MAKING IT WORK
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EARTHQUAKES AND SEATTLE – IMPROVING OUR EMERGENCY PLANS
The Council has held a series of briefings and discussions reviewing the disastrous earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan over the last few months (an exercise for the reader: what section of the Pacific Rim has not yet had a major earthquake in recent years? Hint: you live there.)
Our goal has been to discover lessons we can learn from the experience of these areas, and to review the current state of our preparedness planning and identify areas that could be improved. In response, we have funded the next stage of work on upgrading unreinforced masonry buildings and on developing recovery strategies. We are also continuing to review seismic upgrades to city infrastructure and improving public preparedness.
Seattle has a very good emergency preparedness network and is one of the best-prepared areas of the country for managing the impact of a major earthquake or other disaster. But it is hard to know how effective these plans will be in a disaster as far-reaching as these major earthquakes have been, and we must be constantly looking for ways to improve our planning and to integrate new ideas that emerge from the experience of others.
Public attention in disasters usually focuses on the immediate effects and efforts to save lives and rescue those in danger. While this is a critically important task, modern thinking about preparedness for disasters such as earthquakes has expanded the discussion to the concept of 'resilience'. It is not enough to simply save lives and take care of the injured: the goal is to have a system in place that will allow economic and community to return to thriving as quickly, efficiently, and effectively as possible. The efforts required to cover the full range of addressing the impacts of disasters can be summarized in a four word mantra: Resist, Absorb, Recover, Adapt. The goal is to have a physical and social infrastructure in place that can take the expected blows, suffer the least amount of damage, and be prepared to get systems back into operation as the new normal is established.
While we have excellent building codes in Seattle, review of the Japan experience in particular illuminated the differences between our two approaches. Seattle codes are designed to protect lives; what happens to the buildings is of less significance, as long as the people in them can be protected and escape the building. Japanese code is evolving towards a different test of effectiveness: in a nation of frequent earthquakes, their new buildings are designed not just to protect lives, but to sustain minimal structural damage, so that the buildings can be restored quickly. It's expensive, but Japan has decided that it is worth it.
While we should review our building codes to consider this approach, we have more urgent code issues that the New Zealand experience illuminates. The buildings that suffered the most damage and cost the most lives in Christchurch were older buildings that had not been built to modern codes. Our biggest concern here are unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings – like those in much of Pioneer Square, these are multi-story buildings that are very vulnerable to collapse. We have already been studying them, and have determined that there are around 800 in Seattle.
Retrofitting them is expensive. The City's next steps are to convene stakeholders and consider policy approaches, which could include voluntary guidelines, labeling to warn prospective tenants, mandatory retrofit, zoning incentives for demolition, codes that incentivize façade retention for historic preservation, and tax incentives for retrofit. Because of the potential costs, the City has moved carefully in its process of developing a specific strategy, and the ultimate solution is likely to be a combination of those measures. Our review suggests we need to avoid further delay, and the next stage of policy development is funded in the 2012 budget.
Some City infrastructure also needs upgrading to be earthquake resistant. We are in the final stages of completing the seismic retrofit of all of our fire stations (the irony of having vulnerable fire stations did not escape us when the City planned the 2004 Fire Facilities Levy!). There are, however, also utility structures that need additional mitigation work, although much progress has been made in those Departments. The largest area of unfunded seismic retrofit need is in transportation. While the replacement of the South Park Bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct takes cares of the two most vulnerable structures in the City, there are a variety of other structures that need seismic work. The City will have to continue to look for new funding resources.
Recovery planning is the key to resilience. The City and community must be confident, prepared, skilled, and ready to get to work. While we have been working to get neighborhood disaster hubs implemented around the City and to educate the public, we must do more if we are going to recover quickly when (not if) the major earthquake hits Seattle. Working with our Office of Emergency Management, we have identified a set of actions that we should undertake to more fully develop our recovery planning, and the Council has funded a consultant contract to help us move ahead.
In the long run, experience tells us that the biggest barrier to recovery from a disaster is poverty. Our best long range strategy is to keep strengthening our economy, which will provide the resources to get recovery going, and to help our families get out of poverty so that they have the education and personal resources to fuel their own recovery. Social resilience pays off in emergency management. There are so many great reasons to work to reduce poverty, and emergency preparedness is one more to add.
