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C200: Density = Economic Development

March 30, 2011
by Eric Schinfeld

< Seattle's International District and beyond, from Beacon Hill - click to enlarge; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Denser cities are the ultimate economic development investment. But don’t take my word for it; ask physicist Geoffrey West:

[W]henever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same. “This remarkable equation is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” (emphasis added)

We already know that the largest 100 metropolitan areas in this country house two-thirds of our population and generate 75 percent of our GDP. But West’s insight is that it’s not just about large cities, but dense cities in particular:

In recent decades, though, many of the fastest-growing cities in America, like Phoenix and Riverside, Calif., have given us a very different urban model. These places have traded away public spaces for affordable single-family homes, attracting working-class families who want their own white picket fences. West and Bettencourt point out, however, that cheap suburban comforts are associated with poor performance on a variety of urban metrics. Phoenix, for instance, has been characterized by below-average levels of income and innovation (as measured by the production of patents) for the last 40 years.

Essentially, it’s fair to say the following statement: If you want a stronger economy, create a denser city.


Eric Schinfeld is the Program Manager for Economic Development at the Puget Sound Regional Council. He is the lead writer for The Prosperity Blog, which focuses on Puget Sound economic development issues.


Density = Economic Development


Denser cities are the ultimate economic development investment. But don’t take my word for it; ask physicist Geoffrey West:


[W]henever a city doubles in size, every measure of economic activity, from construction spending to the amount of bank deposits, increases by approximately 15 percent per capita. It doesn’t matter how big the city is; the law remains the same. “This remarkable equation is why people move to the big city,” West says. “Because you can take the same person, and if you just move them to a city that’s twice as big, then all of a sudden they’ll do 15 percent more of everything that we can measure.” (emphasis added)


We already know that the largest 100 metropolitan areas in this country house two-thirds of our population and generate 75 percent of our GDP. But West’s insight is that it’s not just about large cities, but dense cities in particular:


In recent decades, though, many of the fastest-growing cities in America, like Phoenix and Riverside, Calif., have given us a very different urban model. These places have traded away public spaces for affordable single-family homes, attracting working-class families who want their own white picket fences. West and Bettencourt point out, however, that cheap suburban comforts are associated with poor performance on a variety of urban metrics. Phoenix, for instance, has been characterized by below-average levels of income and innovation (as measured by the production of patents) for the last 40 years.


Essentially, it’s fair to say the following statement: If you want a stronger economy, create a denser city.


Eric Schinfeld is the Program Manager for Economic Development at the Puget Sound Regional Council. He is the lead writer for the Prosperity Blog, which focuses on Puget Sound economic development issues.

Want to save working farms, working forests, and Puget Sound, and be happy? Live in a dense city.

March 30, 2011
by Tim Trohimovich

< Photo: Futurewise >

Your mother was right, eating vegetables is good for you. Eating locally grown vegetables is even better as they lose nutrients the farther and longer they have to travel. I used to think I was sacrificing when I ate my greens, but well-cooked vegetables taste great.

Cities are like that. They are good for us, but we imagine that living in a city is a sacrifice. Once we get to know them they we realize they can be great places to live and work.

The evidence is clear. Paving over farms and forests results in the loss of jobs, local food, and local fiber. It also increases storm water runoff, polluting rivers, streams, and Puget Sound. That is why Washington’s Growth Management Act, and similar legislation in other states, focuses growth into our existing cities.

And it is working. Peer reviewed studies show Washington is getting more growth in its urban growth areas. The National Resources Inventory shows that between 2002 and 2007, Washington State used half of the new land for each net new resident compared to the United States as a whole. Policies that focus growth into urban areas are also associated with increased physical activity for recreation and increased walking and biking to work.

Surveys show that long commutes make Americans unhappy. What makes us happiest is being able to have dinner with our friends. By living in dense cities, we reduce our commutes and have more time to meet our friends for dinner. So like vegetables, cities are good for us and make us happy. Cities also help ensure our food will be from Washington State too.


Tim Trohimovich  is Co-Director of Planning & Law at Futurewise, a statewide non-profit organization that promotes smart growth and healthy cities while protecting working farms, working forests, and shorelines for this and future generations.

C200: City Planning Before the Growth Management Act

March 30, 2011
by Roberta Lewandowski

< Redmond Town Center; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Before the GMA became law 20 years ago, city planning was often like a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma. Especially on the edge of an ever expanding urban area, a city’s choices sometimes favored doing the wrong thing—such as approving a big box store development rather than holding out for city center investment. Deny the big box, and likely see that same car-oriented development spring up just outside the city on rural lands, generating all the same negative impacts to the city’s town center and local streets, yet escaping city controls that might limit impacts.

The GMA established the first state-wide planning system in Washington, and among the first in the nation. Requiring cities and counties to work together to plan for growth, mandating protection of farms, forests and rural lands, and limiting urban expansion was a tremendous aide to cities seeking to transform their centers. One of the developers of a new retail development in downtown Redmond (Town Center) said they wouldn’t have risked an outdoor, pedestrian design without the protection of GMA limits on urban expansion.

But the GMA does a better job at conserving what ought not be developed than it does at helping cities create wonderful urban places. The law should be stronger and more clearly in favor of redevelopment as an alternative to urban expansion. It should clearly commit the state’s infrastructure, granting and facility dollars more heavily to investment in city centers, transit, bikeways and pedestrian systems.

Transforming state policy to strongly support city and town centers would be an obvious and affirmative response to the growing market demand for convenient locations. Studies show that centers where work, shopping and residences are within roughly a 3 mile radius enable more alternative transportation choices, like short bike and walking trips. This is the best route to reducing vehicle trips, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy use, as well as bringing mental and physical health benefits. The state should strengthen and clarify its urban policies and align its spending and grants to advance great urban living.

One example:  Deliberately choosing to locate a new university in downtown Tacoma benefits both students and  city vitality, as compared to several other university and college locations accessible only by car. The Tacoma location is just one example of the impact state spending can make.


Roberta Lewandowski is the Board President of Futurewise and former City of Redmond Planning Director.

C200: Preserving An Ecosystem

March 29, 2011
by Michael Seiwerath

< A casualty of the last real estate boom, scores of artists and organizations previously had a home in Capitol Hill’s Oddfellows building; photo: Michael Seiwerath >

The 1990’s brought a building boom to the arts in Seattle. Many of Seattle’s largest arts organizations built or renovated permanent homes and their real estate destiny is now clear.

Few of Seattle’s small and mid-sized groups are as fortunate. Most of them are subject to the whims of the marketplace, often with fickle landlords, sub-leases, or precarious month-to-month arrangements. Apart from those located at Seattle Center, who owns their property or has permanent control? Not Richard Hugo Hugo House, not Freehold, not Annex Theatre, not the scores of artists who may be displaced from the 619 Western building in Pioneer Square.

Seattle must do a better job of working on proactive solutions for affordable arts space. For years there has been a desire to create a focused cultural space program at the city, focused on long term solutions, funding and providing proactive solutions for those arts that cannot pay market rate rents.

Now there is an opportunity to do just this. Through a wonderful collaboration with 4Culture (the county arts agency) the city has a proposal before the National Endowment for the Arts to fund a dedicated cultural space program. Housed at the City Arts office, the program will act as a connector, bringing together space-hungry arts users and property owners with vacant space, activating surplus city property, and focusing funding on arts capital projects.

Our rich arts and culture community is the number two reason people move to Seattle. If this program is created, when the next real estate upswing comes, we’ll have a plan to retain the most fragile part of this ecosystem.


Michael Seiwerath is the Executive Director of the Capitol Hill Housing Foundation and chair of the Seattle Arts Commission’s Facilities and Economic Development Committee.

The Policy Staffer is the DJ

March 29, 2011
by Josh Feit

< Brain Fruit at the Healthy Times Fun Club on Capitol Hill, May 2010; photo: Jennifer Haller >

With Metro policy briefs, ethics and elections commission campaign finance numbers, and ways and means committee bill summaries getting all the ink at PubliCola, readers couldn’t be blamed for thinking I don’t have any interest in arts and culture—that I’m just a policy wonk. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I love the arts and think the prevalence of rock clubs, galleries, readings, live performances, and indie movie houses is what sets cities apart from suburbs and makes them important. Brilliant arts and culture are what cities give to the world.

My own tastes run a little snobby. It’s mostly music I love—Sonic Youth’s Lower-East-Side-era EPs; Rod Modell’s dub electronics; and early 1950s “race records.” I like movies too—those little indie, character-driven movies that play at the Northwest Film Forum on 12th Ave.

There’s a connection between arts and politics (and I don’t mean in that block-headed protest music way—oy vey). I mean in that way when the line stretches around the corner at SIFF; when a hip-hop show at the Punctuation gallery on Pike St. is jam-packed; and when a friend tells me they saw a great play at the Annex last night. Those are political wins for Seattle.When you’re poring over urban policy briefs, at your core, you’re a booster for urban arts.

The basement rock clubs, galleries, and indie movie houses that are strung across America from city to city like a Mardi Gras necklace that also includes transit stops, apartment buildings, bike lanes, basement recording studios, app startups, and P-Patches is exactly why those policy briefs are written in the first place.

The budget policy staffer who’s crunching data on floor area ratios and the laptop DJ who wants to cue up the perfect dance floor mix on a Saturday night at Lo-Fi are both trying to answer the same questions: How do I make this a fantastic place to be? And how do I make it last?


Josh Feit is the founder and editor of Seattle’s news site, PubliCola. In 1999, he wrote “I, Clone,” a chamber opera based on the Amazing Spider-Man issues #144-149.

C200: Why Cities Matter

March 29, 2011
by Sally Clark

I do careful, sometimes nightly, research into the question of why cities matter. Edward Glaeser’s recent work stokes our discussions about what makes cities tick, and Jane Jacobs remains the grand dame of urban advocacy. However, there are other crucial works to consult in our quest to understand the ecosystems of cities. Through our study of these texts (preferably with popcorn and M&M’s) we can better understand human advancement through denser living as our planet becomes more populated and more economically complex.

  • West Side Story. Cities are where the Jets meet the Sharks. Genre defining choreography and music ensue.
  • Annie Hall. Cities are where the rules of modern dating develop. Cities become magnets for socially awkward geeks. Urban clothing fashion co-stars.
  • Do the Right Thing. Cities as places where our best and worst selves come out as we meet, rely on, and push away people of different races and beliefs.
  • Philadelphia. Cities as the relatively safer place at the time to talk about AIDS, homophobia, and fear of nearness.
  • Midnight Cowboy. Cities as the place people go to find financial success. A cry for diversity in city economies so living wage jobs are available beyond “gigolo.”
  • Singles. Cities are where the rules of modern dating develop. Cities become greater magnets for self-involved music geeks. Urban clothing fashion co-stars.
  • Vertigo. Cities as places of great apartments, busy sidewalks, museums and parks. Yes, there’s a murder, but that can happen anywhere.

The stories we tell about cities matter as much as any land use or transit policy when it comes to affecting our individual and collective living decisions. Few wish to live in the city of Blade Runner, but that’s not the way the story has to end.


Sally J. Clark serves on the Seattle City Council. She chairs the Committee on the Built
Environment and likes to go to the movies.

C200: Cities as a Solution to Climate Change

March 28, 2011
by Peter Erickson

The task of averting the worst impacts of climate change is unbelievably daunting. Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak this decade and decline rapidly—to less than 1 ton CO2e per capita—within just a few decades.

Cities are on the front lines of this challenge.  Nearly 70% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050.   The way cities are built – and rebuilt – has profound implications for their contribution to—and resilience against—climate change.

For example, dense, lively, pedestrian- and transit-oriented cities can help us move around with much lower greenhouse gas emissions: as low (or even below) 1 ton CO2e per capita (see graph below), compared to a national U.S. average of 4 tons CO2e per person for ground transportation (largely cars).

< GHG Emissions from Ground Transportation are Inversely Proportional to Density >

Yet the full annual emissions footprint of a U.S. resident averages about 29 tons CO2e/capita, including significant emissions from sources well beyond the city border, such as air travel and emissions needed to make the food we eat and products we use.   Even a dense, vibrant—heck, even car-free city—couldn’t (on its own) avoid these other emissions.

Cities are complex, wonderful systems that, by their very nature, can help orient us to low-GHG lifestyles, particularly for daily transportation.  Once we get our cities on that path, next up: can our cities, with their convergence of people and capital, also transform the rest of the economy?


Peter Erickson is a staff scientist in the Seattle office of the Stockholm Environment Institute.   

C200: Getting Serious About Water Will Take A City-wide Effort

March 28, 2011
by Katie Spataro

For over a decade now, cities across the nation have been competing for recognition as the greenest place to live and work. Healthy competition has increased momentum and political support for more sustainable approaches to building and land development practices.

Seattle’s Living Building Pilot Program is a prime example.

The first city in the nation to formally adopt the LEED standard for municipal buildings, Seattle has been pushing the boundaries ever since. In 2009, their Living Building Pilot program identifies regulatory obstacles within their land use code and provides flexibility for those trailblazing the path towards not just higher-performance, but restorative goals for the built environment.

But while the growing awareness around energy use and climate impacts has largely been the driving force, the emergent national crisis around water scarcity and water pollution will require a huge leap forward in the shaping of our cities of the future.

Places like Orlando, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Houston, and San Francisco are amongst the cities that are most likely to see large imbalances of water supply and demand, according to recent studies. But even cities with an apparent abundance of fresh water like the Pacific Northwest will be impacted by changing climate patterns, increased pollution from stormwater runoff, and overflows of combined storm sewers discharging untreated sewage directly into local waterbodies.

With many communities now facing bankruptcy as they consider upgrading or expanding their existing water infrastructure, cities have an important and increasingly urgent role to play in how water is used and how it is regulated.

In 2007 Arizona tax credits encouraged residents to install greywater re-use systems on their properties as a means of conserving water. Tucson and other cities in the state have since mandated that all new homes be plumbed for beneficial use of greywater onsite. In 2009, Washington State removed a nearly century-old requirement for burdensome water rights permitting for collection of rooftop-harvested rainwater, opening the door for cities to actively promote the practice. In the last few months, Seattle/King County Public Health has taken the next stride forward in establishing standards for collection of rainwater as drinking water for residential use.

Cities around the globe, in deeper troubled waters than our own, have taken conservation and reuse even further.  Water-stressed South African cities are considering paying residents for collecting urine from their waterless toilets as an incentive for not using precious water for flushing.

But we have a long way to go before the adoption of composting toilets or water reuse systems become more widespread practice in our cities. In urban areas, current regulations and lack of support by water utilities present the greatest hurdles. Strong leadership is needed at both the city and state levels for addressing regulatory obstacles and cultural bias for on-site water systems, whether as a supply source or for treatment and reclamation of the valuable resources contained in our water and wastes.


< The Oregon Health and Science University Center for Health and Healing in Portland, OR, treats 100% of its wastewater on-site. The reclaimed water is then combined with rainwater and re-used in toilets, cooling towers and for irrigation. Image Credit: Interface Engineering >


Katie Spataro is a Research Director at the Cascadia Green Building Council.

C200: How To Wrap Five Eggs

March 28, 2011
by Joshua Curtis

< The Joseph Vance Building in downtown Seattle has reportedly reduced heating costs by 56 percent since undergoing energy retrofits; photo: Dan Bertolet >

When I was a child, my parents owned the book “How to Wrap 5 Eggs” by Hideyuki Oka (and the subsequent, aptly named, “How to Wrap 5 More Eggs”), which they displayed proudly on our wicker coffee table. I recall afternoons spent perusing those pages of designs that were stark, efficient, elegant, and simple. While celebrating a natural form of handcraft now largely lost, these designs conveyed a deep and resonant message: when you are presented limitations, you are provided the opportunity to create.

The lesson of wrapping 5 eggs is particularly appropriate to today’s nascent energy efficiency industry. The core challenge: how do you incentivize home and building owners to improve the efficiency of their buildings in the wake of a real estate crash?

The allure of energy efficiency is not hard to understand. Environmentalists see energy efficiency as a way to achieve reductions in greenhouse gases. Entrepreneurs and investors see these reductions as a source of revenue, if only captured in the right financing models. Labor unions see jobs for their deep benches of unemployed members, while social justice advocates see opportunities for career pathways out of poverty. All are excited for the opportunity that recent government investments provide to create an industry in which all of these values converge.

Standing up this industry is not without its challenges, but I believe Seattle is leading the national charge. Local groups such as Seattle 2030 District and Better Bricks are leveraging innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to create local momentum. Emerald Cities Seattle, a local affiliate of the national Emerald Cities movement, has brought labor, community, and business to the table to develop workforce and marketplace strategies. The program that I manage with the City of Seattle, Community Power Works, is developing and supporting financing models for six building sectors while creating living wage job opportunities for our community.

This is a time of innovation and excitement in the energy efficiency sector, as well as big hopes. That we are constrained by certain financial realities provides us the impetus to be even more creative. There are, after all, many ways to wrap 5 eggs.


Joshua Curtis manages the Community Power Works program for the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. He is former Executive Director, and current board member, of Great City, a green urbanist non-profit.

C200: Foresight

March 25, 2011
by Lewis Mumford

< Interstate 5 in Seattle - click image to enlarge; photo: Dan Bertolet >

When the American people, through their Congress, voted last year for a twenty-six billion dollar highway program, the most charitable thing to assume about this action is that they hadn’t the faintest notion of what they were doing. Within the next fifteen years they will doubtless find out; but by that time it will be too late to correct all the damage to our cities and our countryside, to say nothing of the efficient organization of industry and transportation, that this ill-conceived and absurdly unbalanced program will have wrought.

Yet if someone had foretold these consequences before this vast sum of money was pushed through Congress, under the specious guise of a national defense measure, it is doubtful whether our countrymen would have listened long enough to understand; or would even have been able to change their minds if they did understand. For the current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motor car, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for the religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism. Perhaps the only thing that could bring Americans to their senses would be a clear demonstration of the fact that their highway program will, eventually, wipe out the very area of freedom that the private motorcar promised to retain for them.


Lewis Mumford wrote the above in 1958 (The Urban Prospect).

C200: Know Thy City

March 25, 2011
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


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.


Knute Berger is Mossback columnist for Crosscut

C200: Asking The Right Questions

March 25, 2011
by Tim Pittman

< Robert Moses' plan for a 10-lane freeway through lower Manhattan >

Cities can offer sustainable, livable, vibrant environments and be powerful centers of innovation. But what environments we create and what innovations we pursue are framed by the questions we’re asking. Looking back at unsuccessful examples of city planning, it occurs to me that what I’m seeing may be the right answers to the wrong questions.

Personally, I see cities as a tool for fostering human capabilities to live and flourish (I owe my inspiration to Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen). My question is: how can cities provide the framework for people to live well and participate meaningfully in society?

This is ambitious, but purposefully so. A good question should help expose what we don’t know and offer a new lens to look at the tools we have at hand. Transportation, public space, social housing, urban density, economic growth—these are all tools that can deliver great cities. But too often they are treated as ends in themselves and the bigger question is forgotten.

We all know the best of intentions can still lead to bad results. Visionary highway planners have destroyed city fabrics around the world when asking how to move car traffic most efficiently instead of how to provide the highest quality environment. Affordable housing is built without considering broader measures like livability, transport, and access to basic services. The questions were wrong, not the answers.

The right questions consider broader goals and build in time for reflection, mechanisms for feedback, and capacity for change. Take a recent example in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland: an unused plot was temporarily covered in Astroturf and became a surprisingly vibrant public space used for everything from picnics to pick up football. Two years later it was torn up and replaced with a previously planned plaza, veteran’s memorial, seasonal ice rink and pavilion—a questionable improvement with a large cost.

Rarely will we get something right the first time. With the right question, the right timing, and a little modesty we can incorporate feedback, adaptation, and flexibility into our solutions. Great cities have these mechanisms built in; we just have to make sure we don’t design them out. Asking questions is how we’re going to do it, and cities are where we need to start.


Tim Pittman is a masters candidate in the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics.

C200: Bike Dispatch From NYC

March 24, 2011
by Sarah Goodyear

< New York City; photo: Kyle Gradinger/BCGP >

Imagine if city streets were designed not for cars, but for people.

Imagine that when a car struck a person, the driver was held accountable.

Imagine that bicycling was treated as a legitimate form of transportation, so common as to be not really worth remarking upon.

That’s the vision of a growing number of people in the United States today. And it is gaining ground.

In New York City, where I live and where I grew up, hundreds of miles of new bike lanes have been added to the city’s streets in the last few years. Bicycling for transportation is now not just for mad young things willing to tangle with taxis —and yes, I was one of those once, commuting by bike in the 1980s when people thought it was absolutely insane. It was.

More and more you see people of all ages and sizes out pedaling New York’s streets. There has been backlash—a lawsuit backed by powerful political interests is challenging one lane in particular. But there has also been a steadily growing base of support for the rights of people, not motor vehicles, to reclaim primacy on our streets.

It’s not just New York. Los Angeles has released a master plan that calls for the creation of 1,600 miles of bike lanes over several years. Chicago’s mayor-elect, Rahm Emanuel, wants to expand that city’s bicycling network. Communities around the country are passing complete streets ordinances, mandating street design that accommodates and protects the most vulnerable road users – people on foot, people on bikes, the elderly, children.

It’s getting easier every day to imagine a different kind of America—one built around people, instead of cars.


Sarah Goodyear is cities editor at Grist. She has worked as a writer and editor at Streetsblog, Time Out New York, and lots of other places. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.



C200: The Bicycle

March 24, 2011
by Michael Hintze

“Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia.” – H.G. Wells, 1905


Given their dense street networks and proximity of land uses, cities are ideal places for bicycling. Consider this: Bicycles are the most efficient vehicles yet invented by humankind. A bicycle needs only 35 calories per passenger mile, whereas a car expends 1,860 calories. Even walking is not as efficient (it requires three times as many calories as biking). Bikes can move more people per meter-width-equivalent right-of-way than cars, as well (1,500 per hour v. 170). These facts alone have large implications in terms of how we should be designing our cities and transportation networks in the face of rising oil prices, depleted municipal budgets, and the soaring healthcare costs associated with the expanding waistlines of the American public.

But then, when you start to layer in the more difficult to quantify benefits of bicycling (and walking), e.g., the endorphin rush that could substitute for that cup of coffee in the morning, greater social connectedness, less ambient noise and air pollution, you begin to understand why cities across the nation, and the world, are investing more in bicycle infrastructure. Yes, we have a long way to go to get more people biking, but as more and more people in more and more cities across the country are discovering, “nothing compares to the simple pleasure [and efficiency] of a bike ride.”*


Michael Hintze, AICP, is a Senior Planner at Toole Design Group, one of the nation’s leading planning and design firms specializing in multi-modal transportation.


*John F. Kennedy

C200: Whither Streetcars?

March 24, 2011
by A-P Hurd

< Seattle Streetcar; photo: Dan Bertolet >

I know that Metro Transit and Sounds Transit are different agencies, and frankly it doesn’t make a grain of sense for building a regional transit system.

Many people feel we should invest in streetcars because the streetcar is “nicer” than the bus. In fact, streetcars are a poor choice at a time when we are cutting bus service.

The SLUT is only “nicer” because it’s full of techies and bio-techies going to work. If you run the streetcar up Capitol Hill, or up Aurora (like the 358 bus) you will wind up with the same wonky mix of people as you do on the bus. All those extra capital investment dollars don’t buy you classier ridership. Sorry.

More importantly, people don’t make transportation choices primarily because of the savoriness of the person riding next to them. They make transportation choices because of efficiency. Streetcars add infrastructure cost, but they don’t move any faster than cars and buses.

Light rail, on the other hand, has a phenomenal upfront capital cost and carbon footprint. However, light rail has the potential to make time economics of riding public transit seriously competitive with SOV travel. And that is fundamentally transformative of how transit can work in our region.

So let’s get the light rail spine done. All the way to Bellevue. UNDER Bellevue.

Then, let’s find a reliable source of funding for our busses, and set streetcars aside until we can manage to run a truly regional bus system with comprehensive routes, short headways and dedicated lanes.


A-P Hurd is a Developer at Touchstone and a Fellow of the Runstad Center for Real Estate at the University of Washington.

C200: A High-Performing Trolley Network for Seattle

March 24, 2011
by Tom Rasmussen

< Eletric trolley bus in Lyon, France >

Spokane is planning a “high performance transit service” that will connect major activity centers within the central city.  On Friday March 18, I met a delegation of Spokane government and business leaders who have narrowed the choice of vehicles to electric trolley busses (ETB), street cars or a rapid ride bus service. They were in Seattle to learn more about our version of the alternatives and to experience a ride on each.

Metro is assessing whether to order more ETB’s or to scrap the system. I am working to keep and expand our electric trolley bus system, eventually into the kind of in-city high performance network Spokane is looking at, with many of the ease of use, speed and reliability benefits of Sound Transit’s Link or Metro’s RapidRide.

