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Get Stoked to Surf The Fourth Wave of Planning

2012 May 17
by dan bertolet

(Note: the following was submitted but not selected for the 2012 Living Future Conference’s 15 Minutes of Brilliance.)


Last year in Seattle, the Bullitt Foundation’s proposed Living Building was subjected to a costly legal challenge based on Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Opponents argued that an environmental impact statement (EIS) should be required because the building would block views. Given that it’s on track to being one of the greenest commercial buildings ever constructed in the United States, and is also located in a dense, walkable, transit-rich neighborhood, the fact that environmental regulations could be exploited to oppose the project suggests something is amiss, to put it mildly.

Following on the heels of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Washington’s SEPA was created during an era in which the planning culture was dominated by concerns over ecological degradation and responded with strict limits on growth -– planning’s so-called first wave. In the mid-1970s planning entered its second wave, focused on comprehensive planning and infrastructure, followed by a third wave defined by “smart growth” that began around the turn of the century and is still the prevailing approach today.

And now a fourth wave of planning is emerging, with a perspective that will hopefully put an end to perverse contradictions such as what happened with the Bullitt Foundation Living Building. The formative influences on planning’s fourth wave are the “new normal” economy, climate change, energy, food systems, and regional sustainable development.

< The LEED Platinum Center for Urban Waters on the Foss Waterway in Tacoma; photo by Dan Bertolet - click to enlarge >

So then, how do we make this transition to the fourth wave and a new regulatory milieu that accurately reflects the profound, inherent environmental benefits of compact, mixed-use urban infill? As one example of a modest first step, Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood is in the midst of a lengthy upzone process that required a voluminous EIS. To counter the typical “growth is bad” perspective of the EIS, I (while with my former employer, GGLO) worked with a group of local property owners to create an Environmental Benefits Statement that articulates the wide range of benefits that high-intensity redevelopment would bring.

As a second example, my firm is currently engaged in a Subarea planning process in Tacoma that will implement a brand new flavor of Upfront SEPA that was designed to encourage infill around transit. The EIS will pre-approve a set amount of development across the Subarea, and once adopted, it cannot be appealed.

But ultimately, what our environmental policy needs is a makeover. Massive change is upon us, and we can’t afford to let crusty regulations needlessly impede progress on what is already a mind-numbingly overwhelming challenge. NEPA and SEPA were created in the hey-day of muscle cars, and it’s time to sort out the pieces that belong in the policy junk yard. At the same time, new policy must be added to ensure that we properly account for expanding knowledge and game-changing trends such as global warming. All that’s stopping us from surfing the fourth wave and creating a revamped set of regulations that make sense for the 21st century, is us.


Dan Bertolet is an urban planner with VIA Architecture and the creator of the Citytank.