: Container gardening, raised beds and full-scale living rooftops. Ballard’s Bastille has gone the raised beds route. As has a Queen Anne parking garage. The full-scale commercial route, however, seems a little tougher.

Chris, an ex-fraternity member and former Navy guy, has made this last category — large-scale commercial rooftop agriculture — his business, though it’s not immediately clear whether he’s seen any success yet. A plan to put one on top of a Microsoft parking garage stalled out because the company canteen wasn’t willing to pay the higher cost of local produce. And Chris is open about the fact that economies of scale mean locally-grown food can actually be a bigger carbon sink than food grown in California or Arizona.

One thing is clear: In Seattle’s climate, greenhouses are a must and hydroponic systems are a better investment than soil, with returns running at about 1.5 percent. It’s no Amazon stock, but there are examples of successful commercial rooftop gardening in Montreal and New York, where climates are a whole lot harsher than ours.

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One of Brooklyn Grange's NYC rooftop farms. Photo: Brooklyn Grange

5:30 pm: I'm feeling a little over-wonked, but labor on. Government Confluence is an offshoot of the larger Living Futures conference, which is anchored at the downtown Westin this year. With the iconic round towers as my beacons and my eye on the prize -- a David Suzuki keynote and a free appetizer spread -- I weave through downtown's evening crowd of shoppers and commuters. 

Suzuki, a longtime environmental activist and a Canadian, addresses a packed ballroom with his thoughts on the environmental movement. They seem pretty standard to me: He is frustrated at the battles he won being fought all over again, says the movement needs deep systemic change, sees promise and change in the U.S.'s evolving stance towards climate change and sustainability. It may just be a ploy to pump us up, but it works. The packed ballroom gives him a standing ovation. I feel glad that not everyone is such as much an environmental messaging skeptic as I am. 

It is Jason McLennan though, CEO of the Cascadia Green Building Council and author of the Living Building Challenge, whose enviro-rally actually gets through to me the next morning. McLennan's talk is part Living Building promotion -- he heaps praise on several projects, including Seattle's first certified living building, the Bertschi School; a new Living Building portable classroom project and, of course, the vaunted Bullitt Center.

But it is equal parts reality and soul. He is not so self-involved as to be above constructive criticism of his own community (poking fun at the fact that they spend their time together inside, talking about the technology behind green building) or disconnected from reality (he is adamant that that the Living Building Challenge is still far too small to make enough difference and is looking ahead to living communities).

A husband and father of four, McLennan says we are failing our relationship with nature. “We’re the choir," he says of the eco-movement, "but we spend so little of our energy actually remembering the thing that we love.” 

“[When you love someone], you have to tell that person you love them every fucking day.” 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.