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FOUR TRUTHS ABOUT THE ROOSEVELT REZONE
On Wednesday, December 14, a major legislative rezone in the Roosevelt neighborhood was voted out of the Committee on the Built Environment (COBE). The legislation will come to Full Council on Tuesday, January 17. The only issue of controversy was whether the three blocks south of Roosevelt High School would be rezoned to allow buildings up to 40 or up to 65 feet high. Councilmembers present voted 5 to 3 in favor of the 65 foot height limit. I would have voted for the 65 foot height as well, but I was out sick that day.
It is ironic that this significant land use action is being defined by the controversy over the 'High School Blocks'. The City and the Roosevelt neighborhood deserve better. Here's why this legislative process turned sour, and what I think could prevent similar problems in the future.
Truth One: The City botched the process.
When neighborhood planning began in the 1990's, the City gave firm targets to neighborhoods and asked them to plan to meet those targets – and decide what else the neighborhood needed to make that work. Roosevelt was given a Comprehensive Plan growth target of an additional 250 units, and in 1999 the neighborhood endorsed zoning changes to achieve that goal. When the voters approved funding for Sound Transit in 1996, the City and Sound Transit began planning a light rail system with a station in Roosevelt.
In 2005 Sound Transit suggested that it bypass the Roosevelt neighborhood business core and place an elevated station near I-5 instead. The neighborhood rallied under the banner of 'YIMFY' (Yes, In My Front Yard) and persuaded the City and Sound Transit Board to commit to spending tens of millions of dollars to run the light rail tunnel through Roosevelt and put the station underground in the heart of the neighborhood. This was the missed opportunity: when the City should have followed up by identifying a new growth target and neighborhood planning process for Roosevelt. Unfortunately, it was still seen as so far in the future that the City put its energy elsewhere – leaving the neighborhood to develop its own plan using Neighborhood Matching Fund dollars.
Four years later, a planned rezone finally reached the Council – with DPD's analysis of the neighborhood's plan, and a revised City proposal sponsored by the Mayor vying for attention – to be followed this September by a revised neighborhood proposal that proposed more density than the Mayor, but in different places. Instead of a low key modest revision, the debate became one over a major rewrite to create transit oriented zoning – some eight years before the Roosevelt station is scheduled to open! And with the added complication of a quasi-judicial rezone proposed for a large portion of the neighborhood. It's not surprising that the result was confusion and a perception by the neighborhood that the City policy approach had shifted from a leisurely pace and modest goals to a fast track and much more ambitious goals. This escalated the tension between the City and the neighborhood.
We can do better – and should have. We must provide more clarity for neighborhoods, a clearer timeline, and a more organized process. Next year, the Council will have the opportunity to create a clear policy for transit oriented development that can describe the goals any neighborhood effort must meet for zoned capacity. It's too late to give this kind of clarity to Roosevelt, but hopefully other neighborhoods will have better direction.
Truth Two: Overheated rhetoric polarized the issue unnecessarily.
Some advocates accused the neighborhood of being 'against density' or even 'against transit', because there were concerns about the zoning proposals. This is an insult to the hard work and clarity of vision that Roosevelt has demonstrated over and over again, and damaging to the process of working towards a rational conclusion.
On the other hand, we are now hearing that the City Council has 'destroyed neighborhood planning' and 'caved to developers' because we approved an additional 25 feet of height on three blocks in the neighborhood. This is both a misread of the role of neighborhood planning and demeaning to the civic dialogue. The City Council has the legal responsibility for making decisions; neighborhood planning is an opportunity for the community to help shape those decisions by developing proposals for the Council to consider. The Council takes these plans very seriously, and has generally approved 95% or more of the proposals coming from neighborhoods, as we will in Roosevelt. That is a validation of neighborhood planning – and demonstrates how worthwhile it is. The City must do a better job of partnering with neighborhoods and providing clear guidance so that there is greater shared understanding of goals and constraints.
Truth Three: Height is a means, not an end.
