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The Confidence Thing

2012 April 12
by dan bertolet

What would happen if someone wanted to build a Space Needle in Seattle today?

One word: fahgettaboudit.

Today, a proposal with the audacity of the Space Needle would incite an citywide naysayer orgy. It will compete with views of the mountains! It’s a waste of money! It’s out of character with the neighborhood! Where’s the affordable housing? Not unless they also pay for a 3000 stall parking garage! It’s just plain silly and we need to get serious!

Our collective character has changed over the past half century. And my take on it is that the critical element is confidence. In the early 1960s, we had gobs of it. But since then, a series of setbacks from Vietnam to the recent banking implosions have steadily drained it. And that unconfident state of mind, perhaps more than any other factor, is the biggest threat to the success of our efforts to tackle the challenges of the future and create a world in which humanity’s journey continues to expand and thrive.

< In the late 19th Century many Parisians vehemently opposed the Eiffel Tower; image from the movie "Hugo" via >

Curing a lack of confidence is a quandary, because the kind of dramatic successes that inspire confidence require bold action and risk taking, precisely the type of behavior that a lack of confidence inhibits. But the first step is to at least recognize this dynamic.

As an example, consider the recently proposed idea to run a gondola from Capitol Hill to Seattle Center. While there were some who loved the idea (e.g. me), most of the responses I heard or read were not too far off from some of the objections I facetiously suggested above. It seems the serious people—the grown ups—were all too eager to dismiss the idea of a gondola as naive and out of the question.

The reality is that gondolas can be efficient and cost-effective urban transportation, and a gondola is a smart, outside-the-box solution for the unique set of obstacles associated with east-west travel in central Seattle. Gondolas have been successfully implemented in cities worldwide, one of the most impressive examples being in Medellin, Columbia, where a network of nine cable cars that primarily serves the poor was completed in 2010. But when minds are stonewalled by a lack of confidence, such positives tend to be overlooked, and instead people focus on all the reasons why it could never work.

But more importantly from the standpoint of confidence, besides being a practical transportation solution, a gondola from Capitol Hill to Seattle Center would be an outrageously cool thing. People would ride it just for the awesome views. It would become a Seattle icon that no other major U.S. city could match. It would be, dare I say, fun. And all that positive mojo would breed confidence.

The proposed gondola would require a high-rise tower at the Capitol Hill light rail station, an idea that likewise faces resistance at least in part, I believe, due to a lack of confidence and a corresponding aversion to bold thinking. On the practical side, the added value of a high-rise project could help fund the long list of public amenities that the neighborhood wants. On the inspirational side, an iconic tower on Capitol Hill could become a placemaking symbol for the next “Next 50,” those who see a bright future in urban density and transit, and who also wish to celebrate the most socially progressive city neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle is among the most wealthy, highly educated, and politically liberal cities in the United States. How is it that in Columbia—a country with a per capita income about one fifth of ours—they manage to build a system of nine gondolas, while we balk at the idea of even seriously considering one?

And why isn’t Seattle jumping at the chance to expand LINK light right into a city-wide subway system, as proposed by the activists of the new Seattle Subway initiative? Starting in 1991, the City of Athens, Greece, began constructing a subway that opened in 2000 and now serves 33 stations on  29 miles of track. Per capita income in Greece is roughly half that in the U.S.  Not to mention the torrent of rail transit being built in China (more than 3000 miles worth in 2010 alone).

For sure, Seattle’s got a lot of great things going on, as I gushingly described recently. But that’s exactly what offers Seattle the opportunity to take it up a notch and really start pushing the envelope, not only to take on the toughest challenges like public transportation, but also to create an inspirational example of city building done with intention, passion, and soul.

The brains are here. The money is here.

Hey Seattle, got confidence?