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C200: Know Thy City

2011 March 25
by Knute Berger

< Pioneer Square, Seattle - click image to enlarge; photo: Dan Bertolet >

“The city should be considered a work of art….The clues for design are to be found within the activities and the meaning of the city itself.”–Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle Cityscape, 1962

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I love this city, but what is it? Cities in abstraction hold little interest for me, but I have a life-long fascination in trying to discover what makes us tick.

If Victor Steinbrueck is right, we have to know what Seattle is, and where it comes from, the elements of this place, in order to build a better city. I am suspicious of utopianism, but I also believe, flawed as it can be, it offers us a kind of last best hope. Seattle and our urban debates are infused with such longings and suspicions. We dream of a “great city,” but are on our guard against those who offer us a single path to get there.

Our past, especially the last half-century, offers us a lot to work with to understand how we got here, and who we are. The 1960s were filled with utopianism (the World’s Fair!), the desire for urban amenities (a new Opera House, a Civic Center), active open space (Tivoli Gardens at Seattle Center), new infrastructure (mass transit, new freeways), green incentives (reduced tolls on 520 for car pools, free downtown buses), and skepticism about overreach and the environmental consequences of unchecked growth (fight against R.H. Thomson Expressway, preserving farmland, and razing the Pike Place Market for a parking lot).

The Seattle Center Master Plan, the downtown tunnel, the Waterfront redesign, the 520 expansion, the “need” for a Central Park, traffic impacts on Pioneer Square, public votes on major projects: it’s all familiar terrain. Knowing our history is vital to getting a handle on who we are so we have the raw material to make Seattle an even better work of civic art.

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Knute Berger is Mossback columnist for Crosscut

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