Sadly, this wound up as a polarized debate. One side claimed that this 25 foot difference in height was the determining factor as to whether transit oriented development (TOD) will be real. The other asserted that it would determine whether neighborhood character would be preserved. The fact is that the 50 or 60 units of development that will be added are helpful for TOD, but are only a small portion of the estimated 800 or so units that will be added in other places. Similarly, the additional height could have impacts, but setbacks and other zoning conditions can protect views and ensure good design.
Height by itself does not tell much about the quality of the development. Advocating for height is substituting a fairly arbitrary position for what will actually have impact. Buildings of different heights can be good or bad for a neighborhood. The real impacts include design, shadow effects, view corridors, and appropriate relationship to adjacent zoning. Those are the issues that the City Council took into account in concluding that the interests of the neighborhood can be met at the higher height. More height makes it easier for development to have flexibility in design and setbacks and still work financially. Shadow effects and view corridors can be managed with the appropriate standards. And a height of 65 feet steps down very well to the adjacent 40 vote zoning on the east and south sides of these blocks, and steps up well to the 85 foot zoning on the west side.
Truth Four: Surprisingly, the outcome is a win for the City and for the Roosevelt neighborhood.
So the City gets a well designed transit oriented development plan that will ensure that the Roosevelt Station and light rail line serve the community efficiently. The City also gets a significant amount of workforce/affordable housing that is available to people around the median income (who generally cannot afford single family houses in Seattle). The City can also implement the vast majority of recommendations for design, view corridors, a green street, and other elements developed by the neighborhood through its planning process. And the City gets the first step towards eliminating the blight created by the Sisley properties.
These are all wins for the neighborhood as well. I am aware that there is an undercurrent of resentment because zoning changes will lead to Mr. Sisley making more money. Unfortunately, as the past decades have clearly demonstrated, our legal system does not have the tools to address effectively the issues associated with his property. Indeed, while the City has collected some fines from Mr. Sisley, we have over $400,000 in fines that have been levied but are tied up in legal proceedings. While we are hoping to be able to ultimately use the 'chronic nuisance property abatement' ordinance to take control of at least some of his properties, that will be another long process, and we are going to be able to prevent him from making more money when redevelopment takes place. The Council's judgment is that the community will be better off when the blight adjacent to the high school is removed.
A collaborative process between the developer and neighborhood representatives is already underway to help ensure the best possible project design and fit within the neighborhood for the potential development.
Again, I wish that the City had given clear goals and guidelines to the neighborhood back in 2006. We must learn from this experience and provide this kind of information to other neighborhoods. However, I think the Council has acted responsibly and effectively in making a set of good decisions that will work in the long run for the Roosevelt neighborhood and for Seattle. I expect that on January 17 the Full Council will vote in favor of the Committee proposal.
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RESTAURANTS WILL BE FIRST TEST OF REFORMING THE CITY PERMIT PROCESS
City Departments have taken the first steps towards the reform of our business permit process, in response to a Statement of Legislative Intent (SLI) included in the 2011 budget. The initial step will be to test a new way of processing restaurant licensing, and it will be underway early next year.
The SLI that my office initiated was aimed towards ultimately creating a 'One-Stop Licensing' program, like those being developed in many other cities. Businesses have long bemoaned the multiplicity of regulatory and licensing requirements in Seattle. When we investigated this, we were surprised to find that there was not even a central listing or inventory of the permits that the City requires!
We therefore asked the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) to identify and categorize all City-issued licenses and permits required to open and operate a business in Seattle. We also asked them to work with departments to analyze the original purpose of each license and permit requirement and analyze whether the license or permit continues to achieve its intended purpose. The ultimate goal would be to identify opportunities for consolidation or change in licensing and permitting requirements, and to analyze the feasibility of developing a Master Licensing system (one stop license and permit service).
The initial results are now in, and FAS has agreed to initiate the first test of its ability to consolidate. This test will be in the restaurant industry, one of the case study examples from other cities. New York City claims that they have cut the permitting time by 75 to 80% for new restaurants as a result of their new one-stop approach. FAS will test this in 2012.
At the same time, research on other opportunities for permit reform will continue. By the end of the first quarter of 2012, FAS expects to have a systems analysis of what other consolidation opportunities exist. They are cautious about the prognosis – they note that their current estimate is that it will cost about $300,000 per industry to convert software and build a consolidated system. According to their numbers, New York City spent $1.5 million on its permit reform program.
