Climate Change Mitigation Is A Win-Win-Win-etc.

Assessments of mitigation strategies in four domains—household energy, transport, food and agriculture, and electricity generation—suggest an important message: that actions to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions often, although not always, entail net benefits for health. In some cases, the potential benefits seem to be substantial. This evidence provides an additional and immediate rationale for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions beyond that of climate change mitigation alone.

So says a summary of  a new series of reports on climate change mitigation and public health, recently published in the Lancet (full article here).  Yet another example of what’s good for the planet is good for people.  No coincidence, that.

Meanwhile the call to make Seattle a carbon-neutral city by 2030 continues to reverberate. And one of the main conclusions in the Lancet series that’s most relevant to Seattle is this:

In terms of strategic choices, the greatest health gains seem likely to result from changes towards active transport, and from diets that are low in animal source foods, at least for adult populations in high-income countries.

Regarding animal source foods, the persistence of meat-based diets in educated and progressive cities like Seattle is a remarkable example of the power of culture. Most of us know that eating less meat makes both us and the planet healthier, and that meat production is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet relatively few of us take that information seriously enough to make meaningful changes to our lifestyles.

The term “active transport” is code for walking and biking. Copenhagenize has a good post on the transport piece of the Lancet series, writing:

The report suggests that funds be redirected away from roads in order to make walking and cycling “the most direct, convenient and pleasant options for most urban trips”. Pedestrians and cyclists should also benefit from having a “priority” over cars and trucks at intersections.

And also noting the key point that:

Walking and cycling came out on top even when compared to increased use of low-emission vehicles that are widely sold as “green” solutions.

Because our transportation choices are so dependent on land use patterns, change on this front is a task far more challenging than eating less meat. Nevertheless it is a path that we should pursue, because (1) we need to be working on many strategies in parallel if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change, and (2)  because the potential benefits extend beyond climate change mitigation and health.

We already have a proven model for restructuring our built environment to promote active transport:  transit-oriented communities (TOC). Futurewise, GGLO, and Transportation Choices Coalition recently published a report on TOC in the context of Seattle and Washington State, summarizing that high-performing TOC have the potential to:

  • Promote health by encouraging walking and bicycling, cutting air pollution, and reducing motor vehicle accidents;
  • Lower household expenses for both transportation and housing;
  • Reduce municipal infrastructure costs;
  • Provide a high return on public investment in transit infrastructure;
  • Help meet the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods;
  • Curb land consumption and thereby help conserve working farms and forests, and protect natural ecosystems and water quality; and
  • Cut energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with both transportation and the built environment.

We also know that climate change mitigation has the potential to be an economic win: carbon-free prosperity is possible. And we also know that the cost of doing nothing is likely orders of magnitude higher than the cost of mitigation, and will be disproportionally felt by the poor.

How many vital reasons will we need before we get serious?


[ Confused about what this graph from the Lancet summary report is trying to tell us?  You’re not alone—it’s a great example of bad visual communication.  My take on it, without bothering to read the details, is that “active transport” and “lower carbon driving” have about the same potential for GHG reductions, but you get more health benefits from active transport.  Not surprising.  But also: the potential benefits from cleaner electricity generation dwarf transport, even in the EU. ]

What Just Happened?: The meaning of McGinn’s win


Photo: Jen Nance

There is a story being told (see Grant Cogswell’s piece in The Stranger, “Late Returns”) today about what Michael McGinn’s big win means.

It goes like this: McGinn raised an army of volunteers, called them into service to reverse the defeat of the Monorail, slap passive aggressive Seattle in the face and crush the Establishment. It is a story full of sound and fury. But is it true?

I don’t think so. This story is sewn together with scraps of past resentments and frustrations at the “Seattle Way,” and the Seattle Establishment each of which we have all blamed for whatever civic ailments we find most irksome. It is a story of scores being settled. But it does have one thing correct: our city will never be the same.

The reason is that McGinn’s win is far more significant than some might think and powerful because it sets the stage for true transformation of our city. The volunteers are the cast with Michael McGinn as the leading man. But the star, I would argue, is the people of this city and the story is about the resolution of a dialectic—an argument between two small groups with divergent views of the city’s future—that has bedeviled the city for 40 years.

If only this was true . . .

If only this was true . . .

First, let us do away with the idea that Seattle has an Establishment; a room full of old white men smoking cigars and pondering the future of the city. If only such a thing existed. You would find me outside the door begging for 15 minutes to persuade them (with a power point of course) to adopt my agenda. I would wait for years, because, after all, the men inside control immense wealth, and the machinery of political power. With a shrug and a grunt they could unleash all that power to do all kinds of things like up-zone Laurelhurst, get the major development projects completed and create a new neighborhood in places like Interbay.

The Seattle Establishment?

The Seattle Establishment?

However, this idea of the Seattle Establishment is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist. Developers have failed completely to dominate the discourse in the city. Their internal divisions have rendered them essentially inoperative as a political force. During the land use battles of the last several years Vulcan and Wright Runstad feuded over incentive zoning and whose projects would be most harmed. Industrial lands consumed them as they fought over whose ox would be gored and over where the boundaries would be drawn. Incentive zoning, which they uniformly hated, was passed in spite of their efforts to stop it.

What about the business community? True they mustered forces effectively to foist Joe Mallahan, the Mayor of Tunnel City, on Seattle. It was a breathtaking performance, with the Governor and the Legislature organizing themselves into a phalanx of consistent messaging: tunnel or else. Some might point to their failure as the “death of the Establishment.” But the backward facing folks who created this critical mass are similarly divided over a broad agenda for the city. They opposed the Monorail and Sound Transit but supported the repeal of so called “head tax,” a small tax supporting bike and pedestrian infrastructure, while simultaneously urging that billions of tax dollars be spent for a tiny stretch of buried highway. The business community is really an unrepresentative group of people who are clutching on to the status quo, with no vision for the future other than complaining about taxes and wrapping their arms around the legs of Boeing and Microsoft. And they spent thousands of dollars on a losing candidate in the last election.

