The Office of Sustainable Urbanism

I’ve been dreaming of a new City of Seattle department:  The Office of Sustainable Urbanism. The kind of department a visionary new Mayor of Seattle might be inclined to establish.

The Office of Sustainable Urbanism (OSU) would supercede and absorb the Office of Policy and Management, the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and probably DPD’s Green Team too.   Yet it would be bigger than the sum of these parts.  Because the OSU I’m envisioning would be the central, controlling organ for all policy making at the City.

I do not mean to denegrate the good work done by the folks in the departments named above.   But I believe that a powerful and unified department with a single mission is what’s called for if we ever hope to make the kind of rapid, radical change necessary to address the future challenges we face.

The mission is simple:  ensure that all City policy promotes sustainable urbanism.  And no apologies about the use of the word ‘urbanism.’   Seattle is a city, and it’s going to become more urban over time, and that is a good thing.  And for that matter, no apologies about the use of the word ‘sustainable’ either.  We all know what it means, and we all know it’s imperative.

Yes, and give the OSU deep pockets, and give it big, sharp teeth.  If the OSU disagrees with SDOT, OSU wins.  It often seems to me that it’s gotten to the point that what we actually need is an benevolent eco-fascist dictator.  But since that’s not gonna fly, the OSU could be the next best thing. 

No doubt the OSU would require exceptionally smart and talented leadership to avoid spectacular failure.  But Seattle is loaded with smart, motivated people.  We already know how to do much of what needs doing.  We just need to do it.  Now.

38 Responses to “The Office of Sustainable Urbanism”

  1. Brice

    Dan, great idea. Put it up on McGinn’s and I’ll vote for it!

  2. Ellery

    I’m not opposed to the idea, but would OSU take on school funding and crime too? There is more to sustainability than VMT reduction.

  3. John of Humdinger

    “absorb the Office of Policy and Management, the Office of Sustainability and Environment, and probably DPD’s Green Team too.”

    Liberals NEVER decrease taxpayer funded bureaucracy.
    Liberals ALWAYS INCREASE taxpayer supported bureaucracies.
    Eliminate/consolidate OPM and/or OSE???
    But but but what about all those dedicated pencilpushers at OPM and OSE?
    How could the sheeple possibly exist without these dedicated “public servants”?

  4. Seattle Resident

    What is sounds like your promoting is centralized planning, which is something worth talking about. How can we make sure that those working on transportation (called SDOT today) are the same people working on land use (called DPD today) are speaking to each other? How do we make sure the regulators are working with the planners so they don’t give out permits to stuff that’s not in the plan?

    The departments you list current do a tiny amount of the planning for the City, so I’d recommend something a little more bold, otherwise you’re just changing acronyms around like every Mayor has done since time began. (In the Schell years, it was the Strategic Planning Office. There also used to be a Department of Community Development. And a Water Department. And DCLU. And SeaTrans. I could go on.) And who reports to who? There are planners who report to the Mayor and those who don’t. And then there’s that messy City Council who think they’re lawmakers and stuff.

    And then there’s things like crime v. human services, etc. Or is that not ‘urbanism”?

    Keep going…

  5. Urban Planner

    What he/she said – @4!

  6. richard

    go buckeyes!

    no, really. good idea.

  7. MikeP

    An eco-fascist dictator? Isn’t that supposed to be why everybody voted against this guy?

    Really, I’m not yet convinced that McGinn has the political chops to accomplish all this fantastic stuff.

  8. jake l

    I agree with MikeP@7. Your idea sounds good to me, but I don’t know how to get enough votes on board to get it through in the first place… and then much less getting enough big sharp teeth. Wasn’t a lot of the complaining about Nickels (deserved or not) about the way he wielded power?

  9. Brian K

    Yes! That’s it!! Of course!!! All that’s needed to avoid “spectacular failure” is a bunch of “smart” “motivated” “exceptionally talented” people. Ideally they’d posses dictatorial power (but not the bad kind, just the “benevolent” kind). These infallible sovereigns would save us deserving humans from ourselves, even it it kills us. This has worked in the past many times.

    Since we’re on the road to Hell already, can we please just pave it with recycled Hummer tires instead of unfettered good intentions?

  10. hos

    Here in Boston we have the Boston Redevelopment Authority which in my opinion has generally been a positive influence in the development of the city. But current allegations of cronyism and lack of serious influence of public process has the current mayoral challengers taking the incumbent mayor to task with calls of dismantling the whole thing. I think the fact is that there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator regardless how well intentioned that dictator maybe.