While it is true that these kinds of expenses may be difficult to budget, especially in the current economic situation, it is also true that the only way we will generate more revenue (and more jobs) is through the growth and expansion of our businesses. If permit consolidation makes Seattle more attractive and a better place to do business, and if reduced permitting costs mean that more entrepreneurs will be able to start businesses, then these kinds of expenditures can really pay off. We will eagerly watch the rollout for restaurant permitting, and look forward to seeing the next set of analyses.
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PLASTIC BAGS BANNED
On Monday, December 19,the Council unanimously approved Council Bill 117345 that bans plastic bags at retail checkout stands and requires retail establishments to collect a pass-through charge from customers requesting paper carryout bags. The legislation is modeled after ordinances successfully adopted by the Cities of Edmonds and Bellingham, and was sponsored and championed by Councilmember Mike O'Brien.
This ordinance is a significant implementation step for the Zero Waste Initiative, which I sponsored and which was approved by the Council in 2007. Under the Zero Waste Initiative, the City for the first time made a commitment to not just increase recycling, but to actually reduce the waste that the City ships by train to a landfill in Arlington, Oregon. As a result of the successful implementation of an array of programs, most notably home organics collection and increased recycling of construction and demolition waste, Seattle has actually reduced its solid waste disposal by more than 20% over the last three years, from 438,000 tons to 352,000 tons.
Banning disposable products where there is a readily available substitute is one of the strategic directions set by the Zero Waste Initiative. The Council implemented the first of these in 2008, banning Styrofoam containers and requiring that restaurants and takeout food services use only biodegradable or recyclable containers, plates, and utensils. The Council worked with the restaurant industry to exempt certain products where the substitutes did not work well (such as biodegradable spoons, which tended to biodegrade in hot soups…). However, other than that, the bans have been fully implemented, and have successfully diverted large quantities of waste.
In August, 2008, the Council adopted an ordinance regulating carry-out bags in an effort to increase the use of reusable bags. Rather than banning the products, that ordinance required grocers to charge 20 cents for each plastic and paper bag given to a customer. It was a sophisticated attempt to use market forces to address the environmental issues with both plastic and paper. Unfortunately, the complexity of the ordinance made it easy for the plastics industry to pick it apart, and they spent $1.4 million collecting signatures on a referendum and successfully campaigning to get the ordinance repealed.
It is our hope that this new and simpler ordinance will be easier to understand and will go into effect. Studies have clearly demonstrated that the production, use and disposal of plastic carryout bags have significant adverse impacts on the environment. Plastic carryout bags are made of nonrenewable resources. Plastic never biodegrades and only breaks down into smaller and smaller particles which seep into soils or are carried into rivers and lakes, Puget Sound and the world's oceans posing a threat to animal life and the natural food chain. Single-use paper carryout bags are made from renewable resources and are less of a litter problem than single-use plastic carryout bags, but nevertheless require significant resources to manufacture, transport and recycle or dispose of.
Under the new ordinance, retail establishment are prohibited from providing single-use plastic carryout bags, and are required to collect a pass-through charge of not less than five-cents for each recyclable paper carryout bag provided to customers. There are exemptions for people receiving food assistance and for food banks. Smaller bags and bags used inside the stores to package bulk items are exempt.
Those 'free' bags that are provided at checkout counters are not free, of course. The cost of those bags are included in every item that a customer purchases. Reusable bags are readily available as a substitute for disposable bags, and a ban on plastic bags and a modest charge for paper bags (which goes to the store, not the City) will fairly allocate costs and environmental responsibilities. This simple and effective step towards waste reduction will make a difference to marine life and to Seattle's solid waste disposal costs. It is a win-win for consumers, stores, and the environment.
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ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT COMMISSION CREATED
On Monday, December 12, the City Council unanimously approved Council Bill 117362 creating an Economic Development Commission to advise and provide recommendations to the Mayor and City Council on the development of plans, policies, regulations and strategies regarding fundamental issues that have substantial impact on sustainable and equitable economic development and job creation in the City of Seattle.