Business as usual . . .

Business as usual . . .

What about the NIMBYs? It is true that Seattle could field a team for the NIMBY Olympics with Jeannie Hale (Children’s Hospital is destroying Laurelhurst!), John Fox (saving Laurelhurst from Children’s will help homeless people) and Pat Murikami (Transit Oriented Development will turn Southeast Seattle into a Bombay slum) as star players. But the NIMBYs are only as good as the level of fear on City Council. More panic on the Council’s part about up-zones or new land use strategy hands the NIMBYs victories now and then, enabling them to blow up individual projects. But the NIMBYs have no vision either; they have no concept of the city’s future only their past.

NIMBYs have no vision.

NIMBYs have no vision.

No, none of these frightened backward looking groups represent the Seattle Establishment. Rather they are the groups that have shown up to stop change. And occasionally (like with TOD or Children’s) they form an axis now and then, aligning, for example, the interests of homeless people with the interests of single family gentry. But this is hardly a movement amounting to an Establishment.

So what did happen? My theory is that the people of this city are ready for a new story. They are rejecting the Forward Thrust vs. Lesser Seattle, Spy versus Spy, conflict which has defined politics in our town since the 1970s. These two parties were pretty clear, the latter focused on big capitol projects the former focused on keeping Seattle a small town dominated by fishermen and descendents of pioneers. One group supported the Nordstrom Parking Garage (remember that one) and the other opposed it, for example. The Thrusters saw the garage as supportive of growth which would create economic development and the Lessers saw it as another attempt to pretty up Seattle for Yuppies and people from out of town.

Jim Ellis: Thesis

Jim Ellis: Thesis

Emmett Watson: Antithesis

Emmett Watson: Antithesis

The old Thrusters were behind the tunnel and oddly so were many of the Lessers. The Thrusters loved all the financing and concrete because after all, concrete and financing mean progress. The Lessers saw the tunnel as a solution for capacity to prevent congestion. City’s are about cars and the city needs less congestion and more mobility. Suddenly in Joe Mallahan the two sides of Seattle’s heretofore blood enemies found common cause.

And they lost. Both the view that we will build highways to economic recovery and that we should board up Seattle’s windows and doors to new growth were soundly defeated by the McGinn campaign. Their combination gave Seattle voters a clear picture of the co-dependent grip which was holding their city hostage. So, instead of insider transitions, which would give the Lessers something to rail at and the Thrusters something to game, the McGinn transition is open source, accessible and maddeningly transparent.

Cymbals of change (from Publicola)

Cymbals of change; photo: Publicola

McGinn and his band of advocates have reset the game clock and the rules of the game. This isn’t about beating the establishment, but rather about the future. The new story is not about the internecine struggle between small, unrepresentative groups working the City process with fear and anxiety about what will happen if we do or don’t do a big project, but rather about building a common cause for a sustainable city. People believed this new story about all of us working together for a common vision of where we live, a future together not fraught with fear but with hope.

Ironically, the demolition of the old Thrust versus Less narrative elevates and weaves together the highest ideals of both sides. The Thrusters believed in taking risks on cleaning up Lake Washington and building transit even though the expensive was bourn today with benefits in the future. The Lessers were the epitome of ruggedness and community, banding together to build a city in distant, wet and tree infested land always resisting freeways and more concrete in favor of local people and neighborhoods.

So McGinn’s election is about this city and its transformation into a different place, rooted firmly in the best of its past and reaching up towards its persistent ideals of community, place and self-sufficiency. The outcome is not assured, but the momentum is going in the right direction. Anyone who was at the event at New Holly (a kind of McGinnaugural ball) last week understands what I am talking about. This is something different.

It is an end to force fed megaprojects and a step toward more transparency. It means welcoming growth and planning for it rather than pretending like growth won’t happen. It means thinking big and being innovative; think “bonds on bikes.”

Michael McGinn:Synthesis

Michael McGinn:Synthesis

Understanding what the McGinn win means is important. Seeing it as the latest in a tit for tat, us versus them, smart versus dumb battle denigrates its promise and dooms it to repeating the same old tired battles. The McGinn win is nothing less than a win for the future of our city through a synthesis of two older views of what that future should be.


My Work Is Done

The reason for my lack of posts over the past five days has now been revealed: Clearly I subconsciously intuited that today would bring the pinnacle of my blogging career, the sweet payoff for two years of sleep deprivation and bad posture hunched over a laptop. Yes, today my blog was mentioned by the Uptight Seattleite. I can now die happy. Has anyone started my Wikipedia entry yet?

But hold on, time out here, the beeps from my satire radar are growing louder…  Oh dear me, could it be that I was not only mentioned, but—say it isn’t so—mocked? Heavens yes, I think I now get the cleverly hidden subtext: If the Uptight Seattleite likes bikes and European transportation models and hugeasscity, then the take home message can be none other than this: the hugeasscity guy is just another typical psudo-new-agey, eco-hypocritical, knee-jerk liberal, hyper-PC, passive-agressive, super nice, uptight Seattleite.  The phrase “shooting fish in a barrel” comes to mind.

(Granted, it is a strange coincidence that I also play bass in a 40-something funky blues rock cover band.*)

So then, as payback for the Uptight Seattleite’s help in establishing hugeasscity in the local cultural lore, I would like to suggest a way we all could help bring greater fame and fortune to the creative mind behind the column: out him/her. That’s right, can anybody out there share with us the true identity of the author of Uptight Seattleite?

Or is that not PC?

