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Peter Steinbrueck: Our fractured metropolis (Text of the keynote from NPI’s 2011 gala)

Editor’s Note: Following the conclusion of our Spring Fundraising Gala a few days ago, we have been asked if we could make the text of Peter Steinbrueck’s keynote speech available. He has kindly agreed to do so; what follows are a polished version of his prepared remarks, delivered on April 28th at the Community Center at Mercer View on Mercer Island. We are most grateful to Peter for taking time out of his busy schedule to headline our third gala.

More to come: Next week, we anticipate recording a podcast with Peter to answer questions from readers and supporters. It’s not too late to submit a question for the podcast! You can do so either by leaving a comment in response to this post, or by directing a question for Peter to @nwprogressive on Twitter.

The United States, with over eighty percent of the population living in urban regions, is one of the most urbanized countries in the world, and third largest.

Yet these days, with all the enormous economic, environmental, and social challenges we face, it is hard to see how and where we will accommodate the additional 120 million more people the U.S. is expected to grow by over the next forty years. Still, cities are increasingly seen as the hubs for innovation, places to experience urban vitality — and as a panacea to our global economic woes.

As Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution argues, regional economies are what will make the U.S. competitive again with other developing nations… if we can recognize our interdependencies, link up, and foster economic ties among metro areas.

Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser, in his recent book, Triumph of the City, espouses environmental protection through city-building.

“If you love nature, stay out of it,” he extols.

In the coming years, the American housing market is expected to see fewer households with children — just over two people per household.

This means many more, but smaller, households will be needed.

So all those millions of newcomers are supposed to live in the concrete urban jungles and shiny towers, right?

As aging baby boomers dump their oversized homes, a massive shift to rentals is beginning to occur. We may even see McMansions converting to multi-families –  hmmm, perhaps a good thing? – if local land use controls will allow them.

We might not need so many towers then!

Another worry is disaster readiness and resilience. In addition to some of these demographic changes, cities are going to have to get used to responding to more frequent disasters, whether from earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, bush fires, or  other severe weather catastrophes related to the climate crisis.

As they say, “change is coming,” yet by and large, cities in the U.S. are handcuffed by state governments through restrictions at every level on land use, self-regulation, and revenue raising. (For a more in-depth discussion about this problem, check out City Bound, by Gerald Frug and David Barron).

Outside of major cities, the metro regions, where most people live, fair even worse when it comes to reach of regulatory authority and revenue collection. Very few full service metro or regional governments with any land use control even exist in the U.S. (Portland, San Francisco, and Minneapolis are some of the few).

In Western Washington, home to hundreds of local governments, our jurisdictional boundaries have very little to do with how we live and even where we work. Just think about it — how often do you cross the boundaries of the city or town where you live to go to work, to recreate, or to shop?

Three or four times a week, or three times a day?

Though we don’t identify as such, we are all regional citizens living in a giant, invisible regional city. The Seattle metro region is a large and multi-faceted area encompassing 5,894 square miles and includes thirty-one cities and towns, and dozens of employment centers. What do you call home?

Says Amando Carbonell, Senior Planning Fellow at Harvard’s Lincoln Land Institute:

We live in regions – territories defined primarily by function and only rarely by jurisdiction. The places where we work, live, shop, recreate, and socialize constitute a territory that seldom corresponds to a single town or city. Regional planning is concerned less with the exercise of jurisdiction and more with the search for new forms of habitation based on a clear commitment to advancing sustainability.

Even if we do live and work in the same town, the ecological fall out of our day-to-day living patterns will be felt upstream and downstream throughout the region. (For more, read Peter Calthorpe’s The Regional City).

And now, my central point: A regional approach is particularly appropriate for managing land use, water, utilities growth, and transportation, and for addressing the climate crisis. Take Seattle’s audacious goal of achieving carbon neutrality.

Absent from the carbon analysis are contributions from external, yet urban-generated sources such as SeaTac International Airport, where GHG emissions, largely from jet take-offs and landings (4,650,000 metric tons), are equivalent to nearly seventy percent of Seattle’s total annual output (6.770,000 metric tons).

If the goal is to seriously cut carbon emissions and advance urban sustainability, all this focus on densifying the urban core of the hub city may be grossly misplaced. Take Vancouver, B.C., for example… they’re easily twenty years ahead of us in both planning for center city urban density, and serious regional planning.

