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LIVE from the Crosscut Festival: Mayors of Cascadia

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.