What Problem? Seattle is Delightful!

A local religious scholar was asked why so many few Seattleites go to church and her reply was “No one had built a cathedral to match Mount Rainier.”  It is the natural beauty that is inherent to the Puget Sound region that creates an illusion that Seattle is a green clean and healthy place to live.  In actuality the Seattle area is among one the country’s dirtiest places for pollution.

If halting climate change demands a massive shift in behavior of individuals and if “delight” is the catalyst for many of these changes in behavior, then what is the delight-incentive in an area that gives the illusion that we are living in a clean green area.  The additional problem with this misperception is that as land values rise, companies relocate where land is affordable further enhancing the disparities of the affluent getting to keep their misperceptions and the poor getting pollution (Yes! here I go again with the social equity piece).  Areas that are Troy Abel, an associate professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University stated that “Seattle’s pollution riskscape and urban development burdens were skewed toward the most socially vulnerable residents”

My concern is that, while everyone makes decision that contribute to the overall carbon foot print it seems to adversely affect the poor at a disproportionate rate at least in the immediate future.  If residents of the Seattle area are under the delusion that they live in an unpolluted area because of the beautiful greenery, abundant bodies of water and mountain ranges, how can we begin to use the idea of “delight” to incentivize change when Seattle is already so delightful?  Art walks may pale in comparison to water ways with Mountain backdrops and Art appointed train stations may not be able to measure up to the large evergreens canvasing this area.

It is important to still continue to find additional delights for these residents, especially when the most polluted areas are immediately affecting a segment of the population that is powerless to affect change.   In class the question was posed “why do generations today seem less willing to act for the common good of all, unlike the early 20th century?”  And the issue around sustainability definitely speaks to this notion.  It is evident that there is a divide in the perception surrounding climate issues in this region.  If the view from one person’s window is a Lake Washington and not a tall smoking stack, then this person may be unaware of the immediate problem with pollution because they can’t see it. And even though this pollution will eventually affect each of us the delightful surroundings may give the illusion that the problem is far and distant.  Land can be zoned, not air or water.

This is not an intentional disconnect, but there is a definite disconnect that individuals have from one another and a lack of awareness that people are as interrelated as the air and water that we drink and breath.  This disconnection from one another was created in the 1950’s during the industrial revolution and the Auto industry which promoted white flight and the notion that we don’t have to live life with anyone that is not like us.  We can live in the middle of nowhere and drive in our cars alone, creating an “us-them” belief and further enabling this disconnect.  This creates a mindset that affects individual behavioral decisions that are concerned with that individual that is making the decision and not the benefit of the whole.  And so it goes:  It’s not my problem, I don’t have a problem.

So bringing it back to good ol’ Seattle. Great beautiful green Seattle:  The perfect city. Not too big, not too diverse, not too much traffic and not too much change….ever. It can’t be polluted, it’s the water taste great! Draught-schmaught it rains every day!  Hear no evil, see no evil.  “Seattle has been heralded for its leadership in sustainability, but our analysis questioned this reputation. Parts of the city fared poorly in all three dimensions of sustainability — environment, equity and economy,” Abel said

Read more: http://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Is-Seattle-creating-ghettos-of-povery-and-2179942.php#ixzz1nhpSo98u

The illusion is created by the delight created by the natural beauty of the Puget Sound Region and the complete isolation and reluctance to change.  My fear is that it will take too long for the powerful people to see the issue while the poor continues to suffer in it.

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Buildings = Fun

My chief takeaway from The Fun Theory is that there are many ways to approach an issue—more fun, more transparency, more education, etc., and these all address the main problem which is that the hidden costs of our actions have been hidden in so many ways.

The piano stairs remind us that stairs are not that big a deal (though in the Stockholm subway system one does get used to looking for the escalators, as many of the stops are way, way underground) and that we just need to be shaken out of our comfort zone. Same for the ease of bottle recycling. That game didn’t really look that fun, but it was different, and easy. I like how Trader Joe’s reminds us that “a bag in the hand is worth two in the car”, appealing to people’s good intentions to re-use bags.

