Seattle's Inherent Conservatism

Not one to shy away from a little controversy, let's tackle a sensitive subject right out of the gate.

Ask most Seattleites whether or not they consider their city to be conservative or not, and the vast majority will answer: No way! Within the limited boundaries of partisan politics, they're right. Only Democrats get elected to office here, and far-left rallying cries are perennial favorites. There's even a statue of Lenin displayed in Fremont (though it's for sale, in what seems to be a bit of subtle ideological prevarication). Suggest to shoppers at the local PCC that Seattle might actually be one of the most conservative towns in America, and watch the outrage and stunned disbelief fulminate.

No, really. Try it. It's fun.

But this weblog isn't about politics, or even cognitive dissonance. It's about the culture and practice of urbanism and design in Seattle, Washington. Wouldn't we expect that a city that prides itself on its Progressivist militance and Green credulity would be at the vanguard of radical urban practice?

Alas ... not so much.

Don't get me wrong. I love this city, despite its idiosyncrasies. I've lived all over the world, and yet I always gravitate back to this relaxed, drizzly Eden. I've chosen to make a home here even at significant cost in opportunities lost and ever-present friction with some of its less pleasant aspects. Seattle is blessed with an amazingly forgiving climate, despite the proverbial rain. Natural grandeur abounds at every turn: glorious mountain peaks at the end of every vista, verdant plant growth, spectacular forests, abundant wildlife, streams, lakes, Puget Sound, and a quality of light that is ever-changing and yet unique in my experience. I live just over seven miles from the downtown core and well within city limits. Bald eagles circle my house and nest just up the street. My commute to the office downtown takes me along the shores of Lake Washington every morning, under the trees and alongside glittering water where otters nest and play. I can be hiking in the mountains or skiing with a 45 minute trek from my driveway. A half-hour ferry ride puts me on the edge of a vast wilderness.

And the downtown is still alive, after all these years. While downtown districts in cities all over America were withering away during the 70s and 80s, Seattle's accidental geographic bounty protected it from the worst of the blight and desertion. Hemmed in by water to the east and west and limited in ability to expand north or south, the impetus to sprawl never took hold as disastrously here as it did elsewhere.

But when it comes to shaping the built environment, make no mistake: Seattle is profoundly conservative and committed to mediocrity.

We coast along with a focus on our manifest natural grandeur and let the banality of the environment we've created here for ourselves lay mostly unremarked. Perhaps subconsciously we think we can get away with creating mediocre human environments because the natural environment so totally eclipses them in so many ways. A beautiful sunset across the Sound and Olympic Mountains can certainly take your mind off the cheap condo you're sitting in.

Contrast this to another American city of my early childhood: Chicago. The City of the Big Shoulders may be meatpacker to the world and Second City to America, but it has very little to recommend it geographically apart from a central location on the rail and barge networks. It's flat as a table. The weather is miserable except for those few, fleeting, glorious days of spring and fall (don't blink! you'll miss them!). The nearest thing to a mountain anywhere near is Mount Trashmore: distinctive, perhaps, but certainly not grand.

Chicago is a city of man-made grandeur and high cultural aspiration. It is not an accident that ambitious, no-nonsense Chicagoans have produced some of the most interesting and ... dare I say it ... beautiful buildings and urban environments to be found in North America. They had to. They didn't have anything else to work with.

Nor is it a foregone conclusion that any city with an abundance of natural beauty will necessarily give rise to a boring and banal urban environment. Vancouver, BC (that hated and admired arch-nemesis to the north) shares many of Seattle's geographic attributes and benefits, and yet has also managed to create a stunning and vibrant urban fabric with intriguing architecture and a thriving, cosmopolitan, urbane culture. It's easy to develop an inferiority complex as a Seattleite walking down Robson Street to Stanley Park. Why can't we pull something like that off? It can't be that hard, can it?

Upstart Portland, to our south, has systematically developed an approach to creating positive urban space and amenities that, while more than a little contrived and compromised by over-reaching and trendiness, is surprisingly welcoming and energetic. The citizens of Portland, no matter how fractious or misguided their activism (a foible we share in common), seem fully engaged with the project of making their city great in a way that Seattleites can never quite muster. That energy shines through and knits the city together.

I could go on, but let's return to the point at hand. When I say Seattle is a profoundly conservative city, what I mean is that we seem to have developed a culture and approach to building our city that is deeply risk-averse and hobbled by a towering burden of prejudice and fear. A survey of the cultural-urban landscape:

Risk Aversion
Risk-aversion is a pernicious force, in practice and effect usually far worse and more common than actual malicious intent. I often find myself reminding my design students of this as they try to play it safe in their work and avoid controversy or criticism. To achieve something truly great, you have to accept the risk of failure. To gain love, you must risk hate. Without the risk, there is no chance to achieve.

