Climb any hill in Seattle and you will be rewarded with breathtaking views. Look west at green islands in the deep blue waters of the Puget Sound; look southeast at the snow covered peak of Mount Rainier floating in the clouds. Natural beauty is everywhere in this major city surrounded the waters of the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, and by the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges.
Seattle is consistently near the top of any list of US cities for sustainability and for growth. Almost all electricity is from hydropower. Energy-efficient buildings anchor walkable mixed-use neighborhoods. As Seattle has become increasingly sustainable, it is doubling its economy while cutting carbon emissions in half.
Seattle is one of our nation’s most walkable cities with a walkscore of 73. During a recent visit, my wife and I walked 9 miles through the city, rewarded with views of ocean inlets, mountains, and thriving neighborhoods. We arrived and departed Seattle on Amtrak and got everywhere on foot and transit, except our Uber rides to and from the train station. Yet, with growth, reducing gridlocked commuting is a challenge.
Urban density is somewhat of a necessity with Seattle on an isthmus surrounded by water. The city is 84 square miles at low tide. When you can’t grow out, you grow up, making the elevator an increasingly popular mode of transportation. Work, food, and play are all within walking distance as a result of Seattle’s dense, upward growth.
Seattle’s Climate Action Plan targets a 58 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and envisions a carbon neutral city by 2050. Seattle emissions peaked in 2008 at 3.7 million metric tons C02e and continue to decline as the city reaches full employment. In the six years following the peak, annual carbon emissions per person fell from 6.2 to 5.2 tons.
Living Buildings and Renewable Energy
Renewables provide for 77 percent of Washington State’s electricity. For the city, 90 percent is renewable from Seattle City Light (SCL) hydroelectric dams. As the nation’s first carbon-neutral utility, SCL purchases carbon offsets equal to the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from all aspects of operations, including imported power, the utility truck fleet, and even employee travel to work.
Major Seattle employers make the renewable story even better. Amazon and Microsoft are on a path to meet 100 percent of their global energy needs by entering long-term contracts for wind and solar energy. REI, Starbucks and Target secure megawatts of wind and solar energy through Puget Sound Energy’s green tariff program. The City of Seattle is in King County, which is the largest subscriber to the green tariff program.
The Bullitt Center is a certified Living Building, so efficient that its solar roof produces 60 percent more electricity than the center uses, making the building net positive energy. The city permitted a number of exceptions to its building code so that the Bullitt Center could move forward. For example, all floors were permitted to be 14 feet high, allowing enough natural sunlight to reduce heating and lighting demands.
Mobility is a Challenge
Seattle has its challenges. Housing prices and apartment rental rates keep rising, pushing more people into the suburbs. Morning and evening peak hours keep getting longer for commuters from less expensive suburbs. Freeway congestion doubled in six years. Cars are Seattle greatest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Although Seattle only gets a Transit Score of 57, some neighborhoods are served with frequent transit including Downtown, Pioneer Square, International District, Belltown, and First Hill. Urban density and a good bus network keep many of the city dwellers out of cars. Drive Clean Seattle is comprehensive strategy to transition the transportation sector, including passenger cars, trucks, transit, and maritime transportation, from polluting fossil fuels to clean, carbon neutral electricity. Move Seattle is a suite of investments in transit, pedestrian, and bicycle infrastructure that reduces the overall vehicle miles traveled in Seattle.
Last November, regional voters approved $54 billion for Sound Transit 3, a 25-year plan that expands light rail five-fold to 116 miles, adds miles of bus rapid transit, and increases Sounder train capacity on the south line. As far as Tacoma, Everett, and Bellevue frustrated commuters will escape gridlock driving by taking rail.
Tech Industry Drives Jobs Growth
Technology jobs have grown ever since Seattle natives Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded a tiny software company named Microsoft. Now Microsoft is joined by Amazon Web Services in hosting cloud services for millions of organizations. This January, Amazon announced plans to add 100,000 US employees over 18 months, bringing its US employment to 280,000. Amazon’s 25,000 Seattle employees work at the Amazon campus in a mixed-use eco-district in the heart of the city. Twenty percent of its employees walk to work.
The Urban Land Institute and PWC in their 2017 Emerging Trends in Real Estate states:
“While the more traditional manufacturing sector may see some slowdown due to cuts in aerospace production, technology-related sectors of the economy are still growing rapidly. The Seattle technology industry is dominated by information technology firms focused on cloud computing and those focused on Internet retailing. Tech hiring in Seattle has been so competitive that the average hourly pay rate for an IT worker is now $10 higher than the national average. The outlook for tech hiring remains strong as firms continue to locate to the market to take advantage of the proximity to industry leaders…. Population growth in Seattle is projected to remain at nearly twice the national rate. This pace is impressive given the current size of the Seattle metro area, at around 3 million residents. The combination of strong job growth and rising incomes is projected to push household formation up in 2017, which will increase demand for both single and multifamily housing.”
However, Trump’s anti-immigration policies are a threat to tech employment and active trade with Asian countries. In response, the State of Washington and the Province of British Columbia are pursuing an Emerging Cascadia Technology Corridor with planned joint action in research, education, workforce development, transportation, and investment. Should the Washington tech community lose valuable foreign workers, they will have easier access to Canada’s well-educated engineers and scientists living north of their shared border.
What happens in Seattle does not stay in Seattle. Back in 2005, Seattle’s then mayor Greg Nickels urged other mayors to commit to reduce their carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. Over 1,000 cities have agreed to the commitment.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee is a long-time environmentalist and author of the classic Apollo’s Fire. He is a leading governor in supporting clean energy and emissions reductions. Inslee supports a regional power grid where Washington and British Columbia’s hydropower can be shared with other western states and provinces. In turn, these states benefit from solar power generated in California, Arizona, and New Mexico and wind power generated from Colorado to Wyoming. Such leadership will accelerate achieving Washington’s goal of being powered with 100 percent renewables.
Seattle is doubling its economy as it continues to eliminate fossil fuels from energy and transportation. By 2050, Seattle could achieve its goal of being a sustainable carbon-neutral city.
Seattle ranks #4 on our list of sustainable US cities. Only New York, Boston, and San Francisco rank higher.
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Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Accenture analysts recently released a report calling for cities to take the lead in creating coordinated, “orchestrated” mobility ecosystems. Limiting shared services to routes that connect people with mass transit would be one way to deploy human-driven services now and to prepare for driverless service in the future. Services and schedules can be linked at the backend, and operators can, for example, automatically send more shared vehicles to a train station when the train has more passengers than usual, or tell the shared vehicles to wait for a train that is running late.
Managing urban congestion and mobility comes down to the matter of managing space. Cities are characterized by defined and restricted residential, commercial, and transportation spaces. Private autos are the most inefficient use of transportation space, and mass transit represents the most efficient use of transportation space. