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.

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

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.


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