Seattle is well-known for its culture of politeness and conflict-avoidance. This can make getting along very easy, public debate very reserved and congenial, and visitors to the Emerald City often remark on how pleasant everybody seems ... even when driving.

But the downside of so civil a culture is that most Seattleites break out in hives at the thought that someone might take offense to something they say or do and confront them about it. Projected onto others, Seattleites tend to react very negatively when presented with proposals or opinions that are risky or controversial or even just a little bit outside their comfort zone. Better to avoid anything that might cause us to fight, or risk opposition, even if it means we never have the chance to reach a strong accord through a rough-and-tumble meeting of the minds. The productive, metabolic dynamic of conflict is anathema here.

We, catholic Progressives all, fear change.

The resulting mediocrity is so ubiquitous and pervasive that we don't even notice it unless we've recently returned from traveling. We get a surfeit of mediocrity because, while it's easy to challenge and defeat a bad project or praise a good one, the mediocre yields only indifference and is too slippery and blase to give us traction for criticism. That's the point, of course.

Entire careers have been built on this, though we'll refrain from naming names. You know who you are.

It's also interesting to note that while Seattle is home to many very talented and successful architects with national and international prominence, most of them have done their best work elsewhere. When world-famous architects such as Frank Gehry or Rem Koolhaas come to town, the results are almost uniformly inferior to their other work (I can only think of one exception to this rule, done by a local boy who made a name for himself in New York and came back to rub our noses in it).

Great architecture and great urban design are not dependent only on great designers. They are dependent to equal or greater degree on good patrons in visionary cultures which value the products of that design. Seattle may have a surplus of the former, but the latter is in short supply.

Maybe it's something in the water.

Our culture also works very hard behind the scenes to penalize failure, and our approach to urban planning is almost entirely negative. Risk-averse and conflict-avoidant, we have never had the civic conversation necessary to reach a common vision for what our city should be. Our guiding principles for urban development, such as they are, then become a voluminous laundry-list of neighborly pet peeves codified into "don't you dare" proscriptions with force of law.

Did you know that there is an entire section of the Seattle Land Use Code devoted to Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs? And yet, nowhere is there a clear and concise statement of what our vision and goals for our city are or should be in anything but generic platitudes or muddled cliches carefully crafted to avoid controversy (or even clear meaning).

The Comprehensive Plan is a confusing and laborious mess. The neighborhood plans are no better, somehow managing to combine ad hoc issues activism with boiler-plate uniformity (a neat trick, actually, frustrating though the results may be). The Land Use Code is a gordian knot of self-contradictory limitations predicated on decades-old, discredited notions of city planning and antediluvian NIMBY rallying points. I dare you to read all this stuff without caffeine enhancement. We have numerous and varied strong opinions about what we don't want, and not the faintest clue about what we do want.

For a group of people who are so proud of our supposed casual attitudes and tolerance, we seem to spend an unwholesome amount of time and effort using the voice of official power and process to tell our neighbors what they can't do.

Rule by Consensus and Attrition
Our civic culture places a very high value on consensus decision-making and participatory democracy, almost to to the exclusion of all else. Noble as the intent behind this may be, its problematic aspects are manifest. As Aesop pithily observed, "Please all, and you will please none." We've been trying the former for years, and have certainly achieved the latter in spades.

Combined with a fixation on due process, our pathological need for consensus participation in even the most minute decisions about our urban development has resulted in the gargantuan, schizophrenic Frankenstein monster that is our Land Use Code, a nightmarishly complex permit approvals process, and a fickle, interminable public engagement whereby applicants are subjected to death by a thousand cuts and the interference of thousands of chefs in the kitchen.

This is not to say that the insistence on participatory consensus isn't in some ways justified. We can point to numerous examples in the history of the development of our city where individual decision-makers or small groups forced through ill-advised plans and our city paid a terrible price. *cough* Viaduct *cough* Stadium *cough* But repeating the trope misses the point.

The point is that this need for us to vet everything through the "Seattle Process" isn't motivated by reason, but by fear. Fear is typically a very poor basis for deciding anything, regardless of who or how many are doing the deciding. Let fear motivate your decisions and you leave yourself prey to the fear-mongers, pro and con.

The result is a process of vetting and approval that depends on the interpretation of byzantine regulations created via interminable public feedback, public comment and review processes that have no clear criteria, and a contest of economic and emotional stamina. The presumption seems to be that any applicant who is crazy and determined and wasteful enough to stick it out through the entire, exhausting process must be serious enough to actually, you know, build something. Call me crazy, but attrition does not strike me as a sound basis for determining which projects best contribute to the success of our city's urban environment.

There's a gravel parking lot on Pine Street that stands (lays?) as a monument to the dysfunctionality of the Seattle Process. I'd suggest putting up a plaque, but it would take years to get a permit, let alone design approval. Locked in a war of attrition with neighborhood interest groups and stuck for two years in the SEPA/Design review process, Murray Franklyn, the developer of the Belmont & Pine project finally won master use permit approval only to have the decision appealed by a local activist with a legal education, a chip on his shoulder, and a lot of time on his hands.