Or am I just embarrassingly out of the loop, and everyone in the know already knows? I googled for it, albeit halfheartedly, but came up empty.

Or perhaps there is some serious, justifiable reason why the identity should not be revealed? But it’s not like Uptight is being critical of Obama or anything psychotic like that. At worst, Uptight is a little bit mean-spirited.

And the cool thing is commenters can revoke Uptight’s anonymity anonymously. Yup, I have a beef with anonymity in the media. Cause with rare exceptions, it’s just plain bad mojo.


*though I played guitar on this one.

The Darth Vader Of Fridays

[ Hanjin container ships unloading at Terminal 46 in Seattle ]

Even Adbustsers couldn’t have come up with a better name for today’s national frenzy of consumerism.  Last I checked, the common connotation of the word “black” hasn’t changed since the dawn of human consciousness.

The term Black Friday originated with Philadelphia police in reference to the crowds and traffic that they had to deal with on that day.  More recently, its usage has morphed to indicate how retailers’ balance sheets often shift from red to black during the Christmas shopping season.  Isn’t that cute?  A large fraction of our country’s retailers survive the year only because we all buy lots of stuff to celebrate the birth of Jesus.

And don’t worry Black Friday bargain hunters, cause even though volumes have plunged during the current recession, the  international container shipping industry has still got you covered.   Apparently somebody still wants what ever is filling up all the neatly stacked metal boxes on the decks of those Hanjin ships at Seattle’s Terminal 46. Each of those ships has capacity for something like 1 million 29-inch TVs, just like the ones people were scrambling for at Walmarts across the country in the wee hours this morning.

In Seattle, our shipping terminals are venerated because they bring diversity to our economy and provide well-paying blue-collar jobs.  But how much does this system of  international trade contribute long-term sustainability?

For starters, we know that our trade deficits with China and other Asian manufacturing countries are unsustainable.  And we also know that international trade can undermine the autonomy and cohesion of local communities on both ends of the transaction.  And we also know that much of what comes in on those container ships is throw-away consumer products.

Container ships are highly energy-efficient at moving goods.  But energy prices and the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels will inevitably shift the equation in favor of local production.  Especially since end distribution from a small number of centralized ports requires significant transport via modes that are less energy-efficient than ships.

The ghost fleet of idle container ships waiting off the coast of Singapore is a preview of the likely eventual fate of international shipping.   And by then hopefully the deranged tradition of Black Friday will be relegated to the dustbin of history.

Thank You Seattle

“The city in its complete sense, then, is a geographic plexus, an economic organization, an institutional process, a theater of social action, and an esthetic symbol of collective unity.  The city fosters art and is art; the city creates theater and is the theater.  It is in the city, the city as theater, that man’s more purposeful activities are focused, and work out, through conflicting and cooperating personalities, events, groups, into more significant culminations.”

Lewis Mumford, 1937

The Goal Thing

[ Mike McGinn at an ambassador meeting, clearly enjoying the outreach process: It’s a good sign. ]

Seattle Mayor-elect Mike McGinn kicked off his transition with a call for input from the public on three questions:

  1. How do we build the strongest possible team to achieve the policy objectives and values set forth by the campaign (grass roots community involvement, transparency and neighborhood focus)?
  2. How do we build public trust in the new administration?
  3. What do you view as the incoming administration and the city’s greatest challenge – what should we do first out of the gate?

I’ll start with question number three, because in the end it all comes down to action.   But before we can act, we first must have an inspiring purpose—we must have goals.   And so pulling back to the big picture view, my take is:  Establishing transcendent goals is both the greatest challenge, and what must been done first out of the gate.

Setting goals is challenging because a good goal must be many things:  uplifting and compelling, galvanizing and uniting, lofty, but not too lofty.  A good goal can’t be too vague or open to interpretation—goals must have measurable outcomes against which success can be gauged.  And the best goals have broad implications and percolate out across multiple realms—they’re game changers.

At a Town Hall lecture two weeks ago Alex Steffen proposed a goal for the City of Seattle:   achieve carbon-neutrality by the year 2030.  This is the right stuff.  Of course the main objections would be that it’s too aggressive, and would require too much sacrifice.  But closer analysis reveals that pursuing this goal would lead to greater prosperity for all in the long run.  And aiming high is better than aiming low.

Mayor Greg Nickels recently proposed another excellent goal:  Seattle will become the most walkable city in the nation.  The City made a laudable first step toward that end with the production of a new Pedestrian Master Plan, but unfortunately the dedication of funding for implementation has fallen far short of what is needed.   The overt statement of a goal provides ammo for pedestrian advocates to keep up the pressure on electeds, but more importantly, it is what set the whole process in motion.  Which is why setting goals right out of the gate is so important.


With a set of goals in place,  the issue broached in question number one—building a team—becomes more focused.  You bring on leaders who have demonstrated that they passionately believe in your goals.  And those who don’t most likely won’t want to be on the team anyway.

And since meaningful goals for the City almost invariably draw from multiple disciplines and city departments, the most successful team will be comprised of leaders with a strong interdisciplinary mindset, who thrive on open collaboration, who have the intellectual bravery and curiosity to learn outside their usual boundaries, and who can see the big picture.  The “silos” of isolated practice within City government must be dismantled if we hope to have a shot at the challenges we face.  And I would go so far as to say it calls for a dedicated team within the administration:  The Silo Busters.


So that leaves question number two—what about trust?  Trust takes time—it can’t be rushed.  Certainly the “open-source transition” will help, though real trust will only come when people see the administration act on the input they get from the public.

In the mean time, an established set of goals can help build trust.  Because when people buy in to the goals, they’re less likely to be suspicious of every move the administration makes.  If people can see the long game, they’ll be more inclined to put their trust in proposals that might otherwise seem too burdensome based only on the myopic view.

