"World class." The term has been bandied about the Puget Sound region for years now. But during the grinding tech and aerospace busts of recent years and the recession that followed, the term became a mocking one.
Despite those setbacks, Seattle nonetheless remains on the cusp of becoming a world-class city and region.
It just doesn't seem to know it sometimes.
Seattle is among the most educated places in the country. From this brainpower spring high median wages paid by good jobs. Despite the price pressure exerted by those wages, Seattle has low rates of childhood poverty and overall poverty, leading to a balanced income distribution, as documented by a recent Brookings study.
Moreover, Seattle has come a long way from the days when gas-station owners would raise prices on Boeing paydays. The University of Washington and a strong network of other research institutions like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are continually setting the stage for more diversification of the economy by fostering new ideas and technologies.
Immigrants both foreign and domestic also contribute to the innovative ferment of the region.
In short, Seattle has Boston's high educational attainment without the persistent ghosts of racial animosity and deep poverty. Seattle has the Research Triangle of North Carolina's talent for innovation, but in a still mostly urban-centered environment surrounded by some of the greatest natural amenities and vistas in the world.
With the region slowly emerging from the recession, the technology bust and aerospace industry trouble, more growth is surely on the horizon. What form will that growth take?
Seattle and the Puget Sound like to talk about the sustainability of growth. To its credit, under the Greg Nickels administration, the city of Seattle has been moving toward allowing more density downtown to increase housing choices and, presumably, reduce growth pressures on the urban fringe. And suburban cities throughout the region—such as Bellevue, Renton and Auburn—are working to boost their downtowns in conjunction with transit investments.
Sustainability is also the rationale for myriad shoreline-reclamation and creek-restoration projects.
But regardless of all the respect for the environment evidenced in hundreds of decisions, Seattle, as constituted, is an unsustainable region.
For all of Seattle's and the region's current greatness, failure to address three key issues—transportation, housing and schools—will unravel achievements to date and degrade the quality of growth to come.
Despite employment density and concentration, mobility—partly because of geography and partly because of a lack of a unified transportation strategy—is getting worse. Left unaddressed, the pressure of excessive decentralization will be severe and the impact on quality of life will be brutal.
The innovative nature of the region's economy and its high wages are bidding up real-estate prices, raising three big threats: stunting of middle-class growth as burdens on low-income families become severe and dampen their ascent; acceleration of population decentralization by the search for affordable housing (again impacting quality of life and the environment); and stagnating economic growth.
The other limiting factor to future economic growth is education. Seattle's public schools continue to wrestle with severe budget problems and quality is sadly far too correlated with race and income, disadvantaging the students who need good schools the most.
Additionally, the University of Washington is turning away qualified students for lack of capacity. This especially hurts graduates of the region's successful community colleges such as Seattle Central, a key ladder into the middle class for many low-income and immigrant students. To shunt such potential elsewhere is nonsensical and will eventually hurt the region competitively and economically.
These three challenges threaten the region's current prosperity and undermine its potential to do what few U.S. cities have done—grow sustainably, spread the wealth and preserve natural and environmental assets—becoming truly world class in the process.
As Seattle contemplates its future, it needs to think along these lines:
- On transportation, the region has simply grown too much to have mobility run by a farrago of agencies.
Despite progress by Sound Transit on light rail, the days of multiple competing systems and their redundancies, wasting infrastructure dollars (read taxes), need to end. A coordinated regional transportation strategy is necessary.
Also, the one bidder, price yet-to-be-determined monorail seems a solution in search of a problem. Public dissatisfaction with transportation is understandable. Spending over a billion dollars out of pique on a system with no park-and-rides serving only one of the region's job centers, albeit downtown, is not.
The region, and not just the political leadership, also needs to unite behind a solution, whatever it may be, to replacing the creaky Alaskan Way Viaduct, a highway of not just state but national significance (read federal funding) due to trade and the Port of Seattle.
Though the state and city seem to be united on a tunnel solution, funding remains problematic, and many are still arguing for a new elevated viaduct because of views for drivers, a risible proposition at best. Form needs to follow function both for transportation and land use.
- On housing, the city and region need to embrace density in appropriate locations. But dense housing cannot be the province only of the well-to-do.
Dense, new housing needs to incorporate favorable regulatory treatment for affordable housing and local support not just for the very poor but work-force housing to allow people to live closer to their jobs if they choose.
- On education, Seattle schools and the city have made a start by targeting the latest levy at performance in the most struggling schools. But more needs to be done to spend existing revenues more wisely.
A re-examination of Olympia's long-unchanged local-funding formulas is also overdue.
More broadly, the economic integration fostered by housing redevelopment in the Rainier Valley and White Center can only benefit surrounding schools and their students. High-quality public schools keep middle-class residents close to their jobs, fostering many of the region's goals.
Complicating action on all three of these challenges is the region's sclerotic political culture in which process is valued more than results and Weyerhaeuser is kept in business by the printing of report after report after task force after advisory committee.
Seattle, from the outside, seems blessed with talent, but an overabundance of process compounded by a reflexive populism and anti-elitism leads people to dismiss valuable ideas and proposals. In South Lake Union, for example, many oppose a revamp of the neighborhood solely due to Paul Allen's involvement, despite the huge potential the area has as a new locus of jobs and housing.
Admittedly, in a state where so many people are from somewhere else, it's tough to achieve consensus. And certainly the region's leaders should not make decisions willy-nilly—especially in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods that most need investment—without public input.
But if the city's and region's political culture does not mature enough to leverage its economic strengths, the magnets bringing people to the Puget Sound and keeping them there—be it jobs, outdoor recreation or the sheer diversity of the metropolis—will decline.
Lost will be not just Seattle's opportunity to become the Vancouver, B.C., of the American West Coast, but the chance to become the leading city of the Pacific Rim, with jobs, culture and architecture like the San Francisco Bay Area and Tokyo, but with an ease of living too often only ascribed to the Sun Belt in this country.
And then in the struggle to become truly world class, local civic and political leaders won't have to worry about people being from somewhere else.
They will live there, having either left Seattle or never arrived.