In my own field of architecture, we see how the technological changes to buildings have been hidden behind walls, and the image of the home, especially, has remained unchanged in a long time. When the average single family home still has a big front yard, orientation facing the street rather than the sun, a formal dining room, hidden mechanical systems, to name a few, we are reminded that some of our most lasting, permanent decisions need a shake-up, a re-thinking that could take some lessons from the piano stairs and the recycling arcade. When was the last time we thought of buildings as fun?

Conscious Effort by the City of Seattle

The Growth Management Act of 1990 was a statewide regulation passed in Washington in response to concentrated population growth in existing urban and suburban areas.  Seattle came up with the comprehensive plan to drive growth to areas where facilities and infrastructure already existed.  Seattle came up with the Urban Village Concept as a way to promote urban centers, manufacturing/industries, urban villages hubs, and residential areas. The land use codes outline policies from the comprehensive plan. What does this mean for the citizens of Seattle? As predicted in the early 1990s, the Seattle population continues to grow. As a result, we can expect to see more mixed-use construction projects in the coming years. Creating a vibrant shopping center in dense populated neighborhoods has added richness to Seattle neighborhoods.  University Village and the Northgate area offer great examples of the diverse mix of uses. Mixed use neighborhoods speak to Seattle’ desire to be a green walkable city where people can meet their needs within the local context.

Sources:

http://www.ecotality.com/newsletter/20110614_Vulcan.html

http://www.seattle.gov/DPD/planning/comprehensive/RegionalGrowtMgt/RegionalGrowthMgt.htm

How to make taking responsibility the path of least resistance

Last year, while I was looking for a new place to live, I stayed with a good friend of mine for a couple of months. My friend doesn’t recycle. Yeah, you heard me. My friend does not recycle. Some things, like glass jars, she does sort out (most of the times) and eventually takes to the recycling drop-off point on the block, but pretty much everything else goes in the regular bin. Plastic containers, milk cardboard boxes, cans… along with food leftovers and whatnot. To be fair, she does sort out the daily newspaper, but only because there is a recycling bin for it next to the regular bin (and because it’s voluminous and would fill up the regular bin too quickly if she didn’t).

When someone generously lets you stay in their apartment, starting to pick on their way of life doesn’t exactly feel like the right thing to do, but keeping my mouth shut was the hardest thing.  I tried mentioning it to her a couple of times, jokingly, thinking she probably had “forgotten” about it and just needed a reminder, a little push in the right direction. The only thing that happened was that she – just as jokingly – replied that “my old roommate used to recycle”, as if that was one of her old roommate’s funny ways and not something everyone should do. No remorse, no nothing. Sometimes I would pick up cans from her bin and take them to the recycling myself, but there is only so much looking after one can do. After a while, even I threw cardboard containers in there sometimes. I know, I´m so sorry. You can blame that last half an inch of sea levels rising on me.

The thing that is most disturbing though, is that my friend is educated, lives in a nice neighborhood in central Stockholm (to any Stieg Larsson fans out there: she lives on the same street as Mikael Blomkvist, they filmed the movies and do guided tours right outside her apartment), she eats mostly organic food (subscribing to one of those ready planned home delivery grocery bags), and has a car but mostly takes the commuter train. She is part of that informed part of the population with means to actually make the right choices, and she still doesn´t recycle.

Similarly, my university is the leading technical university in Sweden. We do all kinds of teaching and research on how to make the world more sustainable, ranging from specific component solutions to sustainable technical and societal systems. Yet we fail to recycle properly in our own campus. In my department, recyclable items go into the regular bin all the time. It´s not as bad as at my friend’s house, but bad enough. I´m embarrassed. Our recycling bins are down the hall and I´ve asked my boss for small recycling bins to put in the department’s kitchen, even offering to be responsible for emptying them (I´m a PhD student so I need some valid reason to procrastinate – but not as in going through the bin after other people’s wrongly disposed recyclables). My boss thought it was a great idea but as of my leaving Sweden no recycling bins were anywhere to be seen in the kitchen.

I don´t know, maybe it´s my Asperger syndrome side taking over here. Maybe I´m missing the big picture, getting all obsessive about recycling, but with so much else being wrong, I thought we needed every bit of effort in this climate change combat?

