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C200: Our Fractured Metropolis

2011 March 17
by Peter Steinbrueck

“Puget Sound is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Its contribution to Washington’s economy, environment, and special quality of life cannot begin to be calculated.” (Warren G. Magnuson, May 7, 1989).

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of cleaning up Puget Sound—the second largest marine estuary in the United States. From the land, the sea still holds much beauty. Yet it is the single biggest, most intractable environment challenge facing Washington State. The iconic Chinook Salmon, along with 20 other marine animals are endangered, dwindling pods of Orca whales are among the most PCB contaminated mammals on Earth, and entire marine ecosystems are dying off. Millions of pounds of toxic pollution flow into Puget Sound every year—mostly from storm water run-off and combined sewer overflows, carrying deadly poisonous chemicals from urban areas to the sea.

In one of the “greenest” states in the country, why can’t we stop this ongoing pollution? Puget Sound basin, home to 4.4 million people, is bordered by 90 cities and towns and an unfathomable maze of overlapping jurisdictions and regulatory agencies. No one agency controls, and as Kathy Fletcher, founder and retiring director of People for Puget Sound says, “our biggest challenge now, is the fragmentation of decision-making and lack of enforcement of existing regulations.”

It’s been over three decades since Senator Warren G. Magnuson warned of a
looming “environmental catastrophe” facing Puget Sound. Today, it’s not oil tankers but urbanization that is the biggest threat to the health of the Sound. If we allow Puget Sound to atrophy, so too, will our economy, and our way of life in the Northwest. By 2040, the region is expected to grow nearly two million more people. Puget’s sound’s persistent ill health is symptomatic of our fractured metropolis.


Peter Steinbrueck, FAIA, is principal of Steinbrueck Urban Strategies and former Seattle City Councilmember.