Our goal should be simple: to become the first carbon-neutral city in North America. Drop our net per capita greenhouse gas emissions to nothing, by 2030. No other goal is good enough. Image: Craig Allen, CC
There’s a fierce competition brewing, not only because building a new model of prosperity is critical to our survival, but because there’s enormous “first mover advantage” here.
If we pursue that goal aggressively enough, we’ll forge a new bright green economy that will not only make us wealthier, it will provide the world with a model for sustainable prosperity that can be shared by everyone.
We can have an out-sized impact because of how the rest of the world sees us… “Seattle” is one of the world’s strongest green brands.
It’s one thing to have a goal, though, and quite another to achieve it. If we want a carbon-neutral bright green city, how do we make it? How it works. How to get it.
The most important thing to recognize is that cities are what make a bright green economy possible; density, urbanism, openness and innovation. If we want to get greener, we have to get more city-like. Image: Tony Cyphert CC
Image: Hans Monderman People who live in cities use less stuff, waste less energy and are more ecologically innovative. The biggest reason for this is simply proximity: put things closer together and people drive less to get them, they live in more compact spaces to be near them, and they’re far more likely to share objects and use public goods. All of this has a huge impact on their ecological/carbon footprints.
The change in life patterns in compact communities is so profound that it’s the closest thing we have to a simple answer on climate change. The transportation impacts alone are so huge that it’s greener to live in a poorly-insulated condo than a super-green McMansion. Want to reduce your GHG emissions? Build densely.
Compact urbanism also right-sizes homes, maximizes the efficient use of infrastructure, leads to different life choices and minimizes wasted public space. In fact, density promotes sustainability in pretty much every way we know how to measure. How dense is too dense? There is not yet an upper limit on that curve: lowest energy use per unit of economic output is Tokyo, one of the densest places on the planet. (Places like Shanghai and Singapore are coming on fast though.)
Vancouver’s figured this out, and embraced “eco-density.” They are already a far denser city than Seattle and they have explicit new goals to dramatically increase the density of their neighborhoods. They’re also routinely cited as one of the most livable cities in the world.
Image: WRT The synergies of compact community start happening at pretty modest densities. This is transit-supportive density. (Holly Park.) But the more compact development you have, the better off you are.
We have a lower carbon footprint than the US average…
That’s mostly because we happen to live in a place with mountains and lots of rain, and so we have cheap hydro.
Photo: Natalia Brataslavsky, Environment Washington Take away our hydro, though, and as a region we start look a lot like most other US cities. That’s because we are a very sprawling, poorly built region; and within that region, our central city, Seattle, is largely low-density and poorly designed. If our goal it to prepare for the economy of the future, we’re doing it wrong. We need to figure out how to deal with three big problems: cars, buildings and stuff. (And no, electric cars, though good, are not a solution to this problem.)
Here’s the unspeakable truth of Seattle politics: density is good. We need LOTS more of it. We know how to use increased density to improve quality of life. Many people already want it, many more accept it with the right trade-offs, and the demographics are all moving urban. Portland’s Pearl District a great example: a neighborhood with lots of compact development that’s great place to live, has improved the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods as well and has held its value even in the recession.
Let’s talk about fairness and social justice. The research, from all around the world, is absolutely unequivocal: more housing supply lowers housing costs; more compact communities are more affordable; walkable density is fairer to people of a wider range of incomes, abilities and ages. Urbanism IS social justice. The idea that urban growth and social justice are at odds is wrong, but intellectually and ethically. It’s time we started calling people on it.
Image: bonacheladas CC Nationally, headed into a city-building era : population growth, demographic shift as younger people choose urban lives, massive infrastructure backlog, real estate churn. By 2030 half our built environment will have been built/retrofitted since 2000. There are many, many people going to be moving here in the next 20 years. State says more than a million; some other estimates closer to two million; I suspect with a hot economy and a stable climate, a lot more than that. We want that growth. That growth is nutrient for growing a better city. We want as much of it as we can get: we want to zone for it, provide incentives for it, put it on the permitting fast-track. Growth will help make us more sustainable.
In fact, perhaps we need to combine our planning, transportation and economic development functions into a city-building super-department, encouraging new transit-oriented growth while demanding that it be high quality urbanism? Maybe it’s time for proactive government? But what about the politics?