My problem analysis (nothing new here): sustainable development requires large system changes and small individual changes. The larger changes are the ones that feel like they matter but are mainly someone else’s (governments’, companies’) responsibility, whereas the smaller changes require everyone’s (yours, mine, my boss’, your grandpa’s) participation but don´t feel like they make much difference (especially if there are free-riders, like my friend, not pulling their weight). What both types of change have in common is that they require active, difficult and sometimes (often) expensive choices. It is a little bit like being on a diet; you have to give up convenience and sweets (apparently candy is killing the planet too) but don’t get the reward until much later, if ever. What a fun way ahead of us, huh? A lose-lose situation?

Well, not if we can make sustainable choices easy and/or rewarding. Nudges, fun theory, price signals and regulation – whatever makes the right choice the path of least resistance, without being too distorting in other aspects. (How? I don’t know silly, or I wouldn´t be sitting here writing instead of being out there making a difference in the world). Us “aware and active” people (recyclers) that serve as other “less aware and passive” people´s conscience are probably necessary for driving change and pushing limits, but relying too much on it sounds like risky business to me (it´s not that I don´t believe in the individual’s ability to make the right choice, I just see the opposite happening time and time again). We need to build responsibility into the system because sustainability needs to be pushed by, but cannot stand or fall by driving spirits. Sustainability should be the default system mode, now let´s just find the small individual solutions to making each component sustainable too.

One-HUGE-size does not fit all….

When considering simple definitions –a skyscraper builds up while sprawl builds out – the assumption that skyscrapers are a sustainable answer seems obvious. The skyscraper, as a simple example of density, brings more people to interact in a smaller space thereby reducing transportation needs. However, like with any sustainable tool, it all depends on how it is used. Are skyscrapers really the solution to sprawl? From my personal experiences I say not necessarily, and this is why.

Lesson 1: Newer isn’t always better.
During my undergraduate studies I, like many typical architecture students, spent a semester abroad in Rome. What I found the most inspiring was the way layers and stories of history were told through the built form. There is something endearing and historically beautiful about the fact that in the 400 years since its construction no building has surpassed the height of St. Peter’s Basilica. But, even more, this kind of historical respect was fostered without impeding progress or sustainable growth practices. Rome, a city that prides itself on its history, is in fact incredibly sustainable through its reuse of historic structure, mix of uses, overall density, and public transit systems. The lesson I learned was that we don’t always need to bulldoze the past to make way for new solutions. They might already be there.

Lesson 2: Higher isn’t always denser.
Extending from the example of Rome, it can also be seen that height isn’t always necessary to increase densities. Some might say that Rome and other European examples aren’t comparable to America because they preceded the automobile, so consider just American cities. Many people might be surprised to find out that the densest city in the United States is none other than Los Angeles, a city known for sprawl. In fact, New York City and Chicago, the United State’s premier skyscraper havens, are the 4th and 10th densest American cities respectively. It is important to remember that skyscrapers don’t always denote density, and even more, density does not always mean less reliance on single occupancy vehicles.

Lesson 3: Bigger isn’t always better.
Another trip I was able to take during my undergraduate studies was to Mumbai, India, the city ranked the densest in the world in 2007. As a group of five other students and I surveyed a shanty town, we saw this density manifested through a typical building height of 4 stories where most people had less than 20 square feet of space. This is the type of place where one would consider skyscrapers to be an effective tool to maintain density but allow more space per person. And, a few years ago as the plans for a new skyscraper were revealed, many would see this becoming a reality. However, the irony of this “green”, 27-story masterpiece (as one ‘local’ has put it), is that it is a single family home. The Antilla Residence, which is now completed, cost over 1 billion dollars to construct and is a prime example that skyscrapers do not always mean increased density.

When considering how to make American cities more sustainable, I have found the simplest answer is going back to the basics of mixed land uses, using less space and moderate densities, all while promoting connectivity and multi-model transit. In fact, it seems almost overtly American of us to think that skyscrapers are the answer. Instead of driving less or using less energy, once again we are looking for a newer, bigger, better technological fix. If we are truly going to make a difference we need to stop looking for an easy, one-(HUGE)-size fits all answer and go back to the fundamentals of how we used to live before the automobile took over.