There’s also a flavor of trust that people grant to bold leaders.  And I would put forth that the residents of Seattle are starving for bold leadership.  The immense and escalating challenges the City faces—economic, social, and environmental—are widely recognized, and the cause of not a little angst among Seattle residents.  If the new Mayor can show that he recognizes these grave concerns, and that he has appropriately bold goals for how to address them, I suspect we may hear a surprisingly loud collective sigh of relief.


So what then, are the right goals for Seattle?  What does Seattle want to be?

In the broadest sense,  Seattle must become a sustainable city fit to thrive in the 21st Century.   And it is critical to emphasize that sustainability means a better life for everyone.

I would argue that we already know the ingredients of the sustainable city we want.  There are numerous existing models that demonstrate the key pieces (though none have pushed them as far as they need to go).  There has been an exhaustive amount of research and an exhausting amount discussion.  By now it’s a familiar list to anyone who’s been paying attention:  affordable housing, equitable public schools, a resilient economy, green jobs, energy and resource conservation, carbon neutrality, pollution and waste reduction, compact development, a vibrant public realm, extensive transit, safe streets, efficient delivery of public services, cohesive neighborhoods, an engaged citizenry, diversity in all of its expressions, and equitable access to all the City has to offer.

All that’s missing is the follow through.  And that starts with a translation of what we want into an explicit, inspiring, and visionary set of goals. 

[ The view from the 60th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower:  What does this city want to be? ]

Opposite Ends of I-90 Vol. 2: Parking Garage Edition

Usually they’re contemptible scars on the urban fabric, like the eye-popping piece of work in the photo above at 2nd and Union in Seattle.  But they don’t have to be.  The garage shown below is in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and isn’t it the most adorable thing?

Here’s another in Boston’s downtown office core:

Excited yet?  Yes, it’s lipstick on a pig, but unlike so many garages in downtown Seattle, at least it isn’t a total F.U. to the  city.

Boston, like every U.S. city, also has it’s share of heinous parking garages.  But in Seattle, downtown looks as if the City sponsored an ongoing heinous parking garage design competition back in the 1970s.  It’s remarkable that there wasn’t more uproar over how soul-crushing these structures are; or if objections were raised, how they were so easily ignored by those who stood to profit.

Blame it on “Wild West” mentality.  Compared to Seattle, Boston has far more deeply-rooted architectural and urbanist traditions that helped put a check on the  infatuation with “progress” and the city-gutting march of the cult of the automobile (though of course not all battles were won).  It’s the real kind of conservatism:  the past and its connection to the present is valued—an essential balancing force in the development of any healthy culture.

But the West has always been more dominated by the laissez-faire mindset.  Seattle’s historic midrise brick buildings were like swaths of old growth Douglas fir prime for exploitation, and the garages that were left in their place are about as beneficial to a true city as a wasteland of clearcut stumps is to a forest ecosystem.

Today we are still building hulking parking garages, but we usually try to do a better job with the lipstick—we put green roofs on them, for example, and even award them green building certification. And while these are positive steps, they don’t negate the fact that in terms of sustainable urbanism, parking garages are rotten at the core.  Sacrificing our precious urban land and economic resources to buildings with the sole purpose of part-time car storage degrades the pedestrian realm,  reinforces car-dependence,  and ultimately moves the city in the wrong direction.

The simple solution:  ban above-grade parking structures.  And then start incentivizing redevelopment of the mess of city-soul-sucking abominations that are already on the ground.


[ This post is part of a series on Boston and Seattle that will be continued as long as no commenters are really mean. ]

Rule #1: Don’t Site A Light Rail Station Next To A Freeway

[ Rendering of the Wallace Vision Line by J. Craig Thorpe ]

Getting the highest return on transit investments hinges on the creation of high-performing transit-oriented communities (TOC) around the stations.   And the easiest way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to site stations next to large freeways. Yet this is exactly what newly elected Bellevue City Councilor Kevin Wallace has just proposed, in his “Vision Line” plan that would move the downtown Bellevue Station from the ideally located existing transit center, over to the edge of I-405, about a quarter mile to the east (more here and here).

Maximizing the social and environmental benefits associated with high-performing TOC (10 meg pdf) is relatively straightforward:  you put stations where there are lots of people, jobs, and services within easy walking distance, or where there is at least a likely future potential for those ingredients.  And the downtown Bellevue transit center fits that bill—there is already a high concentration of jobs, and the area is zoned to allow high housing density.  The convenient connectivity to extensive bus service is also ideal.

When you site a station next to a freeway, right away you’re throwing away half of your walkshed, because (1) the freeway itself obliterates a massive swath of land in the station area, and (2) few people will be willing to walk across the massive pedestrian barrier formed by a freeway like I-405.   Ridership depends on pedestrians and walkable destinations, and a freeway is anethema to both.

The Vision Line proposal would also add significant inconvenience to intermodal trips, as a rider transferring from bus to train would have to make an extra five minute walk.  The simplest way to kill transit ridership is to make it inconvenient.  The Vision Liners’ apparent belief that the covered walkway shown in the rendering would make up for the inconvenience of distance is wishful thinking.

The Vision Line was motivated by perceived problems with the two basic alternatives:  tunneling costs too much, and surface tracks are too disruptive.  Cry me a river.  New light rail service represents an unprecedented opportunity to help transform Bellevue into a city that makes sense for the 21st century, and most of the bill for it is being covered by taxpayers from across the region.   But that awesome opportunity will not just be handed to the City—it will cost money and the required changes won’t be totally painless for everyone.   On the other hand, compromises made now will be paid for a bazillion times over during the lifetime of the light rail line.

Bellevue, you’re a smart, wealthy city.  Step up and make sure this one gets done right.