To put that in perspective, the project owner first started navigating the approvals process in 2005. The project is still stuck in appeal, has not been able to obtain financing due to the uncertainty surrounding it, and will now likely never be built. Rather than replacing the dilapidated but charming commercial/restaurant buildings formerly on the site with a more modern storefront engaging the street with apartments above to bring people into the neighborhood, we now have an eyesore.

Thanks, Dennis. That really made a difference for the quality of Seattle's urban spaces.

Let's face it: We, bold pioneers on the western frontier, are imprisoned in the romance of the past. In particular, there is one spectre that haunts our dear city and populates its dreams and nightmares: the Craftsman Bungalow. This is a subject deserving its very own post cataloging all the flavors of pathology connected with it, so I won't flog this particular horse to excess just yet. Let's just say for now that it's more than a little ridiculous and hypocritical for a city so desirous of sustainability and urban quality to be so completely focused on the preservation of this shibboleth - the SUV of the housing world - against all else.
You may also have noticed my unabashed self-promotion there. Watch out for me. I'm a sneaky bastard.

We're still just a small town with small-town attitudes, despite the fact that the Seattle metro area now contains 3.4 million people. In fact, we're not really that much of a city after all: more of a confederation of towns that share some infrastructure costs and administrative duties. Occasionally, turf wars between the principalities will break into the open (school district budget cuts being a recent example), but mostly the struggle remains cold and covert: a kind of multi-polar municipal detente. This may serve local interests and activists very well, but it has nearly crippled our ability to plan for growth or enhance our urban environment.

NIMBYism is rife and mostly unchecked. This hardly needs explanation to anybody who pays attention or who has attended any sort of public meeting associated with proposed development projects. One wonders how the citizens of Laurelhurst sleep at night, having recently driven a stake through the heart of Children's Hospital's expansion plans.

We waste our money on signature feel-good infrastructure money-burners like light rail, driven by a sort of Rotary boosterism run amok, and ignore the rotting infrastructure on which we already depend. Rather than fixing obvious road hazards and choke points or implementing smart traffic lights to reduce congestion, we spend many millions on re-striping roads for bicycles and increasing the hazard to bicyclists. Newsflash: Seattle actually has a lot of steep hills and it's been known to rain from time to time...not exactly prime bicycle commuting territory.

One of these days, I'm going to attach a seismograph to my motorcycle as I commute in to work to quantify the deferred maintenance along my little stretch of this fine city.

Most of our regional wealth is controlled by a few dozens of individuals and families, all of who punch way above their weight in local affairs. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. When oligarchs get together and act, they can accomplish highly beneficial things for everyone. Just ask Chattanooga.

This is one of the many paradoxes of Seattle's urban culture: an uncompromising dependence on participatory process combined with establishment string-pullers working in smoke-filled rooms (now smoke-free within 25 feet of any opening!). But in Seattle, the oligarchs haven't stepped up to the plate except where it serves their own very narrow interests, and even then have no shared vision of the future. Paul Allen is more than happy to inflate his ego and pocketbook with public subsidies for a couple of highly dubious enterprises. Bill and Melinda Gates wiped out a skate park to provide a home for their third-world money funnel. But beyond that, noblesse oblige in Seattle's urban arena has been conspicuously lacking.

How's that for biting the hand?

All of which is partly a way of saying that Seattle suffers to some extent from an ongoing power vacuum in municipal government and a debased sense of community values. We have all the alienation and isolation of modern American urban life, combined with the distinct provinciality and arrogance of outlook characteristic of small-town life. We want Seattle to stay in 1960 or 1970 or 1980 or whenever forever, and all this newfangled stuff just wrecks what makes us special. Plus, it's our city and we don't think it's broke, so we ain't got no desire to fix it.

Nobody said we had to be consistent.

Does the Shoe Really Fit?
Despite my inflammatory and long-winded critique, the fact is that Seattle is not only a great place to live, but has the potential to be a true world-class city. I know our local and regional advocates claim that's already the case, but it's not. We have a good reputation for many things, but the reality doesn't really match up to the hype.

Perhaps that's the primary motivation for this weblog and the vehemence of my little screed. I know how great this city can be, and have suffered through decades of disappointment as Seattle has failed to really fulfill that potential. From the CAP Initiative forward, we seem bound and determined to cut off our collective nose to spite our face. Those of you who are involved in Seattle urbanism, land use, and/or the design of the built environment probably see quite a bit of truth in the funhouse mirror I've so unflatteringly held up to our city. We can change, and the things we have to change aren't really all that huge in the grand schema. We're just so used to dealing with these things that we often forget it doesn't have to be this way.

In some small way, I hope to help change that. Maybe you do too.

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