Growing Up

It’s refreshing to see a large corporation make downtown its home.  Amazon.com recently purchased three lots of prime Denny Triangle real estate in Seattle.  The owners, the Clise Family, was waiting to sell their property to buyers with a grand vision for the site.  Amazon does indeed have grand designs.  Upon each of the three lots is slated to be built a tall, 1M SF office tower.  Combined, these three towers will have roughly double the SF of the Columbia Tower, Seattle’s largest commercial office tower.  What is important though is not just the new SF.  It is the fact that Amazon has planted a stake in the sand.  It has decided to build its corporate headquarters in the city, not the suburbs.  Its employees will be able to take advantages of all the amenities city life offers: good transportation, entertainment, and housing.  I’m sure the Vancouver, B.C. based-owners of a nearby vacant lot are salivating at the opportunity to finally move forward with their condo tower project that never got off the ground prior to the recession.  Now there will be a ready supply of highly paid Amazonians to purchase those condos.  Over ten percent of my MBA classmates now work at Amazon.  Several live downtown already.  Others have told me they eventually plan to buy a condo downtown to be near work.  So Amazon’s decision to build its headquarters downtown creates several economic benefits for the city.  More condos will be sold; more apartments will be occupied.  Owners of shops and restaurants will see more business.  The city will receive more tax revenue with which they (hopefully) can use to improve amenities and transit infrastructure.  And Seattleites will receive a visible, tangible demonstration that their city is growing up!

We Need Delightful Transit

On a recent Tuesday evening I walked from my apartment on the west side of Capitol Hill into downtown to pick up a friend for an evening. The plan was to ride the bus to Eastlake for a quick dinner and concert. It was rush hour and downtown was alive with commuters anxious to get home. We watched as the bus we needed sped past us at the stop. It was standing room only capacity and the driver was unwilling to let any more riders aboard.  Minor disappointment subsided quickly amid the din of an entertaining downtown crowd of office workers, tourists, students and various street life awaiting their next bus.  We waited thirty-five minutes on the corner of 6th and Olive with only one bus bound for the Eastside coming past our stop.  OneBusAway didn’t have another bus within a twenty-minute window.  We then tried our luck in the bus tunnel – thinking there would be more flow coming through those stops.  After another twenty minutes with only one bus coming through the tunnel we decided to walk back up Olive to my parked car and drive to our show. Two would-be riders were foiled by an inconsistent transit system at the height of rush-hour in the heart of downtown.

There are many examples of products that delight their consumers.  Apple has made a habit of introducing consumer electronics that legitimately instill positive emotion within their owners.  The Saturn brand accomplished this feat in the late 1990s developing a loyal customer base that evangelized the product and sold vehicles on a relatively small marketing budget.  We need a similar brand appeal for transit in Seattle and any other major metropolitan area.  The experience needs to be such a ‘no-brainer’ that anyone who decides to get out from behind the wheel of their car will have no remorse or regret.  It should be a relief. Transit and density advocates are fighting to change intrinsic, and deeply imbedded behavior.  This is like trying to sell an iPhone to an IT department at a big company responsible for thousands of loyal BlackBerry users.  The product better delight the customer.

Rules of thumb to generate the coveted switching user should include:

  • A doggedly consistent and predictable schedule, akin to a utility – we expect our toilets to flush and lights to turn on every time.
  • Frequent and convenient service – we’re all busy and relatively impatient. Americans generally covet their personal time.
  • A fluid and latency-free communication system is a must– OneBusAway and Metro Communications are great ideas, but hampered by little funding and inconsistent information feeds.
    • We need to know when exactly a bus or train will be there and when it will be late – no excuses, the car is often just waiting to be driven.
  • Things that would bring delight to customers include:
    • Wifi access for personal devices – subscription service should be reasonable.
    • Approachable and friendly customer service throughout the system – no grumpy bus drivers.
    • A high standard for cleanliness and comfort of transit vehicles.
    • Additional HOV lanes dedicated to busses and van pools.

If we have a hard time retaining the loyal customers who are willing to plan their lifestyles around transit – we are a long ways from acquiring many switchers.  A delightful transit experience is conceivable and attainable.  Focus on the execution in delivering this experience is needed.