Still, even with an impressive jungle of dense residential high-rises – one of the densest urban cores in North America – the metro Vancouver area has outstripped the City of Vancouver’s growth rate by more than four times that of the center city.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the strong urban growth emphasis, it’s just the typical city is way too small an area, and with marginal impact on the regional urban ecosystem. Though cities by themselves can have an impact (because politically, they can address issues in ways that counties and unincorporated areas cannot), cities are still inseparable from the metro area they lie within.

My second point: There is more than one type of “sustainable lifestyle,” and to solve the climate crisis, we do not all have to live in the urban core, or even the hub city. Suburban cities and towns, where most people in the United States live, need to be seen as a large part of the solution. For too long, the suburbs have been the favorite whipping boy of density urbanites and big city-centric elitists.

High-towered city life is not the only environmental option; a regional solution can offer a range of lifestyles and community types– without compromising, and possibly even improving urban/regional ecologies.

“We now lead regional lives, and our metropolitan form and governance needs to reflect the new realty,” says Peter Calthorpe, architect, author, and co-founder of the Congress of New Urbanism.

A well planned and functionally efficient region that combines aggressive conservation strategies, good transit systems, green technologies can offer many types of sustainable lifestyles.

Turning now to the issues and challenges of cleaning up Puget Sound, it was over twenty years ago in May 1989 that Senator Warren G. Magnuson (in his final address to Congress), warned of the perils of allowing oil tankers into Puget Sound.

He said:

Puget Sound is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Its contribution to Washington’s economy, environment, and special quality of life cannot begin to be calculated.

Puget Sound is the second largest marine estuary in the United States. From land, the sea still holds much beauty. Yet keeping it clean is easily the single biggest, most intractable environmental challenge facing Washington State today.

The iconic Chinook salmon, along with twenty other marine animals, are endangered. Our dwindling pods of orcas are among the mammals most contaminated with PCB on Earth, and entire marine ecosystems are dying off.

Millions of pounds of toxic pollution flow into Puget Sound every year – mostly from storm water runoff and combined sewer overflows, carrying deadly poisonous chemicals from urban areas to the sea.

In one of the so-called “greenest” states in the country, why can’t we stop polluting Puget Sound?

Well here’s why: The Puget Sound basin, home to 4.4 million people, is bordered by ninety cities and towns and an unfathomable maze of overlapping jurisdictions and regulatory agencies. They share in common a local economy (aerospace, software, global shipping) and networked urban infrastructure (airports, roads, utilities, energy, water, food distribution network).

Yet no one agency controls this infrastructure, and as Kathy Fletcher, founder of People for Puget Sound says, “[O]ur biggest challenge now, is the fragmentation of decision-making and lack of enforcement of existing regulations.”

It’s been over four decades since Senator Warren G. Magnuson first warned of a looming “environmental catastrophe” facing Puget Sound.

Today, it’s not the oil tankers but unmanaged urbanization –that is the single biggest threat to the health of the Sound.

The spread of hard impervious pavement, the proliferation of cars, trucks, and steady increasing amount of miles traveled in automobiles (measured in VMT) is, more than any other source, responsible for the continuous poisoning of Puget Sound and its tributaries, which is where our communities are located.

If we allow Puget Sound to atrophy, so too, will our economy, and our way of life in the Northwest. Consider this: By 2040, the region is expected to grow by nearly two million more people — two million more people!!

My third point: Puget’s Sound’s failing health is symptomatic of our fractured metropolis – and the marine die-off will continue until there is a Puget Sound-size solution to deal with this enormous problem.

So what can be done about it?

Implementing a bold plan for the future requires coordination and consolidation of local power. We might start with recognizing our common interests, building strong political coalitions and strengthening our collective political might in Olympia.

Instead of waiting for our fractious semi-dysfunctional state legislature to solve all these problems, how about we form a regional congress of local governments that would permit us to better work together to advance regional interests?

Rather than let power divided us through infighting and turf wars, create an institution for intra-local priority setting and inter-local decision-making that can empower us in Olympia?

Puget Sound’s ill-health cannot wait another 30 years.

I propose we form a new Congress of Puget Sound, consisting of democratically elected representatives of municipalities that could be a strong, common voice for the region while preserving local independence at the municipal level.

Local representatives from Bellevue, Tukwila, Bremerton and other towns and cities would still set the agenda.

If the Europeans can do it through the mechanism of the E.U., comprising twenty-seven nations, then we surely can!

Thank you very much.

QUESTIONS FOR PETER? Leave a comment below!

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  1. By Morning Rundown for May 11th, 2011 on May 11th, 2011 at 9:38 AM

    […] Peter Steinbrueck: Our fractured metropolis (Text of the keynote from NPI’s 2011 gala) […]