This Commission is an implementation step for City Council Resolution 31282, adopted in April of 2011, which endorsed a program of specific economic development goals and actions to strengthen and grow Seattle's economy. As the effects of this deep recession continue to challenge the local and national economies, the Council has kept working on ways to promote job creation in Seattle. Our goal is to have Seattle lead the way out of the current recession, rather than trailing the national recovery, as we have in the last several recessions.
Economic recovery is our most important priority – getting people back to work and stemming the tide of home foreclosures is critical for the health of Seattle's families. It is also the only way that the City can effectively manage our budget challenges. Only a return to economic vitality will reduce the strain on our human services programs and restore revenues so that we can fund the other important elements of City services. Parks and libraries have already been cut to the minimum level of service before closing facilities. While we have maintained essential human services and public safety programs, this will become increasingly challenging in 2013 unless City economic activity and revenues rebound.
Recognizing these facts, the Council has approved two major policy initiatives, in 2009 and 2011, designed to do what we can to foster economic recovery. These policies were shaped in consultation with experts in economic development from business, labor, and the academic community. The idea for an Economic Development Commission came from these consultations. There was general agreement that the City must treat economic development as an ongoing priority, and that having a formal body that would advise the City on this topic would be an important way to help the Mayor and Council continue to focus on economic development. The Commission will be a forum to ensure that there will be a flow of advice from key individuals involved in economic policy meeting regularly to work through ideas and formulate policy recommendations.
Seattle has a dynamic business community, and we have reached the point where we are, in fact, recovering faster than the rest of the country. The question is whether we can continue to leverage our core strengths of iconic companies with global reach, a thriving urban industrial and maritime base, and a talented and highly-skilled workforce to reach full recovery and meet the continuing challenges of economic change.
The Commission will consist of ten members, representing a variety of economic perspectives, including small, medium, and large businesses, different types of industries, organized labor, neighborhood businesses, minority and women owned businesses, local economic professionals, and representatives of post-high school educational institutions. The Council and Mayor will share in the process of making appointments, and we expect the Commission to be up and running early in 2012.
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ASTHMA AND INDOOR AIR QUALITY – SUCCESSFUL PROGRAMS
The Master Home Environmentalist program of the American Lung Association and the Healthy Homes Program of the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health have complementary approaches to addressing the rising problem of childhood asthma and other consequences of indoor air pollution. The good news is that both approaches are demonstrating significant successes!
The Master Home Environmentalist (MHE) program has been operating for almost 20 years (disclaimer: I oversaw this program in its first incarnation, at Metrocenter YMCA, before I became a Councilmember). The MHE program assists people in identifying health and environmental concerns at home and taking steps to reduce their exposure to indoor pollutants. Indoor air problems may result in asthma, learning disabilities, allergies, cancer, lung disease and other illnesses, and has been identified by EPA as a critical air pollution concern.
The MHE program trains staff and volunteers to administer a survey that identifies potential problems and possible remedies. The survey was developed by the late John Roberts, a chemical engineer who inspired the program. Most of the measures that can reduce or eliminate indoor air quality problems are either no or low cost, including behavioral changes such as not permitting smoking in the house, using efficient vacuums and door mats, improving ventilation, and controlling allergens.
The City partially funds this program, and it is delivering results. In 2010, an estimated 1600 residents were reached through community events, 207 home assessments were done, and 131 families changed their behavior, while 30 visits resulted in landlords making changes, including 13 making structural improvements. All of these goals are on track to be exceeded in 2011, and the landlord-tenant program has already performed 126 assessments and seen 23 structural changes made. These changes will pay off in improved health, especially for children.
Public Health has completed more than 1200 visits throughout King County specifically targeted at reducing asthma. The Healthy Homes program has documented decreases in visits to urgent health facilities of 40 to 70% in the homes visited, saving at least five times the cost of the program.
While both of these programs have been effective in dealing with indoor air problems, there is still a gap between having the best indoor air quality environment and what landlords are generally willing to invest in. Ultimately, much of our housing stock needs to be upgraded or replaced in order to fully address the problems associated with indoor air quality. Seattle Housing Authority has pioneered a new model for replacement housing, the "Breathe Easy Home" in its redevelopment of High Point, which has shown significant positive effects.