One of the disadvantages of ETB’s is that the purchase price is more than diesel or diesel-hybrid buses. However, I believe that their power on hills and the environmental benefits outweigh the higher up-front cost. With the price of fossil fuels continuing to increase, electric vehicles fueled with carbon-free City Light electricity will be cheaper to operate over the long run.

By working with cities like Spokane who are also considering ETB purchases, we can get the price down and pursue more modern European style designs, as seen in the photo above, taken in Lyon, France. Just as Portland has done with streetcars, we may even be able to lure a manufacturer to build assemble new ETB’s right here in Seattle.


Tom Rasmussen is a Seattle City Councilmember.

C200: Why Cities?

March 23, 2011
by Carolyn Law

< Photo by the author - click to enlarge >

Cities are essential at this point in time. We all know that most of the world’s non-stop growing population lives in them out of necessity. But cities don’t thrive or survive when approached with an attitude framed by individual or corporate (the new “individual”) necessity.

Cities make visible the essential tenet of interconnection: in relationship to and with. Strengths and weaknesses of all the types of relationships (human, natural, industrial, domestic, and on and on into the full breadth of complexity) are on constant display as they are worked with and against. That constant shifting of the mix generates energy and sucks it away. Tidal. Cities are the great experiment in pulling balance out of what is constantly shifting.

Cities call for the best we have to offer while we find balance in a respectful way. They ask us to be aware. They ask us to nurture rather then exploit. They ask us to act as a community, on behalf of the community, to steward all the disparate parts. They ask us to be alive rather then go through the motions.

The challenge they ask of us in every moment is what kind of pivot point are we each in this inter-related cultural/social/physical/economic narrative?


Carolyn Law has been working as a professional studio and public artist for over 25 years, and has been actively involved in civic affairs concerning the built environment and public spaces.

C200: The Viaduct And The Vision

March 23, 2011
by Sally Bagshaw

< The Alaskan Way Viaduct; photo: Dan Bertolet >

The tunnel debate which has raged for years is getting old. It should not distract us from three important objectives.

First, the viaduct needs to be replaced because it will not sustain another mega earthquake. Replacing the viaduct is the region’s #1 priority safety issue, and controlled demolition on the south part of the viaduct is already underway.

Second, after ten full years of discussion and debate, we are finally moving forward with the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall project. The State, not the city, has entered into contract with the tunneling contractor. Extra insurance and a performance bond cover the City from risk of loss. The biggest risk of loss at this point is delaying progress.

Third, moving the majority of cars and trucks off our Waterfront allows us to address multiple quality of life issues which are within our grasp: our maritime and local economy will be enhanced; a premier green promenade will stretch from our sports stadiums to the Olympic Sculpture Park and beyond; pedestrians and bicyclists will be separated from fast moving and noisy cars and trucks; our seawall will be rebuilt to keep Elliott Bay at bay, and it will be designed to provide shelter for salmonids heading out to sea. Opportunities for connecting all of us to the water abound. In other words, people, businesses, and our environment will all benefit.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement Project provides us with the opportunity to multiply the value of our expended transportation funds and do much for our City and region. We’re already moving, and I am excited—at last—to move beyond the tunnel debate and focus our positive energy on what we want our Waterfront to become.


Sally Bagshaw is a Seattle City Councilmember.

C200: The City, Inspired

March 23, 2011
by Ben Martins

Editor’s Note: Yesterday this unsolicited C200 post landed in my inbox from Cleveland, of all places. How awesome is that? All hail the Gods of the Interwebs that enable such connections. Of course, Ben Martens could be an axe-murderer for all I know.

< Cleveland - click image to enlarge; photo: John Baden >

Every urban planner was drawn to the field because cities evoked some level of inspiration and awe for them. Whether you are in your first semester of grad school, learning about Daniel Burnham and the City Beautiful movement, or a seasoned professional, culling census data for an update to the comprehensive plan, the magnetism of cities was something that, in some small or large way, called out to you and made you think, “I want to help make cities better.”

For me, there were two aspects of cities that made that call, that planted in me a desire to dedicate my efforts to improving the urban realm. The first started calling as long ago as I can remember. The simple sight of a city skyline – from a car, a roof, a boat, even on television – has always stirred a reaction in me roughly halfway between my gut and my soul. Seeing the heart of a city, the buildings hurtling skyward, different architectural styles mingling and blending into a pattern that made both no sense whatsoever and all the sense in the world at the same time, has inspired awed within me since childhood. One look at the Cleveland skyline – Terminal Tower, Key Tower, and the BP Building looming large – and any doubts I may have had about my vocation melt away and are replaced by an aspiration to be better in the way I see, think about, and write about the city. The skyline reminds me how important it is to create and give of myself.

The second inspiring aspect of the city for me is a little less concrete. I guess you could call it the city’s pulse, the feeling of energy that envelopes a person when they are in the midst of a bustling, well-designed public place. The city’s pulse has always made me feel connected, like I was part of something much bigger (much more important) than myself. It is that sweet sense of the “now,” the feeling that just being there is a serendipitous opportunity to witness, and, more, participate in something awe-inspiring. I’ve felt it in Cleveland’s Public Square, the Short North district in Columbus, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, Grand Central Terminal in New York. In those moments, I can feel
the unbelievable potential we have as people – such enormous things we can accomplish! – and the unique ability the city has for inspiring us to pursue that potential. But I want to feel the energy more often, want it to run me over every time I turn a new corner in the city, and that is why I am an urban planner. We may never reach our full potential, but it is empowering to know that the city will never stop demanding that we try.

And what about you? What is it about the city that inspires you, excites you, motivates you? How does the city nourish the fire inside you?


Ben Martens is an urban planner in Cleveland.

< Cleveland- click image to enlarge; photo: Christina Spicuzza >

C200: A Tale Of Two Downtown Neighborhoods

March 22, 2011
by Jon Scholes

< Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood >

Today, two important downtown Seattle neighborhoods are currently assessing their futures – at least by way of land use rezones – which will have significant implications on their growth, vibrancy and livability in the years to come. Would it be easier on everyone if the neighborhoods of South Lake Union and Pioneer Square just simply traded places in Seattle? Would both neighborhoods be better for it twenty years from now?