The Best Thing I’ve Read In The Stranger In Many Moons…

…is Grant Cogswell’s piece in this week’s issue.  Election optimism infused with soul, e.g. look out the window today and consider this: 

You can’t talk about Seattle without talking about the weather, and you can’t go away and then come back without noting that it makes everyone here a little crazy.

Harsh words:

I understand my Republican friends from high school who want to hunker down in their suburban homes in Texas and Florida, make their kids comfortable and safe, cook really good dinners, and ignore the fate of the world—but they don’t act like they are any better than they are.

And hope:

But I am suddenly optimistic, after so long believing there was no cause for hope here, and happy for my friends who live in a city that might now begin to match their great dreams.

Two Years Old

Even with the handicap of a blog name that’s embarrassing to say in polite company—whatever that is—it only took two years of blogging—whatever that is—for me to go from being a complete loser nobody, to being a guy with the Seattle Mayor-elect in his back pocket.  You need something from the new Mayor, come talk to hugeasscity.  And bring your checkbook.

You can get away with writing stupid stuff like that on a blog.   It’s brilliant.  All except for the not getting paid to do it part.

The two-year anniversary stats:

  • 607 posts
  • 160,911 words
  • 17,236 unique site visits per month as of today, according to Google Analytics

Thank you to all who have contributed:
Alan Durning, Alex Steffen, bailey, Barbara Wilson, BrianK, Cary Moon, Chuck Wolfe, Dave Bordoley, David Cutler, Eric De Place, Jabe Blumenthal, Joel Horn, Joshua, Kate Stineback, keith, MJH, neil gitkind, PostModernDecay, rachel, Renee, Roger Valdez, schottsie, southeastasscity, and WB

And a special big thank you to Madame Density for stepping up.

And another special big thank you to Darick Chamberlin for his pixel-pushing genius.

And last but not least, thank you, oh blessed commenters.

Don’t Lose Your Head Tax

The story of the so called “head tax” must wind up being about accountability.  How will the Seattle City Council be held accountable for repealing the tax in the face of so many rational reasons to keep it?  First, let’s go back to the beginning.

Over the summer some of us learned that the “head tax” was on the chopping block, mainly because promises had been made to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association. People running for Council had promised to remove the dreaded tax.

Supporters of the tax rallied. Calls were made, research done and opinion pieces submitted to the Seattle Times.  The Times wouldn’t publish the piece because they supported repeal.  Visits were had with members of the City Council and the case was presented. Here it is:

Our request to you is pretty straightforward. Please do not vote to repeal the so called “Head Tax” this year.

This repeal won’t help business and will create more budget challenges at a time when revenues are down and financial challenges for the city are increasing. Consider the following:

  • Is now the time to give away more than $4.5 million in revenue? That is more than $20 million dollars over the next 5 years. The budget short fall this year exceeds $70 million dollars. If you repeal this tax you simply add more to that gap.
  • The tax won’t create any relief for businesses in Seattle. Businesses paid, on average, $92 per year for this tax, and remember businesses earning less than $80,000 in revenue pay nothing toward this tax.
  • People voted in favor of the Bridging the Gap (BTG) ballot measure based on the inclusion of the revenues from this tax. Repealing the tax now is not keeping faith with the voters who supported the BTG package which included revenue from this tax.
  • This tax can create real, living wage jobs for construction workers and local contractors. The funds from this tax add to pedestrian and bike infrastructure projects. At a time when our state’s unemployment rate has increased to 9.2 percent why would we forgo the opportunity to support more work for these local people.
  • The tax incentivizes alternative transportation. Some say that this does nothing to discourage driving because the tax is so small. That isn’t a reason to repeal the tax but a reason to increase it. Please don’t allow the false logic of it being too small of a tax to encourage repeal.  If the paperwork is a challenge, focus on fixing that problem first.

One of the key features of this tax that makes it even more important to hold on to is that it is bondable, meaning every dollar that we collect brings with it more potential dollars in the form of low interest, or no interest loans in the form of bonds. If you repeal this you also repeal that leverage

Two other important facts to note; the same Council that repealed the “head tax” and rushed a tunnel agreement forward for a vote (9-0) took more than a year to pass legislation allowing 800 square foot backyard cottages. In a multiple year pilot in the southeast section of the city, less than two dozen cottages were built. Yet it took the City Council over a year to do what Portland did years ago and Vancouver BC did much faster. Sustainable cities allow cottages because they create more options and choices. The City Council chose to make simple decisions overly complicated and complicated ones overly simple.

Reason was just a speed bump on the drive to satisfy a very narrow set of business interests—the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Seattle Association—on the “head tax.” Again, this was the repeal of a tax that did everything right—funded pedestrian and bike infrastructure at the expense of people who drive to work—for very little cost to business ($92 a year for the average business). And there was no outcry from actual, real businesses about the tax.

Personally, I would have been irritated by the repeal but accepting if it actually created jobs and helped small and medium sized businesses. I would have shrugged if the tax was replaced with another source of revenue, in this budget, that was dedicated to pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.  And if that revenue was derived from auto intensive uses like parking taxes and tickets, for example, I probably wouldn’t be outraged. And finally, had the Council deliberated more on the billion dollar tunnel vote and a lot less on backyard cottages I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing this bill of particulars. But that isn’t how it happened.

So maybe someone in our city will organize around this issue and little by little and in quiet ways get ready for the 2011 council elections, when there are five seats up for election.  It is early yet for 2011. But it isn’t too early to find candidates willing to run for open or occupied seats. Bold? Maybe it is. Ill advised? I don’t think so.

Is there any other way to create a happy ending to the story of the ill fated “head tax?” Can the shape of Council change by 2011? Or will the story end with good stewardship of public resources and sustainability abandoned by politicians in favor of pleasing a couple of business organizations. Will the Council create a dedicated fund for bike and pedestrian infrastructure in this budget?