The Board of Health is considering what regulatory actions might be taken to improve substandard housing. An estimated 4300 children under 5 still live in homes with lead paint! Code provisions can require new homes to be built using healthy standards, which can be done at minimal cost. Renovation of existing homes, however, can be more expensive, and the Board of Health will have to balance the health impacts with the potential loss of affordable housing. One option is to create renovation guidelines, which will help landlords determine what steps they should take without creating legal requirements. Pursuing code requirements for renovations will necessitate careful examination to determine which provisions are most effective and affordable to property owners.
All three of these approaches – the MHE survey, the Health Department visits to homes with asthma, and possible code requirements or guidelines – are important steps to take to address this significant health concern.
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SEATTLE'S RED BARN RANCH
Did you know that the City of Seattle owns a 40 acre farm southeast of Auburn? I didn't until a few weeks ago – and last month I toured the property and discovered what an imaginative asset this can be for Seattle.
My Local Food Action Initiative (LFAI) is designed to encourage Seattle to increase the amount of local food we grow. That makes good ecological and economical sense. While we encourage people to grow food in Seattle, in their yards, in p-patch plots, and on other City properties, we know we can't grow all of the local food that Seattle would like within the City limits. So we also have to take advantage of opportunities to add new farmers and protect rural land with agricultural potential. The Red Barn Ranch is a place we already own that Seattle Tilth is now leasing for demonstrating food production, farmer training, and job creation.
Red Barn Ranch was originally donated to the City by the basketball star Elgin Baylor as a camp for inner city kids. For many years it has been operated under a lease to a non-profit that runs camps there in the summer. But much of the land area is very suitable for agriculture – and can be farmed while keeping the summer camping program going.
Seattle Tilth, which is developing an expanded role in producing local food and promoting the local food economy, approached the City a couple of years ago about leasing part of Red Barn Ranch to see if it could be a source of food for Seattle. They work with new farmers who lease plots at Red Barn Ranch and learn how to operate a farm in the Northwest. Many of the farmers are from refugee and immigrant communities, who know how to farm and are used to growing their own foods, but don't have access to land and need to adapt their skills to Northwest conditions. Seattle Tilth provides access to land and markets in Seattle, while teaching the needed skills. Farmers start with a ¼ acre plot, and can expand as they develop the skills to do so. Eventually, they will be ready to go independent, and Tilth will help them locate land and put a farm business plan into place for self-sufficiency. They began with 14 farmers, and are expanding to another 12 next year.
Seattle Tilth recently received a $487,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the program.
It's a great concept, and our tour group – which included staff from the Port of Seattle, Public Health, and other organizations – could see the potential that this land has. We are looking forward to working with Tilth to ensure that all of the arable land is brought into production – and that Seattle residents will have access to healthy food while creating income for new farmers.
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DEVELOPING HOUSING ON CITY BUILDINGS
Historically, City Departments have been very possessive about their properties and buildings. It has been very challenging to even get Departments to coordinate with each other, much less to integrate the City's properties and buildings into the fabric of neighborhoods in a proactive and positive way.
Fortunately, this attitude is changing, and the City is undertaking a pilot project to identify locations where city-owned properties and buildings would be suitable for joint development agreements. Such joint development could include leveraging multiple city funding sources to achieve community benefits, developing mixed-use urban infill on public parking lots, and identifying public/private development opportunities on public land. This could provide revenue for the City, but, more importantly, better utilize scarce resources of land and buildings, especially in denser urban neighborhoods where infill can be a major asset.
There are a few successful examples of this kind of development over the last ten years, such as:
- The Delridge Library and Neighborhood Service Center, which were built in a joint project with housing managed by the Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association (DNDA).
- The Wallingford Library, which occupies space in a mixed use building owned by Solid Ground.
- The Northgate Community Center, Park, and Library, which were jointly developed on a single piece of property east of Northgate Mall.
But these have been exceptions. Fortunately, the McGinn Administration is very interested in this concept at the same time as there has been a concerted effort to break down the barriers among City Departments and find more ways to work together on crosscutting issues. A successful example has already been announced, when the City was able to work out a development agreement that will construct a mixed use building on a former surface parking lot on 14th Avenue in Capitol Hill that is used by the Seattle Police Department. The joint project with Capitol Hill Housing will build 80 units of housing and provide arts and retail space – as well as underground parking for the police.