Now, I recognize that this would likely have goofed up some of our history and the trajectory of our city’s economy, culture, etc. if these neighborhoods were in different places 100 + years ago, but stick with me here and imagine if today we could pack up the historic buildings of Pioneer Square and relocate them to the shores of Lake Union. And consider for a moment if we could sprinkle the dozens of global health and life sciences organizations that call SLU home today, around King Street and Union Stations – the largest transit hub west of Chicago – just south of the Downtown office core.

In Pioneer Square, familiar arguments are being made against new density in the neighborhood, for fear it would erode the historic integrity of the neighborhood (even though today the neighborhood has a retail vacancy rate twice that of Downtown). In South Lake Union, similar concerns regarding height have been raised, but for different reasons – the need to protect views of the Space Needle and preserve view corridors to the Lake are some of the reasons people have argued against significant new height.

Perhaps everyone’s interests would be better served if the two neighborhoods switched places and just maybe we’d wind up with better urban neighborhoods and come closer to meeting our local and regional goals for transit oriented development and density.

The low slung historic buildings of Pioneer Square moved a few miles north would protect views of the Space Needle and Lake Union. Moved south, the red hot global health and life sciences sector and the even hotter Amazon campus would have tremendous access to transit, something they lack today
in SLU. The friction between more density and historical preservation in the “new Pioneer Square” would be a thing of the past and more density around the transit stations in South Downtown would be cheered and embraced, for it would provide places for all those young lab workers and software engineers to live near their jobs. We’d finally maximize and leverage the hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment that has been made in transit infrastructure and service at King Street and Union Stations.

Yes, this suggestion absurd, but it raises the question of whether as a community we’re up to the task of redefining the conversations about growth in urban neighborhoods. To get it right for both neighborhoods, we need to broaden the conservation and consider the positive outcomes we are trying to achieve through neighborhood rezones and excite people around those visions. Consider that we spend thousands of dollars on consultants focused on the “impacts” of growth and density, but rarely the benefits. Perhaps we’re challenged here in Seattle since so much of our neighborhood building has been focused around single family zones and their business districts and we haven’t demonstrated success yet near major transit hubs and downtown.

But that shouldn’t hold us back. We need to adopt a “Yes We Can” attitude when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in Seattle. Right now we have a “We think we might be able to, but oh dear what about (fill in the blank),” which holds us back and slows us down.

We can’t move these neighborhoods, but we can take deliberate and informed steps to realize our values and goals when it comes to creating great urban neighborhoods in downtown, and we can start talking about the benefits of high quality urban neighborhoods, not just the perceived impacts.


Jon Scholes is the V.P. of Advocacy and Economic Development at the Downtown Seattle Association.

C200: Urban Design From Below

March 22, 2011
by Josh Mahar

< Union and 10th in Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine neighborhood; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Anyone reading this blog certainly knows that creating walkable, people-oriented communities is a necessary step in ensuring a sustainable future for America. Unfortunately, this is a daunting task in the face of the auto-centric designs that dominate our cities and towns. Much of the Urbanist Movement today is about simply figuring out what codes and regulations nurture walkable communities. It is about answering the question: what physical structures will encourage the human activity and interaction we see in great neighborhoods around the world?

But we can approach this same question from the other direction as well: what social structures foster a more humane and friendly built environment? Are there ways of leveraging social interactions to design better, more vibrant communities? I would argue that this bottom up approach is how many of the medieval cities we seek to emulate originated; the activities of society organically shaped the urban landscape. I can’t speak much to Paris or Rome, but I do have some insights into my own neighborhood, Capitol Hill, arguably Seattle’s finest example of an urban village. The Hill provides some interesting lessons in how social organization can influence the built environment.

As an officer on the Capitol Hill Community Council I was impressed by how the network of interest groups helped improve urban design projects. Rather than some neighborhoods where a single NIMBY or business group dominates discussion, Capitol Hill’s many different advocates are constantly jockeying to get their voices heard. However, contrary to what one might assume, this plethora of voices doesn’t complicate a community vision, but clarifies it. As leaders of each distinct group come together to work on various projects, they discuss and debate ideas, constantly communicating different concerns and opportunities to each other. Through this complex process of exchange and interaction a unified vision of the neighborhood, almost unconsciously, bubbles to the surface. The results of this process are evident in the bold First Hill streetcar plan which rallied the community together behind a design proposal that is much more ambitious than even SDOT’s fine planners had proposed. A similar situation is unfolding around the future Broadway TOD site, which has forced Sound Transit to think much grander about place-making than they ever have in the past.

Similarly, I believe some of the most under-valued assets of Capitol Hill are its local investors. Developers like Liz Dunn, Mike Malone, Maria Barrientos and the staff at Capitol Hill Housing and Schemata Workshop are all familiar faces in the community and their projects reflect a deep understanding of the neighborhood. Unlike national or even regional developers, these groups are able to see creative opportunities for community improvement, and perhaps more importantly, are willing to take the risks necessary to pursue them. The Broadway Building with its alley-focused retail. Melrose Market with its farmer’s market-style boutiques. The Pantages apartments surrounding a restored 1907 mansion. These buildings may strictly adhere to the best urban design guidelines, but they fill important gaps in the surrounding neighborhood and strengthen the identity of the community. No matter how specific the design code is, it can’t impose the local knowledge that these individuals manifest in their projects.

While design codes and building regulations are a useful starting point, my experiences in Capitol Hill have made me rethink the process of manufacturing vibrant communities. The best structures do not come from those that follow the rules but from local groups and entrepreneurs that take the time to appreciate all of the neighborhood’s intricacies and design with a personal interest in improvement. Rather than focusing on defining the physical elements of good design, perhaps we can find ways of organizing space from the bottom up. Not community-oriented but community-built.


Josh Mahar is a first year student at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs, Urban Policy Intern at the Cascade Land Conservancy, and occasional contributor to

C200: Let’s Stop Putting The Cart Before The Horse

March 22, 2011
by Al Levine

< The Beacon Hill light rail station. Last year neighbors filed an appeal against proposed zoning that would allow a six story building on the vacant site adjacent to the station; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Over the past 15 years the City has provided lots of “carrots” for neighborhoods to increase density—new libraries, community centers, parks, light rail stations, matching funds, P-patches and more. These have been accompanied by lots of talk about accommodating increased density, but few “sticks” have been applied to facilitate this increase.

The conversations continue endlessly around rezoning for TOD at rail stations, rezoning South Downtown, Northgate, Capitol Hill, Roosevelt and other neighborhoods.

When new zoning has been put in place, it has generally been too ineffectual to have much impact.

