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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.

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

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Matt the Engineer permalink
    March 17, 2011

    “it’s not oil tankers but urbanization” I’d qualify that statment. Urbanization implies densification, which is actually a positive force in this context. It’s sprawl that’s killing our sound. Every person living out in Bothell has a massive amount of road attributed to them for commuting, getting to the store, parking at home, parking at the hardware store, etd. Their cars leak oil, create rubber dust, and pollution from their tailpipes settle on suburban surfaces, ready to be washed to the sound in the next rain.

    In one extreme, everyone lives in the city without a car, sewage treatment would be well designed not to overflow, and the Sound would be nearly prestine. In the other extreme, out entire region is paved for sprawl and we have a maximum of runoff into the Sound. We’re currently close to that second extreme, and heading all the way there quickly. I don’t think we have to reach the first extreme to get a clean Sound, but any steps we can take to move in that direction will help.

    • Michael Hintze permalink
      March 17, 2011

      Uh, even dense, urban centers have a lot of pollution-generating impervious surfaces. I understand your point, i.e. the burbs have more impervious surface per person, but trying to pin the problem on the burbs is missing the bigger point. I would say that the combined sewer system of Seattle is causing just as much, if not more, harm to the Sound than any of the 1st and 2nd ring burbs. Dense cities and less dense suburbs each have their own set of stormwater management challenges.

      • Matt the Engineer permalink
        March 17, 2011

        The difference is, cleaning up something in a 84 square mile area is a whole lot easier than a multiple thousand square mile area. We shouldn’t have combined sewer systems, but that can (and should) be fixed.

  2. Brad B permalink
    March 17, 2011

    The takeaway from this to me is that it’s not urbanization per se that’s most problematic, but the fact that urbanization (and the attendant infrastructural provision) occurs without effective coordination of different government agencies (both vertically and horizontally).

    In this case, urban form is a secondary problem, as without more effective governance the urban form can’t really be addressed anyway (in a regulatory/planning sense). That’s not to say we don’t need to worry about urban form, just that without dealing with municipal fragmentation, the urban form isssues are a non-starter.

  3. Bill Bradburd permalink
    March 17, 2011

    because Seattle has chosen to focus on Carbon, we are further losing sight of the complex network of systems that surround us – both natural and man-made. thank you Peter for reminding us of the larger immediate ecosystem in which we reside.

    our modern life produces enormous quantities of by-products, many so removed and externalized we do not even think of them. dense cities have their own waste streams and problems by the very nature of the variety of activities comprise it. a dense city next to a body of water will leave its mark regardless of whether there are suburbs or combined sewers.

    its arguable that a larger culprit is that we have built a society dependent on unfettered economic growth and consumption. if we address that, we may find the way to tread a little more gently on the planet.

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