Image: ipl31 CC Seattle urbanists are terrified of neighborhood NIMBYs. We’re so used to NIMBYs, that we’ve forgotten something very important: they don’t actually speak for their neighborhoods, or even most Seattleites. National polls show that most people want walkable urbanism. I don’t think the NIMBY crowd is larger, they’re just louder. They’ve figured out how our process is broken, and they use that knowledge. Lots of people hate bad development: that’s different. NIMBY!
It’s time for a new Seattle concept, borrowed from the Dutch: WIMBY! Welcome Into My BackYard! We welcome new development, especially if the builder’s doing a quality project. We show up, we write letters of support, we encourage improvements while backing the overall enterprise of making Seattle a denser city. At many meetings, 20 neighbors is a force to be reckoned with. Route around the broken community councils; start new ad-hoc groups, network together.
What is at the core of WIMBY politics? Car-free urbanism. Whether you can easily live in a city without a car is the gold standard of urban quality of life. We should judge every new development, policy or piece of infrastructure by that measurement: does it make life easier, or harder, for people who don’t own cars?
The street is not a road for cars, its our second living room. We need a streetscape that’s constantly welcoming, because our goal is people on foot moving through a garden of access. That experience is self-replicating: it converts people - walkable streets turn the city into a machine for making urbanist citizens. It’s no accident that the most visited place in Seattle is a place whose streets are owned by pedestrians.
We know how to make a city bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets, but certainly biking and walking are fringe, right? What would a city be if everyone biked or walked? Wouldn’t it be a disaster?
That city would be Copenhagen, and on every “most livable” list in the world. Danes are the world’s happiest people, in study after study, survey after survey. Not alone: Amsterdam is close behind. Melbourne: by 2020, 90% of people’s trips will be by bike, foot or transit. Even Vancouver’s aiming that high for 2030. But remember: only driving is practical! Image: Copenhagen Cycle Chic
We’re not too far north or too rainy or too hilly… This city actually has a long history of biking, and was once considered one of the most “bike-crazy” towns in the world, bike when the bicycle itself was a new innovation.
We talk a good game on walkers and bicyclists, but our actions fall short. Lack of dedicated funding is one big problem. It’ll take decades to build out the Pedestrian Master Plan at the current rates (some say more than a century!).
But the reality is that you have to do more than just add a few curb bulbs. We have to explicitly and directly subordinate the car . Streets are for people, cars just get to drive on the roads… if they behave. Slow traffic is not a problem: it’s an essential feature of a good city. Everything else we’re trying to do will fail if we don’t slow cars down, make them think and make it clear cars don’t own the streets . This needs to be our official transportation policy!
Image: Luton CC This is literally a matter of life and death. It’s a farce that we live in a city that prides itself on biking but where every single biker I know has been hit by a car or had a near miss. I’ve lost friends. I’ve had other friends badly injured. This is life and death. Enough! We need new laws, and new infrastructure. Making the car a secondary use must be our official city policy. And we need to be prepared to go down to Olympia and fight for it. If a state representative won’t go to the mat on this, we’ll find his or her replacement.
We are a lot more powerful than we know, and it’s time we used that power to make some changes around here. Our strength is in our innovation and speed. We’re immersed in ambient urban technologies. Street as platform; not cyberspace but smart places. Adam Greenfield: ubiquitous computing = like horseless carriage; this is just the way technology comes now. Image: Dan Hill
Ambient technology changes the world as we live it.
An Earth Sandwich is, actually, something people seem to want.
Indeed, a frankly disturbing number of people…
Adding precision to insight and proximity can make cities even more sustainable: changes the relationship of people to stuff and space. Many things are only garbage when they’re in the wrong place. Knowing where they are allows the person who wants them to change them from waste to resource.
Ambient technology also changes our access to the spaces around us.
Delivery models. German Postal Service’s packstations.
Ambient technology helps us understand how the systems around us are working.
When we measure things, we use them differently. Bringing the energy meter inside the home reduces energy use (aka the Prius Effect).
Measurement begets transparency; transparency begs comparison; comparisons will be cruel to the irresponsible and asocial. The upside is that people change even more quickly.
The grid itself is getting smarter, working more like the Internet. It also allows for collaborative planning and responsive uses.
Here’s where electric cars CAN be part of the solution: connect them with smart meters, smart grids and you have a system of energy sponges. You can solve the peak load problem. Especially good if the owners of those cars are only occasional drivers. This also makes energy mortgages more workable; paying the cost of installing a clean energy system over time, with the savings on your energy bill.
Intelligence can suffuse our infrastructure. Streetlights that know when the moon is full, water barrels that know when a storm is coming.