Live coverage from the Crosscut Festival
Live coverage from the Crosscut Festival

In the sec­ond after­noon ses­sion of the Cross­cut Fes­ti­val, the may­ors of Seat­tle, Van­cou­ver, B.C., and Port­land came togeth­er to dis­cuss what makes their cities and our region great, as well as the chal­lenges. The mod­er­a­tor was Knute Berger.

Berg­er start­ed with some fun­ny com­men­tary on Van­cou­ver May­or Gre­gor Robert­son. He not­ed that many of Robert­son’s con­stituents are obsessed with his fitness.

“You’re like a walk­ing adver­tise­ment for Cana­di­an health­care” he said, to much laugh­ter, and set­ting a tone of con­ge­nial­i­ty for the discussion.

Berg­er then turned his sights to Seat­tle May­or Jen­ny Durkan. He asked Durkan if it was true that she was once in a Rainier beer com­mer­cial, which she said was correct.

“If you make that fact more known, you’re gonna walk to re-elec­tion,” Berg­er quipped.

Final­ly Berg­er got down to busi­ness, and brought up how Cas­ca­dia is rapid­ly urban­iz­ing. Talk­ing to Robert­son, he not­ed how we used to hear a lot about “the Van­cou­ver mir­a­cle,” and how they were held up as a city to admire and emu­late. Many peo­ple saw Seat­tle as the next Van­cou­ver. Now that invest­ment spec­u­la­tion has sub­stan­tial­ly raised prop­er­ty val­ues in Van­cou­ver, should we wor­ry about what it means to be the next Vancouver?

Robert­son said that there are cer­tain­ly lessons to learn about glob­al cap­i­tal. Peo­ple from out­side of the coun­try buy­ing prop­er­ty in the city as invest­ment prop­er­ties def­i­nite­ly makes it hard for peo­ple liv­ing there now who don’t own prop­er­ty. He not­ed that half the peo­ple in Van­cou­ver are renters, so the city is focused on build­ing rental hous­ing and mak­ing it as afford­able as possible.

He con­tin­ued by say­ing that Van­cou­ver was a bit of a vic­tim of its own suc­cess. There have been lots of ben­e­fits of how the city has grown, but it is chal­leng­ing to man­age. He said the city has to use every sin­gle tool pos­si­ble to build afford­able hous­ing, with a spe­cial focus on those who are most vul­ner­a­ble, but afford­able hous­ing is need­ed even for mid­dle income peo­ple. He notes that one mis­take Van­cou­ver made was try­ing one thing at a time to address hous­ing afford­abil­i­ty, but that he now real­izes that they should have done all of it togeth­er from the start.

Berg­er next asked Wheel­er if his city of Port­land is deserved­ly seen as bril­liant in terms of its urban planning.

Wheel­er said that “no city lives up to it’s own hype,” to which Durkan jumped in and dis­agreed, prompt­ing laughs from the audience.

Wheel­er con­tin­ued, explain­ing that many years ago Port­land cre­at­ed an urban growth bound­ary, out­side of which farm­lands and the char­ac­ter of neigh­bor­hoods would be pre­served, with greater den­si­ty inside the bound­ary implied but not yet imple­ment­ed as it was­n’t need­ed at the time that plan was made. But since that plan was made many years ago, all the new peo­ple that have come to Port­land in recent years weren’t in the city when that deal was struck, so they are not hap­py about the upzone that the city is cur­rent­ly try­ing to implement.

“We can’t stop growth, we can only man­age it,” Wheel­er said. Peo­ple gen­er­al­ly think the growth man­age­ment plan makes sense, but they are not hap­py now that it is time to imple­ment it. He said it has now become a con­ver­sa­tion about views vs. den­si­ty. How­ev­er, he notes, if growth and den­si­ty aren’t man­aged inten­tion­al­ly, and geared to spe­cif­ic areas, the spir­it of the town and the things peo­ple like, includ­ing walk­a­bil­i­ty and com­plete neigh­bor­hoods with their own unique char­ac­ter, will be lost.

Wheel­er knows that if he does the right thing, and push­es through with the upzone inside the urban growth bound­ary, he may only serve one term, and he is fine with that. He notes that if he did not get re-elect­ed, he would be the fourth Port­land May­or in a row to only serve one term.

Berg­er then addressed Durkan. He not­ed how in response to Ama­zon’s announce­ment that they would be open­ing up a sec­ond head­quar­ters, that some peo­ple thought Seat­tle should apol­o­gize to Ama­zon. He asked if Durkan agreed with that thinking.

Durkan did not direct­ly answer the ques­tion. She said her per­spec­tive is longer term, hav­ing grown up in Seat­tle. She not­ed how the city changed overnight in the 1970s when there were mas­sive lay­offs from Boeing.

“We’ve seen cycles where busi­ness­es come and go. The ques­tion real­ly is, what is the best future for Seat­tle? How do we keep a vibrant econ­o­my but keep the things peo­ple love about the city?”