The new 'Sustainable Community Development Pilot Program' (which I hope staff will rename, because we just have too many 'sustainable community development' monikers), has begun analyzing the feasibility of developments on five pilot sites:
- Northgate Civic Center Parking Lot
- Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center Parking and vacant lots
- Greenwood Senior Service Center
- Fremont Towing Yard adjacent to Burke Gilman Trail
- Former West Seattle Substation near Avalon Way (currently leased to a restaurant)
We expect a report in 2012 on what the opportunities are and how these might move forward. It's a great use for City resources, and one that has potentially far reaching benefits for the communities involved.
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SEATTLE RECEIVES FIRST "HAPPINESS REPORT CARD"
Thomas Jefferson described 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' as what citizens should expect government to promote and enhance. But can we really find a way to judge ourselves based on those criteria? Usually we evaluate government – and social progress – using statistics that measure performance, most often economic performance, rather than whether people find their lives satisfying and have a sense of well-being.
Many of those statistics are useful and relevant. But a growing movement suggests that we would get a more complete picture if we used a combination of objective criteria and subjective surveys to find out whether what we are doing satisfies the priorities and goals of our people. The movement started in the country of Bhutan, is spreading around the world, and was brought to Seattle by the organization Sustainable Seattle, which was launched in the 1990's (I was one of the co-founders) to find ways to move our city towards sustainability – and to develop indicators that would help us gauge our progress.
On November 17, Sustainable Seattle released its first "happiness report card," (www.happycounts.org/overview/) and presented it to the City Council. The findings included in the report card come from a comprehensive voluntary, online survey of more than 2600 city residents, conducted during the first half of 2011. The survey measured nine "domains" of wellbeing (finances, time balance, education, access to arts and culture, environment, governance, health, mental health and social connection) and was a shorter version of a much larger survey created by United Nations-sponsored scientists for Bhutan.
So, how happy is Seattle? Fairly happy, but with some important causes for concern. Seattleites scored particularly well in such aspects of happiness as psychological health, support from friends and family, interpersonal trust and material wellbeing. But they reported important stresses from time pressure, worries about the environment and relatively low participation in their community and neighborhoods, reflecting national trends. Groups reporting lower life satisfaction included poorer residents, people living alone, middle-aged persons and 19-24 year olds.
Next steps for The Happiness Initiative in Seattle include translating the survey into several languages and holding town meetings to discuss survey findings and suggest ways to improve Seattle scores. I hope the Council will consider this data as it looks at future policy options, especially in a time of scarce resources. It could be an important way to guide our policy choices.
On July 19th, the UN asked all member governments to make "the pursuit of happiness" a central goal of public policy, and to find ways to measure their progress toward that end. The Seattle project will continue to be part of this worldwide movement, has developed a new survey instrument for the next round of surveys locally, and is working with other interested US cities. Eau Claire, Wisconsin has officially launched its version, guided by a "happiness team" including city and county governments, the chamber of commerce, the public library, local colleges (including the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire), a leading citizens' organization called Clear Vision Eau Claire, and many other groups (http://www.eauclairehappiness.com/). Victoria, BC, has been a leader in this effort, and has already conducted its own survey.
A number of other cities are looking at this idea, and I hope to conduct a workshop at the next National League of Cities conference exploring ways in which this work could be useful.
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CARBON NEUTRAL BLOG POST 15: IT'S TECHNICALLY POSSIBLE
In my last post, I noted that the Council had adopted the Carbon Neutral Goal with some confidence that it is attainable, and that part of the basis for that conclusion was the findings in the report we commissioned from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI). SEI was tasked with creating a scenario for achieving Carbon Neutrality by looking at currently available and plausible technologies and estimating what we could achieve if we were able to get those technologies widely implemented around Seattle.
The results of the SEI study provided us with solid information that there is at least one pathway to carbon neutrality that is clearly within our technical capabilities. There are many other possible pathways that were not examined, of course, and there is also a wide array of potential pathways that are not currently feasible but that could emerge as technologies evolve. And, while this report verified technical capability, it did not look at political feasibility – which may make all the difference as we actually try to implement specific strategies to maximize implementation. Building the political will and working out the ways to change culture towards a less carbon intensive way of life is the biggest political challenge. But we couldn't even begin to work on that unless we knew that there was a path forward that is technically possible.