Only time, and the voters eventually, will tell whether this was an easy win for business soon forgotten by the losers, or if it will be but one battle in a longer struggle to make Seattle a city that has leadership willing to pay for sustainability not just talk about it.

From Ethiopia To A Stripmall Starbucks Drive-Thru

[ The fruit of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, spiced with rue ]

At the opening night party for the new Ethiopian exhibit at the Northwest African American Museum there was a demonstration of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony. The energizing effect of coffee was first discovered by Ethiopians, and it is deeply embedded in their traditional culture.   The coffee ceremony is typically performed three times a day and can last several hours.  It is a time for unhurried socializing.  As the woman describing the ceremony put it, they meet and talk to each other instead of going home alone to stare at screens.

Yes indeed, here in the United States, we do things a little differently.  While the relaxed chat over coffee is still a strong tradition, coffee is more commonly consumed as quickly as possible for purely utilitarian reasons—it keeps us going in the face of lives that lack proper mental and/or physical  stimulation.  Our great contribution to coffee’s culinary arts:  Folger’s instant.

The reining corporate king of coffee, Starbucks, reinvented coffee for Americans, reawakening the appreciation both for quality taste, and for the cafe as a significant social space.  But alas, Starbucks couldn’t resist succumbing to the giant sucking sound that is the American business tradition, wherein success leads only in one direction:  total domination through the virile distribution of uniformly sterile product to every last possible street corner.

And the pinnacle achievement of the debased American makeover of the Ethiopian coffee ceremony has got to be the Starbucks’ stripmall drive-thru, which removes any possibility for a social dimension, and relegates coffee drinking to the realm of mainlining a drug.    Not to mention that they won’t serve you unless you show up inside a multi-ton shell of steel and glass.  Although just to make the twisted circle complete, I bet the Ethiopian cabbies love it.

“We can’t serve you. You need to be in a car.”

Starbucks. I like you. But we’ve got to talk.

Listen, ‘Bucks. (You don’t mind if I call you ‘Bucks do you? Cool.) You’re good. You’re a meeting place. You’re local (2-0-6 in the coffee house!). You’re a gathering hall, a “third place” as Bertolet would say. You’re chill. And you’re a reliable source for the New York Times, which gives us a reprieve from the anti-urbanists over on Fairview. Yes, there are some that grouse about your large size, or pushing out local chains (even some of the overlords on this blog), but I can forgive all that. You activate our urban realm, provide a vibrant street life and bring warm liquid sustenance to our cold, withered northwest cores.

carbon emitters: welcome. kids, seniors, poor, health advocates: go away
[ polluters welcome. kids, seniors, the poor, transit users: abandon all hope ]

But get this. I tried to stroll up to one of your stores and order a latte and I was told that “We can’t serve you. You need to be in a car.”  Say what now, ‘Bucks? That ain’t cool. I couldn’t believe my ears. Certainly this couldn’t be coming from the same place that built its business on pedestrian traffic in Pike Place?

But it was. Here in my little corner of Southeast Seattle at Graham and MLK, ‘Bucks you did me wrong. Nevermind that your little outpost is along the light rail line that magically produces pedestrians. Or that you are near some of the only TOD being built in the city. ‘Bucks, why do you hate walkers?

Know what’s worse? You made me go to the McDonald’s just across the street with a walk-up counter, and the nice people in there were happy to help me.  McDonald’s! (And remember, they’re your competitor now).

what google doesn't tell you is that only one of these stores serves pedestrians.
[ what google doesn’t tell you is that only one of these stores serves pedestrians. ]

Like I said, you do good, but this does not live up to your ideals.

The Shadows Are Growing Longer

Questions That Lead To More Questions

Though I’m not one of the official McGinn transition ambassadors, how could I not post the three questions?

  1. How do we build the strongest possible team to achieve the policy objectives and values set forth by the campaign (grass roots community involvement, transparency and neighborhood focus)?
  2. How do we build public trust in the new administration?
  3. What do you view as the incoming administration and the city’s greatest challenge – what should we do first out of the gate?

My kneejerk reaction to McGinn’s proposed transition process is lukewarm—I am skeptical that anything groundbreaking will be learned, and I would rather see the transition team’s limited time and energy spent defining goals, and working out the big picture strategies for achieving them.  But I am trying to control my skepticism.  Because McGinn has surprised me before—e.g. although I was an early supporter, all along I was skeptical that he could actually win.

I’m not going to attempt to answer the questions here but would love to see ideas batted around in the public forum of the HAC comments.  And I think it’s safe to say the McGinn team will be looking on.

What Now, Mayor McGinn?

Well Michael, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with the road ahead, worry not, because the Seattle Times editorial board has got your back. You see, the Seattle Times editorial board, they’ve been around, they know how the world really works, and they’re both bemused and concerned about the success of  you and your rag-tag band of jobless skoolkidz, and so for the good of the City, they’ve kindly offered you a little friendly paternal advice:  “Hire highly competent staff who know more than you do.”

And as if that’s not enough breathtaking wisdom for any one Mayor-elect to chew on, there’s more, this time delivered in the third person, a little wink and a nod to all those readers who are just as condescendingly uptight as the Seattle Times editorial board is about an upstart Mayor who has the gall to propose bold plans:  “He needs to assemble a team that can filter some of his overly ambitious ideas.”


All apologies for stating the obvious about how stunningly out of touch the Seattle Times editorial board has become, but their take on things is useful in that it does illustrate one end of the spectrum of possibilities for McGinn’s approach out of the gate.  Namely, the timid approach, the glacially-paced, Seattle process approach.

