Editor’s Note: Alex Steffen, the editor and cofounder of Worldchanging-a global network of independent journalists, designers and thinkers—sat down with writer Emily Knudsen to discuss some of the topics he’ll be covering in his upcoming talks at Town Hall. The first part of the interview discussed Worldchanging’s role in the sustainability movement. This second discusses what Seattle can do to become a more sustainable city.
What can Seattle learn from cities like Copenhagen and London that are now leading the green movement?
There are two big lessons. One is that there are amazing policy and design innovations out there that we ought be just stealing outright. People are doing things elsewhere in the world much better than we are. And we need to catch up or exceed them. So that’s part of what I’ll be talking about (at Town Hall on Nov. 11 and 12)—trying to help people implement that range of really cool innovations out there.
The second part of it is that we really need to redefine realism, especially in Seattle. We have convinced ourselves that there are certain kinds of approaches to solving these problems that are unrealistic.
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We’re really doubling down on technologies that are out of date and talking about a form of urbanism that was last generation’s debate. This seems like a great paradox because Seattle’s probably the most famous green city in the world. I’ve been in places, like a small town outside of Delhi, India, where people can identify what Seattle is; they think rain, Microsoft, and green. So we’ve done this amazing job of presenting ourselves as a green city but we’ve kind of drunk our own Kool-Aid. The reality is that we have fallen far behind most of the cities we would consider competitors in the global economy, especially competitors around the next wave of important technologies, which are green and urban innovations. Right now, those cites are implementing the things that we still say are unrealistic.
One of the things that I probably won’t talk too much about at my presentation, but I think is really important for us to think about, is the degree to which both economic development and regionalism have been used deceptively as clubs to beat down the priorities in favor of short-sighted, suburban interests. There are many people in Seattle that already understand a vision of sustainable urbanism, compact community transforming our neighborhoods into even better places, they get all this. But we have a tendency to roll over when we’re faced with fights on these things.
The best example of that is the tunnel. The tunnel is absolutely, clearly a stupid piece of infrastructure. There’s no question about it. It is not in Seattle’s interest and we’re going to end up paying for a lot of it, because we have rolled over for the interests of the regional priorities and economic development. But in fact it will hurt the region and it will really hurt Seattle because the money we’ll be spending on that is the money we won’t be spending on innovative transit or pedestrian improvement in the neighborhoods or what have you.
Where did Seattle go wrong?
Our biggest failure came in the early 1990s. We went through a series of things involving the new comprehensive plan, the urban village strategy, the Seattle Commons idea, and several other things like that. Though the initiatives weren’t perfect, they were fundamentally progressive strategies at the time. Then we had a neighborhood backlash. This crowd, comprised of a small number of people, was really threatened by change and angry about the idea of becoming a truly urban city. Effectively, it worked out that the things we really probably didn’t need that were big and controversial, all went forward. For example, we have two stadiums. And the things that we really did need, like more ambitious urban planning, got thrown to the wolves. That was one of the places where we stepped off the path.
The second problem is the larger political context. There’s a great series of Internet visual jokes called “You’re doing it wrong.” In each photo, somebody will be doing something totally catastrophic. I really think of that when I think of regionalism here. We have a discussion about regionalism that sounds like it ought to make total sense but what it boils down to is that every time there’s conflict, Seattle loses. We don’t invest intensively in the central city, which is the core of any intentional regional strategy. We continue to build out infrastructure on the suburban fringe, to pour money into auto-dependent communities, to really sort of lock in a method of development that’s just over. Those places are done. They’re not going to work in 20 years and we know that. Supporting the building of ecologically disastrous, economically disastrous communities have sucked the money right out of Seattle. That money could have been used to build more light rail or other more regional things. Right now it seems that’s the future we are choosing. That’s not even a poor choice, it’s an utterly disastrous choice.
Other metropolitan regions have been able to transcend this challenge. They’ve been able to strike a different balance between existing suburbs and existing cities. Even both of our neighbors—Vancouver and Portland—are doing great work in this regard. We really have done nothing. We’re setting ourselves up for catastrophe. Failing to properly urbanize in the city with the failure of the urban villages plan and failing to metropolitanize—if that’s a word—are two really huge missed opportunities.
How can Seattle turn that around?
People who know what a better future would look like have again and again given in to the bullying and the false authority of people who claim that they are the realistic people.
Our future depends on these people standing up and saying “Your ideas are outdated, our ideas are better, we win, go away.” But most of us aren’t those people, right? Those who are passionate about urban sustainability tend to be people who are creative, who are designers, who are architects, who are policy wonks, who are into community efforts. They’re not people who are used to thinking in terms of hardball politics.
The only places we have seen progress are where people have stood up and said if you don’t do this, we are going to vote you out of office, we are going to boycott your company, we are going to remove ourselves from this town. And that’s where progress has been made. So I think that “Seattle nice” has actually caused us to become “Seattle failing.” We should be doing what it takes to win those fights. We have to be willing to be tough in these instances or we won’t have a chance.
Are there any new technologies out there right now that you’re really excited about?
There are lots of them. The thing that excites me most is a set of technologies that are all about people living in more compact communities in smaller, better designed spaces, that actually allow people to have more money and a higher quality of life. I think of these things as post-ownership technologies—most of them are about not having to own something because you have easy access to it.
A well-known example is car-sharing. People in dense neighborhoods who have easy access to a car-sharing automobile don’t need to own one themselves. That’s a huge cost savings and it also drops their ecological footprint profoundly. What is true for cars is true for lots of other things too. The ecological differ
ence between owning your own gym and belonging to a neighborhood gym is huge.
Seattle is really poised to be a big player in this because we have a nice combination of a lot of technological savvy and neighborhoods that are fairly compact, people who are already familiar with ideas with CSAs, car-sharing programs, and co-ops. I’m really hopeful about this.
On Nov. 11 and 12, Alex will be at Town Hall in Seattle to present his ideas on how new technologies and smart design can help us overcome current global problems and how Seattle can become part of that solution.