The Carbon Band-Aid

A carbon tax makes complete sense to me. It taxes the activities that have a direct connection to increased atmospheric carbon, allowing a natural movement away from those activities due to cost. I like that this inspires innovation and the tax generates the revenue to allow citizens and business enough rebate to discover alternatives. However, in coal dependent states far from Washington, the reality on the surface looks very different. But what if it isn’t? My home state of West Virginia has severe economic and environmental needs right now. Could a carbon tax be the solution?

While I’m not an economist, economic theories posit that the market will support the most cost-effective solution. When extracting and burning coal becomes more expensive than the revenue it creates, the state and its businesses will be forced to determine an alternative. This is a change that must happen, regardless of whether or not there is a carbon tax. West Virginia can–and should–be more than just coal.

It would not be effective if only implemented at the state level in West Virginia, but a federal carbon tax mandate might level the playing field enough to support some innovation. While our neighbors to the north in Pittsburgh are testing self-driving cars, and the tech industry’s innovation is evident in cities all around us, West Virginia is stagnating, and falling way behind.

In my estimation, there are already too many casualties. A carbon tax could be like ripping off the band-aid and starting the potentially painful process of healing.

Coal…or Carrots?

The idea of whether the general public accepts an economic instrument depends on their understanding of the underlying issue…and its relevance to their life. This makes me think of the names that we give to different issues to make them more palatable. It also makes me think about the significant differences in culture across our country. I grew up in West Virginia, and while I have spent the last 11 years on the west coast, I’m still deeply connected with my roots.

The way that we refer to climate change and other similar environmental issues is important because it hearkens back to cultural relevance. In the small mining towns in West Virginia that are currently experiencing devastating unemployment and the highest rates of opioid overdose deaths in the nation, the immediate concern is not climate change. For decades, coal has been their livelihood–and now it’s gone. In communities like this that are struggling to survive day-to-day, it is extremely difficult to ask them to think about the impact of their current actions on the future. In order to do this, there must be alternatives, relatable reasons, and a sense of communal understanding.

Stories play a critical role in this process. In many towns in the U.S., decisions are established based on the family’s long-held beliefs. Over time, however, it is possible to shape those stories to reflect the reality of our current environmental challenges. In this case, this starts by introducing information about the environmental impacts of subsurface mining and mountain-top removal, as well as the negative impacts of carbon based fuel use. The challenge is that it must be a cohesive message across the spectrum of institutional and community leaders, and expressed in a way that provides relevance to people at all levels of community.

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Finally, there must be alternatives. Coal country is experiencing challenges relative to employment, healthcare, housing, and education, in large part because there is currently no replacement for the mines and processors that are closing. These jobs supported other non-basic jobs that are also now disappearing. So what is the next step for West Virginia? It’s time to ask the hard questions and explore the options. With vast wilderness, perhaps farming is a logical opportunity, in concert with an expansion of the outdoor adventure programs that are in place.

While I feel strongly about the injustice against the natural environment in West Virginia through coal operations, I also think that it is possible to plan for the future while dealing with the present challenges. It must be done thoughtfully and come from within. The future already exists within us as a collective, but the hard work is to understand and accept the need to change our story.

Reinventer Seattle

Paris is my favorite city. I’ve been there countless times; traveled there on the weekends when living in Lyon or Aix-en-Provence, taken every visiting American friend there, even shared it with strangers. It inspires me more than any other place on Earth.

One of the most amazing features of Paris is its desire to celebrate the past, but never stop looking forward. In a city like Seattle that doesn’t have ancient history, I think we need to be more daring and allow changes in height and character that will increase density, but also pride and interest.

In Paris, I love the layers of history and the juxtaposition of bustling boulevards with ancient, winding alleys. When I studied urbanism in France, there was a fleeting moment when I thought Baron Haussmann was the most important figure in history. But you don’t have to wander far in Paris before you realize that the transformation of the city is continuous. Haussmann made glaringly significant changes in the mid-1800s, but those elements are only part of the living history that makes Paris such an incredible place.

While Edward Glaeser advocates for increasing density in specific areas near the city, such as the development at La Defense, I advocate for increasing density thoughtfully and with intrigue, throughout the city. The Mayor of Paris recently engaged in a campaign of design and economic development called ‘Reinventer Paris’ (Reinventing Paris). The challenge encouraged architects and designers to propose creative buildings on specific sites in the city. These projects are intended to change the way that residents and visitors interact with the city. It’s the government stepping in to say, “We like to be known for our history and our innovation, so we’re willing to take some risks.”

I am trained as an Urban Planner, but find the restrictions inherent in planning to be quite maddening. I love the idea of allowing developers to take their best shot at proposing what they deem to be the highest and best use for a site, but requiring tradeoffs to get to that point. Perhaps the development offers a historical element, exceptional energy savings, or a new material. It has to prove that it’s worth the increased height, density, or change in use, and it must engage with the rest of the city. I understand the danger of allowing this, and the complications with citizen engagement and legal precedents, but our cities have the ability to endure much longer than we do, so we need to keep looking forward.

