NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, May 9th, 2011

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

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