Going forward, let’s stop putting the cart before the horse. Instead, let’s negotiate and implement appropriate zoning before we provide publicly-funded amenities.

Let’s give neighborhoods specific targets for new capacity and a larger toolbox to choose from to accommodate those targets. Options could include large scale duplex zoning, multi-family nodes, arterial rezones without the restrictions caused by adjoining single family uses, special block-end zoning and others.

This approach would give neighborhoods a more flexible voice in shaping their form and it would create the needed incentives for them to take action.


Al Levine is Deputy Director of the Seattle Housing Authority, and the above represents his personal views.

C200: 21st Century Infrastructure

March 21, 2011
by Cary Moon

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

The 20th century American economy based on cheap land/cheap fuel/cheap money stalled out. We face an array of daunting challenges, different than our parents faced: climate change, fossil fuel depletion, unprecedented national debt, tectonic shifts in global money flows.

There are some things we probably need to change. I believe infrastructure decisions are at the top of the list.

But first, step back, and consider what we’re aiming for. We need to visualize the next economy. This brilliant speech from the smartypants Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institute lays it out: it’s got to be export-oriented, low-carbon, and innovation fueled.

To move forward, we need to acknowledge that metro areas across the globe generate a stunning portion (roughly 85% in the developed world) of the current economy, and will drive the future economy.

And we need radically different measures of prosperity. How much crap we buy, how far sprawl is reaching, the convenience of our highways are NOT how our society should measure success.

So the world is urbanizing, the economy is reorganizing, and prosperity isn’t consumption. What infrastructure (in the broad sense of systems) is needed to support that future? For all of us urbanists, some ideas and goals jump to mind, like: robust transit, great schools, livable neighborhoods, compact growth/affordable housing strategies, efficient ports, high speed rail, walking and biking options everywhere, local green energy systems, and lightning fast data transmission.

Let’s assume we can collectively envision what we want Seattle’s future to be, and even identify the infrastructure to undergird it. But we still have a predicament: the power structures and government money flows generally exist to support old paradigms. Or to paraphrase Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson: Our government paradigm is local, state, federal. But our economic paradigm is neighborhood, regional, global.

What if governmental organizations and money flows were oriented, instead, to support the economic success of metro areas?

I think the essence of this challenge, of investing in the right infrastructure to achieve prosperity the future economy, lies in how metropolitan regions collaborate with the federal government. Despite our irrefutably good ideas about our urban future, our tiny local politics are not capable of getting us there, alone. If there were three things we could do to carve out a viable migration path to the new economy, I propose:

  1. Convince the federal government to shift more decision making (and funding) to the city and regional level. We  – elected leaders, and the thousands of us who work in the city building and NGO sectors – spend a bewildering amount of effort and energy fighting Olympia just to do what is right for Seattle. It makes no sense.
  2. Encourage, and then grab, federal investments in research and education at universities and institutes.  Government has to support innovation, and keep prospecting the next opportunities. And invest in educating everyone, especially knowledge workers, inventors, engineers, skilled trades, and fixers of things.
  3. Develop new business  & NGO networks within the metro region of those who are making the future economy. The death grip of status quo protectionism that has settled into organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce and its local incarnations has got to be loosened.

Seattle is so blessed: stunning nature, a diverse economy, an educated population, well-intended leaders, an entrepreneurial outlook, minimal corruption, and wealth.

But we need a big fat reset. If we can’t fix the systems to get to the future, with all these resources, we are screwed.


Cary Moon is an urbanist and activist working in Seattle. She co-founded and directs the People’s Waterfront Coalition, hoping to help Seattle achieve its abundant potential.



C200: Are We Sustainable Yet?

March 20, 2011
by Roger Valdez

< Senator Grasshopper Meets With Constituents >

Remember Aesop’s fable about the grasshopper and the ants? The grasshopper danced and sang away the summer months while the ants prepared for winter. When winter came the ants were ready for the bleak months ahead. The grasshopper was shivering and starving.

When it comes to climate change our politicians and leaders remind me of the grasshopper, and we too quickly follow them, talking about the importance of climate change but failing to take bold actions against it.

We know what to do. Like the ants preparing for winter we should be diligently working to cap carbon emissions, shift our economy away from dependence on fossil fuels, build a smart grid to deliver renewable energy to businesses and households, and upgrade the existing building stock to be more energy efficient.

But we’re not. While elected officials talk a good game about sustainability they’re still building highways. It’s an example of what I call the Sustainability Gap—the difference between what politicians say and what they do about becoming sustainable. Celebrating and investing in cities can help close the gap. I’ve heard dense urban forms described derisively as “ant hills.” Maybe the ants aren’t such a bad example to follow after all.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Roger Valdez is a writer who has a special interest in land use. He’s currently reading through and revising Seattle’s land use code with an eye toward making it line up more with the City’s stated interest in becoming more sustainable.

C200: The Details Make The Difference

March 18, 2011
by Alan Durning

< Broadway Market, Capitol Hill, Seattle; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Cities are among the most useful developments of all time. They give us access to the diverse talents of hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people. They let us choose from a richness of economic, educational, cultural, and recreational offerings. They are, in a word, civilized.

But cities don’t all work well, nor do neighborhoods or even blocks. Where cities are concerned, the details make all the difference.

Well-planned and well-executed city building improves our lives and, as a little noticed side effect, eases many of modernity’s greatest challenges. Good cities lessen our dependence on cars. They breathe new life into neighborhoods. They revitalize democracy. They make the public realm safe again. They cultivate thriving economies and dampen public health menaces like car crashes and sedentary living. They bridge the widening gaps that divide classes and race, strengthen national security, slow catastrophic climate change, and even protect the vanishing remnants of native wildlands. They also conserve that most precious of nonrenewable resources—our own time.


Alan Durning is the founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute.

C200: Unearthing Neighborhood Assets

March 18, 2011
by Lesley Bain

< Gilman Gardens in Seattle's Queen Ann neighborhood; photo: Lesley Bain >

Great cities come from visions of all sizes. Some of the best places are at the neighborhood scale, where an idea can come to fruition with lots of energy and persistence. Gilman Gardens, on the west side of Queen Anne hill, is one of those places. With vegetables, flowers, a picnic table and a basket for sharing, it’s clearly a place that is loved.

Charlie Hoselton saw an opportunity in the neglected median strips along Gilman Drive West. With apartments and condos nearby, plenty of people needed a place to grow things and spend time out-of-doors.