At the other end of the spectrum of possibilities, McGinn comes out with guns blazing, swinging for the fences from the first inning.  And this, needless to say, is what the “reasonable” crowd fears.  But let us not forget that McGinn’s potential as a visionary change agent is the very stuff that energized his volunteer army.   He is where he is precisely because he inspired his supporters with his talk of bold action.  In fact, one might be tempted to say that he has a mandate to swing for the fences.

But of course the risk of the guns blazing approach is that those guns could backfire.  If the change agent is perceived as a loose cannon, stirring up the pot only for the sake of the stirring, then the capacity to accomplish anything will quickly evaporate as people push back.

On the other hand, if McGinn holds back, is too accommodating, gives everyone from everywhere all the time they want to be heard, then his ambitious plans will grind to a halt beneath the rusty wheels of the bureaucratic machine.

When Mayor Nickels came into office in 2002, he wasn’t afraid to make a statement:  he fired the popular head of the Department of Neighborhoods Jim Diers, abolished the Strategic Planning Office, restructured the Planning Department, and soon created his own strategic planning shop, the Office of Policy and Management.

No doubt it is an exceedingly delicate dance, balancing the establishment of power and leadership with the need for collaboration and unity.

One key ingredient to succeeding with bold structural and policy innovations is to establish a clearly defined set of goals up front.   For example, goals such as:  50 percent of the pedestrian master plan will be implemented by 2011.  If people buy in to the goals, and they understand why changes are necessary to achieve them, then those changes become easier to swallow.  It’s human nature.  And so I hope to see Mike McGinn lean strongly toward the guns blazing approach, backed with an inspiring, visionary set of goals for the City. 

But hey, why listen to an armchair blogger like me about this?  Anyone out there have an opinion about the best path for McGinn to take?

Who Is This Alex Steffen Dude, Anyway?

[ Alex Steffen presenting at IDSA/ICSID Connecting Congress 2007 ]

Just some guy from Seattle who was invited to give the closing plenary talk at the upcoming Copenhagen Mayoral Climate Summit. And who also happens to be the executive director of Worldchanging, a non-profit that runs the second largest sustainability site on the web, and that published a 600-page  international best seller on sustainable solutions with a forward written by Al Gore. And who apparently also has a habit of referencing the Simpsons while addressing the lecture halls of the intelligencia.

It is no exaggeration to say that Alex Steffen is a rock star on the international sustainability lecture circuit—he has probably spent as much time living out of a suitcase as Metallica. Yet strangely, he seems to be less well known in his own home town than he is in cities all across the globe.

This week, Seattleites will have a rare opportunity to hear Alex Steffen’s rap. His big-picture, international perspective on the massive challenges facing humanity and the hopeful prospects for tackling those challenges is precisely kind of Kool-Aid Seattle needs to drink.

Details on the two events are below. And note that the talks will be introduced by Richard Conlin and Mike McGinn, the two most powerful politicians in Seattle (come January). I hope they listen well.

Alex Steffen: Building a Planet with a Future
A two-night talk presented by Town Hall’s Center for Civic Life, 11/11 and 11/12

The future is unfolding as far more dangerous and chaotic than we hoped… and more full of opportunity and reasons for optimism than we imagined. As we lead up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, a new global consensus is emerging that problems like population, global health, poverty, urbanization, climate change and environmental decline are not separate issues, but symptoms of one giant planetary challenge. The answer to that challenge must be a new kind of prosperity, one that allows billions of people to achieve a better life without destroying the planet.

At the same time, new tools and innovations are redefining the possible and changing what we thought we knew about sustainability. We’re seeing potential revolutions everywhere in how we build, eat, move, work, shop and communicate. In this new world of possibilities, Seattle has a unique opportunity to transform itself into a model of sustainable prosperity and to again become a global leader in the process.

Alex Steffen is Executive Editor of As a world expert on bright green futurism, he spends much of his time traveling to speaking with leading international businesses and governments from Norway to New Zealand; he rarely speaks at home in Seattle. But for two nights this November, he’ll take the stage at Town Hall and share the latest thinking about how we here in the Emerald City can confront our planetary boundaries and how Seattle citizens can become leading innovators in a sustainable economy. Want to know what the future holds for your career and your community? Don’t miss this one-time opportunity to explore some of the most important trends shaping our lives, with one of the most sought-after green futurists working today.

A New Global Future – Night One – Alex Steffen, introduced by Richard Conlin

Nine billion people on a straining planet is a recipe either for catastrophe or transformation. Which future we get – tragic disaster or sustainable prosperity – will depend largely on the choices we here in the developed world make. What is possible for billions of people rising out of poverty will be determined largely by the shape of the economy we create in places like Seattle. How do we understand what a bright green future looks like and how do we propel our region toward it? This first night will explore the breakthroughs in renewable energy, green building, clean technology, smart infrastructure and sustainable design that can enable the Pacific Northwest to not only help lead the planet away from catastrophe, but also to become an economic power house.

Seattle’s Bright Green Moment – Night Two – Alex Steffen, introduced by Mike McGinn

Cities are the engines of a bright green economy. A new urban way of life is emerging that is not only ecologically frugal, but wealthier, healthier, and more enjoyable. At the same time, smart cities are becoming the hothouses of sustainable innovation, growing the designs, technologies, policies, and start up companies that will thrive in the new global economy. Learn how leading urban regions like London, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Seoul are scrambling to rebuild themselves on bright green lines in order to lead in the economy of tomorrow. Join the conversation on how we can use cutting edge practices such as innovation networks, metropolitan coalitions, and government 2.0 to break through the logjams blocking Seattle’s progress to build a more vital, sustainable and prosperous home.

Tickets are $5.00
Click here to purchase tickets for the 11th, here to purchase tickets for the 12th.