  11. Joshua

    Yes, it seems like @4 is pointing to the right questions. I like this idea, Dan, but the key is to make sure that there is a lot more interdepartmental integration, and definitely at early points in the planning process. What the city did with the Bell St. Boulevard is a really good example of getting the right people talking to each other at the right time. Is an Office of Sustainable Urbanism the right model for this? Maybe, but I wonder what some other models would be?

  12. City Comforts

    “And for that matter, no apologies about the use of the word ’sustainable’ either. We all know what it means…”

    “We all know what it means.”

    Surely you jest. Such a sentiment is pure hubris. No way do we all, or anyone, know what it means. You have just elucidated the very reason why I would be very much against your proposal: arrogance, pride, know-it-allism.

    Green roofs for example (and the highlight of this post,) Do they make any sense? From a cost-effectiveness basis? No one yet knows.

    So in the most loving and respectful way, let me call bullshit that we all know what sustainability means in the real world of gravity and weathering and finite resources.

  13. vanderleun

    “What is sounds like your promoting is centralized planning, which is something worth talking about.”

    Why not? They had this discussion in Moscow for decades. See you at the Lenin statue. Bring your wallet.

  14. Chris

    @12…agreed. We can not adequately define “sustainable” presently. In the case of global warming it is because the goal posts keep changing as new scientific evidence becomes unearthed as to exactly how screwed we are.

  15. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Only partially related, but the UW Alumni Association’s upcoming lecture series is NEXT CITY: Sustainable Urbanization. Bruce Katz (Oct 13), Hedrick Smith (Nov 3), Robert Fishman (Jan 21), and Geoffrey Canada (Feb 9). All open to the public, but they recommended the free online registration as they often fill up.

  16. Alex

    Yes, the city needs a coordinated planning department with implementation power.

  17. dan bertolet

    Thanks to all of you for obliging my whimsical eco-nazi nanny-state thought experiment. I’m surprised no one accused me of having a behind the scenes deal with McGinn to run the OSU. Please keep in mind that this is just a personal blog and there is no filter on what I publish.

    @12, you should probably get on the phone to Germany right away and let them know that we don’t know if green roofs make sense, since they’ve already put them on 10 percent of their buildings. Do you really believe that lack of knowing what to do is holding us back, as opposed to not implementing effective policy?

  18. Will a new mayor think boldly about planning? | Seattle News

    […] and absorb DPD’s “Green Team”? (Pardon the alphabetocracy!) This idea has been proposed by blogger Dan Bertolet of, suggesting a new “Office of Sustainable […]

  19. City Comforts

    Where did you get the figure of 10%? I was recently in Germany and I don’t remember seeing any green roofs much less 10%.
    At any rate, can you cite any fair-handed empirical studies which show that green roods have a positive cost/benefit? I would be curious to read one.

  20. dan bertolet

    “Today, it is estimated that about 10% of all German roofs have been greened.”

    I have not researched this thoroughly and don’t have a paper to cite for you, but maybe someone else could chime in. My educated guess is that if you factor in all the benefits, including all the externalized costs, that it would make sense for us to be doing a lot more green roofs than we are doing now.

    And likewise, do you have any studies you could share that say green roofs are not worth doing?

  21. City Comforts

    Dan, I never said that green roofs don’t work. I said (on my own blog) that green roofs are “experimental” and here I wrote that “no one knows yet.” I have been very clear; I am not against green roofs. I am simply asserting that you cannot say accurately that “we all know what [sustainable] means.” We don’t.

    But my surmise (and it is only my own guess right now) is that the benefits of green roofs can be achieved as or more effectively and at lower cost by more prosaic methods. If you are willing to give it a fair hearing I will elaborate.

  22. City Comforts

    Dan, your link above concerning green roofs in Germany
    links to Penn State
    But there is no information on that page which verifies the 10% figure.

    Btw, the issueis not whether green roofs are a nice idea or have benefits — I am in full agreement they are attractive and probably have many excellent qualities.

    The issue as I see it is but whether green roofs are the most cost-effective way to achieve the goals which they are supposed to fulfill:
    storm water quality and detention,
    energy use/building insulation,
    ‘urban heat island’ effect,
    natural habitat,
    general urban livability.

    Any others?

    I suspect — and we need the studies to say one way or another — that techniques other than green roofs will be more cost-effective.

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  25. Jojo

    Yea, Put people in charge that don’t actually know anything about design, safety, asset management. Unlicensed freakoids running the city. Great idea dude.

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