So how do you turn an unneeded piece of the street into a  community-run garden? Get the permit first, says Charlie. Seattle’s Department of Transportation oversees the enormous amount of real estate (like most urban areas, somewhere between a quarter and a third of city land) that is public right-of-way. SDOT recognized that the medians were unused space, but needed a plan of how the garden would lay out. And to make sure that they are not liable for anything that would go awry, they asked for insurance. So that meant organizing, non-profit status and a bank account.

Work parties of ten to twenty people hauled out literally tons of garbage, broken glass, tires and TVs. People signed up for the 54 plots and signed a users agreement. It was a successful season. The sharing basket was full for weeks; the community came together for a harvest festival and even a wedding.

All they need now is water. And there is plenty of it in a spring just up the hill, eroding the neighbor’s driveway. If the Gilman Gardeners can figure out how to get it to the garden, they’ll have the water they need. That’s what they do: turning problems in their neighborhood into great assets.


Lesley Bain is an architect and urban designer at Weinstein A|U.

C200: Time

March 18, 2011
by Meredith Hall

< The King County bridge project team thanked the community by awarding a few dozen of us who've been involved with the bridge project with a little piece of grating salvaged from the demolished spans. >

“They say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” – Andy Warhol


The collapse of the building industry has been pretty bad for the design firms who purport to make cities great. But maybe things aren’t so bad for city-greatness after all — in addition to slowing down the baking of all those stale breadloaves, this crappy economy has put unemployment checks in our hands and given us the free time to work in our communities.

Through the great upswing – from 1998, all the way through two booms (!), the great people of South Park worked and hoped and pleaded for a new bridge, but what did it finally take to get one? An earthquake and, nearly ten years later, a county budget crisis mixed with a touch of stimulus money (hard won – thanks Patty!). The bids have already come in under budget and construction will start in May. The new bridge – and, I’m betting, a revitalized South Park business district – will be open in just two years.

In the wake of the interim bridge closure, we’ve had our share of downs – business is down, traffic is down, the prostitutes have moved down the street – but the community has also had its ups.

Meetings are up – we’ve been getting to know our neighbors by getting together to talk about how we’re going to improve South Park through hosting events and beautifying the business district. We’ve been meeting with philanthropic organizations that see our rallying for the bridge as a sign that South Park is a great place to invest in community building.   We’ve been working on creating a new park. We’ve even met with young web developers who wanted nothing more than to help us create a better online community for South Park.

Sure, a steady income is good for everyone. But extra time comes in pretty handy when it comes to building great cities.


Meredith Hall finally landed a full time job as a landscape architect and now fantasizes about having free time.

C200: Drop By Drop

March 18, 2011
by Mary Johnston

Over 300 reviews of more than 200 individual projects, plans and policies that affect the public realm. About 1200 hours of listening, writing, talking and looking. Four and a half years of paying attention to the things big and small that shape the city of Seattle. Moments of utter frustration and downright anger at the missed opportunities and isolated decision-making. Moments of deep satisfaction at a vision realized, inertia thwarted, mission accomplished. In between the projects of a generation-a waterfront, a vast transit system- the small nodes and moments stand out: a storm water project that gives a park to a neighborhood, thus doubling the benefit of an investment; a new urban trail; some public breathing space. The best ones have shepherds who do not see how little they can get away with, but how good can they can make a project. The best ones usually have something to do with water; how to control it, how to touch it, how to learn from it, how to see it in a different way.

I’ve learned a lot in 4 years. I’ll miss it. Sort of.


Mary Johnston is an architect and has served on the Seattle Design Commission for 4 1/2 years, as Chair for 2 1/2 years.

C200: The Stimulus Package: Learning from the City

March 18, 2011
by Ray Gastil

< Seattle, Little Saigon, February 2011; photo: Ray Gastil >

Cities are relentless in the way they challenge our assumptions.  It’s not that we don’t need assumptions—without generalizing we couldn’t get through the day because there’d be too many decisions to make. At the same time, human beings need stimulus – every four seconds according to urbanist Jan Gehl. If we’re lucky, and in the city it’s easy to get lucky, we can walk down the street and see, hear, feel, and learn something that changes how we see the world. Literal information—there’s the port, there’s the jail—or the sensate update of a strange smell or a startling color, can intuitively and cumulatively open our minds to the reality of the world. We can get plenty of stimulus digitally, but in the city we are full, five-senses actors, as real as the wet sidewalk and the dirty bus exhaust. Cities juxtapose. There’s a music club in a beat up one-story building next to a shimmering high rise next to a drop-in center. There are self-conscious paradoxes—“this library is not a library”—and accidental ones. And while buildings are a history of society’s “winners” (no money=no build) fortunes change. Where’s that bank? Who were those Oddfellows, anyhow? Who really wins? If we’re  going to make a more sustainable world, we need to be challenged, even about what we assume is green and good, and cities are a great, humbling, challenging force to do just that.


Ray Gastil is a city planning and urban design consultant who has served as a city planning director in Seattle and Manhattan. His work focuses on the culture of cities.

C200: Who Needs Cities?

March 17, 2011
by Gene Duvernoy

< Cities need to be welcoming to all - such as this sidewalk scene from Seattle’s Capitol Hill; photo: Bradley Hanson >

I’m now told that cities are necessary to save the planet. Let’s get this straight. Nature doesn’t need our cities. Nature will bound across the countless fronts opened by what may be the latest great die-off. Time will move on, there’ll be a spanking new world ecology, and our heedless tenure will be so last geologic era.

Now that we’re past this bit of hubris, let’s get over our ambivalence and admit it is we who need cities. Desperately. We are busy adding 175 thousand people a day to the 6.9 billion people already here. At this mind boggling rate, cities are the best way to not become the next late, great bipedal species.

Cities inherently are an efficient way for us to live. They reduce growth pressure on our farm, forest and wild landscapes so these lands continue to do what they do best—provide the life support that we now call eco-system services. Cites can intensively aggregate capital needed for infrastructure to mitigate our untidy existence from solid waste to air pollution.

So let’s try out something new: promise. Let’s fulfill the promise of building cities people are drawn too, worthy of our children, and welcoming to all. Places of grace that have room for nature alongside and within.

Success will need strong civic institutions. The payoff will be a stronger civic life. Learning to live well in our built environment will help us all to live better together.


Gene Duvernoy is President of the Cascade Land Conservancy.