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S400: Pull In The Same Direction

2011 September 27
by Joshua Newman

< Recent infill development on 12th Ave in Capitol Hill - click to enlarge; photo by Dan Bertolet >

Seattle is blessed with smart, thoughtful citizens. These are people who care deeply about our environment, about justice, about our economy, and work to advance these causes every day. They fight for clean water for salmon, housing for the working poor, and for government policies that expand, not hinder, people’s potential. Some may get involved in transportation policy, especially when it’s painfully slow to drive three miles across the city. But far fewer (though probably you, dear reader) recognize the importance of land use and zoning and building height limits. It’s just not as compelling as salmon, the poor, or jobs. This needs to change.

These complex issues are interrelated and pushing one forward can pull another back, sabotaging the original goal. Put another bridge over I-5 and more people will drive in their cars, making traffic worse. Block new condos and the working poor are priced out of the city. Unintended consequences don’t discriminate. That’s why my solution is a movement of smart, thoughtful citizens educating ourselves and our neighbors about the relationships between the environment, social justice, the economy, transportation, and land use policy.

You’re reading this blog because you already get it. But has it ever been easy to sell these ideas to other people? Stop harpooning to save the whales: No problem. Build taller buildings so we can avoid creating more subdivisions in order to save the salmon: Huh? We’re talking about ecologies and economies, complex systems that cannot be understood through buzzwords and do not fit neatly into society’s Left-Right paradigm. It is neither conservative nor liberal to support developers when they build housing people can afford and reduce the demand to pave greenspace.

We cannot overcome these challenges alone or merely by educating ourselves. We need to move.

And this movement must do three things. First, it needs to educate, starting with believers who then can educate the non-hostile uninformed. Then, it needs to mobilize by partnering with the amazing organizations already working in this arena. And finally, it needs to show results with higher population densities, greater transit options, cleaner water, fewer homeless families, and a healthier economy.

Our cities have immense potential to serve more people in better ways. But to unleash that potential, first we have to figure out how to all pull in the same direction.


Joshua Newman is a father, engineer at Boeing, and President of the Maple Leaf Community Council. Follow him @NewmanWa.