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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Visions for a Sustainable Seattle

Air Date: Week of

Jennifer Schmidt of member station KPLU reports from Seattle on the area's attempts to cope with an influx of newcomers. Seattle's mayor wants to combat sprawl through a concept of "urban villages," which would channel growth into higher-density neighborhoods. Some see the idea as a model for all cities, but others say people aren't ready to be told where to live or build.


CURWOOD: Twenty years ago, Seattle was in economic trouble. Big layoffs at Boeing and other employers prompted tens of thousands of people to move away. A billboard at the edge of the city read, "Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights!" Today the region faces another crisis, but this time it's too many people. The Puget Sound area has become a mecca for software engineers, grunge musicians, outdoor enthusiasts and refugees from other urban areas. Determined to stem the descent into mindless urban sprawl and smog, some Seattle-area citizens and officials are taking a cue from their neighbors to the south in Portland, Oregon. They're campaigning for controlled and innovative development to help sustain the area's quality of life. From member station KPLU, Jennifer Schmidt has our story.

(Sound of monorail conductor: "Welcome to the Westlake Center, this is our one and only stop, and the doors are located at the front of the train")

SCHMIDT: Thirty years ago, Seattle hosted the 1962 World's Fair. As part of the exhibition, the city built a one-mile-long monorail connecting the brand-new Space Needle to downtown. City leaders hoped one day to extend the system throughout the metropolitan area. But the monorail expansion never happened, and today Seattle is a commuter's nightmare.

(Sound of radio traffic reports: " Well, good morning, lots of problems out there cropping up all of a sudden . . . " fade under)

SCHMIDT: Snarled traffic is just one of the problems facing Seattle and the surrounding area. Beyond the city limits, new housing developments are spreading into the Cascade Mountains, devouring forests and farmland. Pollution is beginning to foul the air, and urban runoff is contaminating shellfish beds in nearby Puget Sound. Early last year, Seattle mayor Norm Rice warned the city was at a crossroads.

RICE: I truly believe that Seattle is one of America's last and best hopes for creating an extraordinary urban quality of life but I also believe that the sand is running out of the hourglass. Unless we take strong, decisive action now we are headed for a future of urban sprawl.

SCHMIDT: Soon after this speech, Rice rolled out his plan for managing growth. According to the mayor, it's pointless to try to stop people from moving to the region. But he says newcomers should be strongly encourage to settle in the city rather than in more rural areas. However, Rice says, to accommodate more people and still remain livable, Seattle will need to redesign its neighborhoods and turn them into what he calls "urban villages," places where people can live, work, and play without needing a car.

(Sound of Seattle neighborhood traffic)

SCHMIDT: It's midmorning in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood. Except for the constant flow of commuter traffic, Ballard has a sleepy, slightly-abandoned feel to it. Seattle planning department director Gary Lawrence says, like other Seattle neighborhoods, Ballard needs less traffic, fewer parking lots, and more people to bring it to life.

LAWRENCE: We need more grocery stores, we need more residential above the shops, more dentists, doctors, bookstores, more sorts of shops that attract people to come and stay, to gather and share a sense of community.

SCHMIDT: As an urban village, Lawrence pictures a community where people sit on their stoops in the evening and chat, where they can leave their cars at home because shops and work are within walking distance. And where families live close together in affordable townhouses and condominiums with common areas outside to gather and play.

(Sound of man walking, conversation: "Hi, Richard, Richard . . . how ya doin' . . ." fade under)

SCHMIDT: Across town, Pat Stroesel strolls through his neighborhood greeting friends and acquaintances as he goes. He comes to a stop in front of a large building and gestures to it with disdain.

STROESEL: This is what I see as kind of the urban village ideal. This is a 6-story apartment building that has 88 units and it's 65 feet high.

SCHMIDT: The apartment building dwarfs nearby homes and Stroesel says it destroys the character of the neighborhood. According to Stroesel, the problem with the urban villages proposal is that it's a top-down plan which encourages construction of larger buildings even in neighborhoods where they don't belong. Stroesel now heads a citizens' group known as Vision Seattle. The group believes individual neighborhoods - not the city - must ultimately decide what works best for them.

STROESEL: When it gets down to the neighborhood, we want to have some decisions to make, not just the paint color, you know, and that's the thing we're worried about with this whole designation of urban villages and all their attributes, already being written out at the central level.

SCHMIDT: But planning growth within the city is only a first step. Policymakers warn that no matter what Seattle does, urban sprawl will continue unless the region as a whole begins to address the problem. There has been growing support for a regional transit system, although many remain wary of the project's estimated $13 billion price tag. Meanwhile, Seattle officials want surrounding counties to block development outside of existing cities and towns. Restrictive growth boundaries anger property-rights advocates and some builders. Local developer Judd Kirk says people aren't ready to be told where they can and cannot live.

KIRK: We have sort of a general planners' vision of the future, but that's a lot different from having either a clear consensus or a real demand from people out there. Somebody may say, for example, I am all in favor of more buses; what they really mean is they want other people to ride those buses so they can drive their car to work. I mean, there's limits on the extent to which you can change the market or change people's way of living.

SCHMIDT: But city planner Gary Lawrence says continued growth is going to change the way people live anyway. He says the real question is whether people want to live in a region that has the look and feel of a city like Los Angeles, or whether they're willing to live more compact lives.

LAWRENCE: In order to save this place, to preserve those essential environmental qualities that exist in the Northwest, we are as a society going to have to figure out a way to make different choices about how we live. There aren't any solutions to these problems that don't have at their heart the choices made by individuals.

SCHMIDT: The Seattle City Council will decide whether to approve the Urban Villages plan and the Seattle Commons proposal next year. The following year, citizens are expected to vote on the regional transit system. Urban planners say if these projects are approved, the Seattle area is likely to become a model for the rest of the nation to follow. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Schmidt reporting.



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