Her answer was that we have to be inten­tion­al. “We want to keep employ­ers like Ama­zon, but we have to think about the peo­ple that are being pushed out or left behind,” she said. “We need to take Van­cou­ver’s advice.”

Next Berg­er asked each may­or to iden­ti­fy the biggest chal­lenge fac­ing their city.

Durkan answered first, stat­ing that cur­rent­ly it is afford­abil­i­ty, but that we also need to look to the future.

Robert­son said that for Van­cou­ver it is afford­abil­i­ty and also trans­porta­tion and tran­sit. At this Durkan chimed in that tran­sit is impor­tant as it is part of afford­abil­i­ty, and is also an equi­ty issue.

Wheel­er answered that for Port­land the biggest chal­lenge is address­ing income inequal­i­ty, diver­si­ty, and equi­ty. He feels that gen­er­al­ly, gov­ern­ment has failed to acknowl­edge rapid­ly-chang­ing demo­graph­ics. He says Port­land has worked hard to adjust eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment goals and plans with equi­ty and chang­ing demo­graph­ics in mind.

He thinks that nation­al­ly, cities are tak­ing the lead.

Durkan fol­lowed to say that “noth­ing good will be com­ing out of D.C. for the next three years.” If we want to move for­ward on any­thing pro­gres­sive, it has to come from the cities or states, she says. A lot of it is real­ly going to come from the urban cen­ters, because that is where we are see­ing the biggest chal­lenges, but also where there are the resources to make changes.

“You will see lead­er­ship up and down the West Coast,” Durkan said.

Berg­er returned to his com­e­dy to ask Robert­son if Cana­da was up for a trade, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau in exchange for Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

After Robert­son gave a laugh­ing “no,” Berg­er asked his real ques­tion, which was if Van­cou­ver was fac­ing any provin­cial or nation­al issues like Amer­i­ca’s Cas­ca­dia cities are deal­ing with.

Robert­son said that before Trudeau became PM two years ago, they were fac­ing a hos­tile fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that was very dif­fi­cult for cities to deal with. That gov­ern­ment was not con­cerned about the envi­ron­ment or issues of afford­abil­i­ty in the cities.

“it was dif­fi­cult but not quite as col­or­ful as Trump,” Robert­son joked. “It was more bor­ing and grey,” he said, not­ing that this seemed to almost be part of the strat­e­gy. He says may­ors across Cana­da were orga­niz­ing and work­ing togeth­er sim­i­lar to how US cities are com­ing togeth­er now.

Pan­elists were next asked which cities inspire them.

Wheel­er first humor­ous­ly said Van­cou­ver and Seat­tle. Then he said that out­side of this region, he would say Los Ange­les. The rea­son he gave was that LA Coun­ty recent­ly passed a huge forty-year trans­porta­tion pack­age with a 71% vote.

He not­ed how often times ini­tia­tives are designed to be the small­est that peo­ple believe will get passed, but that LA instead laid out a big vision, and vot­ers respond­ed. This shows that vot­ers are ready for pub­lic offi­cials to present a big vision, and if backed up with detailed plans, vot­ers will sup­port it.

Robert­son said he is inspired by Paris, France, as they lead cli­mate work among cities glob­al­ly and feels the may­or is doing a good job with all of the com­plex issues Paris deals with. He said he also admires Yoko­hama, Japan, which is focused on becom­ing a 100% renew­able ener­gy city. He then not­ed that both of these cities have female may­ors, so per­haps more female may­ors would be a good thing.

“Seat­tle is still the city that inspires me the most,” Durkan said. She notes how peo­ple in Seat­tle are will­ing to tax them­selves to make things bet­ter in the city. She also appre­ci­ates Seat­tle’s arts, cul­ture, and civic life.

Berg­er next asked each may­or what big dreams they have for their city or region.

Durkan said that her dream is build­ing the city on equi­ty, so that “every kid in Seat­tle knows they can do any­thing they want to do,” with every­body of dif­fer­ent eco­nom­ic, racial, and reli­gious back­grounds all liv­ing and work­ing together.

Robert­son said that he has the same dream as Durkan. He not­ed that Van­cou­ver also has put a big focus on rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with indige­nous cul­tures, draw­ing light applause from the crowd. He con­tin­ued that green­ing cities is impor­tant, and not­ed that it dove­tails with the equi­ty aspect.

Wheel­er closed out the pan­el with a strong answer, say­ing that he wants our cities to be communities.

“Polit­i­cal dis­course in our coun­try has become tox­ic and we are sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er,” he said. Our cities are work­able but are not real­ly com­mu­ni­ties, espe­cial­ly not in the sense of Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr’s “beloved community.”

“You can’t top Mar­tin Luther King, Jr in terms of that vision,” Wheel­er said. “Peo­ple are hun­ger­ing for that.


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