There were three strategic outcomes that SEI identified as technically feasible and capable of reducing our emissions by 90% by 2050.
- Reducing per capita travel by light duty vehicles by 50% by implementing strategies to promote ride sharing, transit, walking, and bicycling.
- Reducing energy use in buildings and vehicles by an average of 50% per occupant in residential buildings, per square foot in commercial buildings, and per mile in vehicles.
- Transitioning to lower carbon sources for homes, businesses, and vehicles, renewables generated electricity or hydrogen, with biofuels and biomass as bridging strategies.
All of these are areas where the City has substantial influence, but cannot achieve the goals without assistance from other levels of government and engaging the cooperation and involvement of business and science. Above all, it will require building and working with a constituency of Seattle residents who will embrace the goals and explore and adopt the changes in behavior and economic strategies that will make it possible to put the policy and scientific innovations into practice.
Seattle is fortunate in having an active and engaged population, who are aware of environmental problems and determined to overcome them. The network of community-based organizations who are involved in climate change issues in many different ways is extraordinary. If we are to be successful, we must include the leadership of this network in helping to design and implement education and incentive programs, and we must work carefully with all of our residents to help craft the vision that will assure them that the carbon neutral goal is attainable while developing a richer and even more satisfying way of life. People understand that sacrifice is necessary, and are willing to make surprising sacrifices to reach immediate and compelling objectives.
But we will only keep that commitment to the long-term progress and transformation that the carbon neutral goal requires if we can truly demonstrate that it will also be a better and healthier way of life. We know that vision is possible -- but a critical task is to articulate and communicate it.
There is a tremendous amount of detail in the Getting to Zero report, which can be accessed here -- scroll down to the third paragraph and click on the link for a PDF of the whole report. I will conclude this summary by reviewing one of the critical scenarios to illustrate how this interactive process among governmental entities, businesses, scientists, and residents will have to work.
Automobiles are always the favorite example, with some people throwing up their hands and saying we cannot achieve carbon neutrality without getting rid of them, and others throwing up their hands and saying that is not possible so we can never achieve carbon neutrality. The truth is that we can achieve a transformation that dramatically reduces automobile carbon emissions by adopting a set of complex strategies that acknowledge the built-in and continuing dependence of our society on personal mobility, and that approaches the problem, not with the goal of ending personal mobility, but of making it work in harmony with the goal of carbon neutrality.
So that will require the national government to keep ratcheting up the required MPG; it means science has to keep finding ways to do that technically, while also ensuring that costs are not problematic; it requires the automobile manufacturers to comply and compete on the basis of achieving that goal; and it requires consumers to make it a priority and put their money where their environmental aspirations are. The technical path is clearly within reach – making it economically possible and securing the political will, and business and consumer commitment are big tasks, but doable. In this area, the City is largely a cheerleader and educator, building our local constituency, but we do not control the larger context.
Another step towards taming the automobile is getting more people to change their travel patterns. The City has a much larger ability to influence this by funding and supporting transit, ride sharing, walking, and biking options, and by developing land use patterns (and community facilities) that support compact livable communities. But people will ultimately have to make the choices – to vote for funding, to embrace living in compact communities, and to use the alternative modes. Zoning by itself does not create compact communities – developers will have to build them, and they will only do so if they are convinced that there is a market for them. And the patterns of incentives, tax systems, and regulations that are adopted at the state and federal levels will also be critical ingredients. It's a complex dance, and will require much work and a long-term perspective to move beyond wishing it were so to actually achieving better transportation systems on the ground.
The final stage in reducing carbon emissions from automobiles is the conversion to electric vehicles powered by renewably generated electricity. Here again, there is a clear role for local government, but only the full involvement of all the actors will ultimately make this new system emerge.
We know that a carbon neutral, climate positive Seattle is possible – and we know that the only hope for success on a worldwide basis is for cities with commitments like ours to show the way. There is great work to be done for everyone who wants to get involved!
Next: How Seattle communities are already leading the way by transforming the food system!
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"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
Martin Luther King, Jr.
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