Are Parisians happy leaving the legacy of La Defense or is the integrated development of the Centre Georges Pompidou a more intriguing option? Pompidou is a beloved icon in the city, while La Defense feels like another city altogether.

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La Defense 

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Centre Georges Pompidou

 

What about a development that offers the highest cross laminated timber construction in the world, within the city? By releasing restrictions and allowing creativity to flow, we have the potential to change the built environment in a way that inspires, rather than stifles. I think it’s time for Seattle to encourage innovation in our built environment and continue to draw people from around the world for who we are and how we understand and push the limits of the changes occurring around us.

Practical Education for the Future

Educational improvements can have a direct connection with improvements in urban affordability by providing young people with the opportunity to enter well-paying jobs with fewer barriers. I strongly support preschool and primary school strategies for increasing access to a good education, but there are also programs currently in place in Washington that target the high school level. Providing financial support to these institutions and making an effort to connect students with local businesses will have positive benefits at all levels of our communities.

While interning in the Economic Development Department at the City of Burien, my team worked closely with the Puget Sound Skills Center (PSSC) to pair qualified students seeking experience with local businesses seeking talent. I was impressed with the program options at the PSSC, but also struck by the limited exposure of a program that has such practical benefits.

There are twenty skills centers in the state of Washington, funded through the state Legislature and private grants. By supplementing the work of local high schools and creating partnerships with businesses, they are capable of meeting an important need for our community as we deal with dramatic changes in employment options, technology, education funding, and higher education affordability.

The program accepts students for specific targeted tracks, such as nursing, graphic design, and marine science technology. Students participate in an accelerated learning environment while completing their high school requirements simultaneously at their home high school. Many students leave the skills centers with college credit, a certificate that allows them to work immediately, or an apprenticeship position.

This option is available to all students, and can be a supplement to traditional high school classes or a full time strategy for students who do well with alternate learning styles. In all cases, it encourages students to get involved with the local business community. For example, a partnership with Boeing helps to place aerospace engineering students in skilled jobs directly after high school graduation.

This feedback loop between education and industry is critical to the future of our city, but we must be willing to invest the resources to cultivate it. The skills centers need funding, marketing, and exposure. They provide practical skills that have the potential to change the future of a student or the student’s family, but they are not well-known and may have grossly inadequate facilities. The cost for the program is higher than traditional high school, presenting a substantial challenge in our current education funding climate, but the measurable results provide clear evidence that this type of alternative increases long term outcomes for families.

While this program may not be the answer for all students, its’ success warrants additional support. One idea is to levy a fee on new construction projects within the skill center service area to be used exclusively for capital funding needs at the centers. This would provide additional funding to maintain the quality of the facilities, with a direct benefit to the surrounding community by providing youth with the tools to be immediately productive citizens. Creative solutions to support youth education are a clear investment in the future of our city and a step toward affordability in the short and long terms.

Breaking the Tower Mold

After spending a weekend in Vancouver, a city with dramatically different urban form from Seattle, I am struck by the idea of following the herd and the possibilities of a nudge.

The common vision in and around Vancouver is towers…concrete and glass pillars that reign over the city and punctuate the surrounding suburban, rail-oriented towns. While these towers in the city center are justified, the futuristic TOD pods surrounding the city don’t integrate with the stunning natural world. I feel little inspiration when looking at these cold towers, and wonder deeply about the desires of residents in the suburban nodes. The city and surrounding suburbs clearly care about sustainability and reducing their existential footprint, but there are certainly other ways of achieving these goals in the built environment. Is the city, or are residents, calling for this type of tower development?

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Gilmore Place (Image courtesy of Onni Group)

Endless skies of towers create a certain typology for the city. It isn’t my preference, but what is the preference of the residents who are paying substantial sums to purchase units in these towers? Would they prefer another option, or do they fall in line because this is what is available? If presented with a building that doesn’t have a nearly identical design to every neighboring building, would residents care? Would the market make a choice to accept or reject the new option?

In a region that is known for its multiculturalism, I question why new development isn’t more representative of those cultural nuances? If city regulations funnel development into this narrow representation of ‘home’, I would suggest a re-evaulation of those guidelines. Planners have the ability to create a process to establish if there are alternatives that would engender more innovation and greater connection between residents and their natural environment.

Regulations could be the nudge that moves one developer beyond the mold to a different, yet equally priced, option for residents. It strikes me that the marketing of such a new option, and the press coverage, are critical to its success or failure. In addition to a policy nudge to encourage developers to provide options, I think marketers could employ more nuanced strategies, again beyond price, that steer users toward the alternative.

The greater Vancouver region is poised to accept growth in high numbers over the next 40 years, and their TOD strategy is embracing this. However, now may be the time to assess whether the city-based tower design is the best strategy for every community…or whether a nudge would change the future of suburbia for the better.