Both talks will be in the Great Hall at Town Hall Seattle, and start 7:30 p.m. (doors at 7:00 p.m.). Each talk is 90 minutes, no intermission. Presented by Town Hall’s Center for Civic Life.

Enough Already About The Next Seattle Mayor — What About Dow?

All that newly elected King County Executive Dow Constantine has to worry about is this:

King County’s 2009 estimated population is 1,909,300—that’s about three and a half Seattle’s, and 29 percent of the State’s total population.  The County produces just under half of the State’s total industry earnings. It covers nearly twice the land area of the State of Rhode Island, and encompasses six watersheds, the State’s second largest lake, part of a major mountain range, and extensive marine coastline.

King County is known for being a liberal hotbed, but political viewpoints range widely.  In particular, many residents of the rural parts of the County believe that County government tends to be too dominated by the interests of Seattle and its nearby suburbs—a sentiment that has led to two intiatives to split the County.

The County’s Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) is the poster child for the tension between urban and rural King County.  Rural landowners perceive it as unfairly onerous regulation imposed by urbanites who don’t understand or appreciate the rural way of life.  Environmental interest groups—most of which are based in Seattle—believe the CAO is essential for fostering the long-term ecological health of the region.  And Dow Constantine has taken plenty of heat for his involvement with the CAO, even though he led the effort to modify Ron Sims’ original proposal in response to the concerns of rural landowners.

King County also has a massively consequential impact on the region through its operation of Metro Transit, which, based on 2009 ridership stats, is the eighth largest public transit system in the nation.  Metro buses are the workhorses that have enabled Seattle to achieve a remarkably high transit commute mode share of 18 percent.  And even as we build more light rail, Metro buses will continue to be the County’s transit workhorses for a long time to come, and as such will be a critical factor in reducing car dependence as the region grows.

All in all, King County embodies the full spectrum of challenges to achieving a sustainable future at the regional scale:  the yin-yang of urban and rural.  Our cities cannot become sustainable in a vacuum—they affect, and are affected by the surrounding region.  And therein lies the importance of a visionary King County government, and the great potential for progress with a guy like Constantine at the helm.

The County has been making forward-thinking moves on many fronts in recent years, including sustainability indicators, green building, transfer of development rights, and perhaps most notably, the nation’s first legislation aimed at regulating the greenhouse gas emissions associated with development.  And the time is ripe for Dow Constantine boldly push such programs further, and also be bold about new policy that will tap latent sustainability synergies in the County’s diverse people and places.   For example, how about a program that includes greenhouse gas emissions in the transfer of development rights equation?

And now for those masochistic few who may still be reading, I couldn’t end a post about regional planning without quoting what Lewis Mumford wrote 84 years ago:

The hope of the city lies outside itself.  Focus your attention on the cities—in which more than half of us live—and the future is dismal. But lay aside the magnifying glass which reveals, for example, the hopelessness of Broadway and Forty-second Street, take up a reducing glass and look at the entire region in which New York lies. The city falls into focus. Forests in the hill-counties, water-power in the mid-state valleys, farmland in Connecticut, cranberry bogs in New Jersey, enter the picture. To think of all these acres as merely tributary to New York, to trace and strengthen the lines of the web in which the spider-city sits unchallenged, is again to miss the clue. But to think of the region as a whole and the city merely as one of its parts—that may hold promise.

The Election According To My Facebook Page

Brice Maryman Mcginn again! (11 hours ago)
Rebecca Deehr McGinn leads by 2384!!!! 50.31% to Mallahans 48.91%.(11 hours ago)
Sol Villarreal Hear that? That’s the sound of victory :) (11 hours ago)
Bill LaBorde > Michael McGinn: Dude!!! I mean, Mr. Mayor Dude!!! Congratulations!!! (11 hours ago)
Chris Bushnell victory! (11 hours ago)
Ben Schiendelman McGinn now up by 2384 (from 1209 earlier this afternoon). Clearly we should wait for the rest to be sure, but Mallahan should be readying his concession speech right about now (11 hours ago)
Craig M. Benjamin Very nice Publicola » Blog Archive » The Latest in the Mayor’s Race (11 hours ago)
Nate Cormier fork. meet mallahan. (10 hours ago)
Ainsley Close 2384 !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (10 hours ago)
Nate Cormier today we learned that people and ideas can outsmart and outhustle entrenched power and money. i witnessed “jobless skoolkidz” become the fiercest campaign staff the city has ever known and a i watched a determined activist grow into a genuine leader. (10 hours ago)
Nate Cormier the challenges of our times are unprecedented, but in this victory you will find the recipe for a meaningful and effective response. we took a big step toward a progressive, green, urban future by electing mike mcginn as our mayor. hot damn! (10 hours ago)
Brice Maryman so. excited. RT @atPubliCola McGinn leads by 2384 votes. #seamayor #seattle (10 hours ago)
Chuck Wolfe Statue really smiling (10 hours ago)
Ben Schiendelman > Michael McGinn: Congratulations! Party it up this weekend. :) (10 hours ago)
Alan Durning is 2300 votes ecstatic!!!!!! (9 hours aga)
Alan Durning make that 2,384 votes ecstatic! (9 hours ago)
Renee Staton The spread is now 2,384 votes. It is looking more and more like Mayor McGinn. (9 hours ago)

Retail Therapy


Instead of staring at the screen all day waiting for the next King County ballot drop, why not do a little online shopping?  Especially since the fine folks at Noisetank have just launched a highly anticipated new line of designer t-shirts for the discerning urbanist.

Don’t believe it?  CLICK HERE and be amazed at the ease with which you can acquire your own little piece of hugeasscity cachet.  Yes, and what’s more, you will feel righteous knowing that all profits go directly to me.  Cause haven’t I been good to y’all these past two years?

Not that this is about profits.  No no no, this is about what we Americans do best:  branding.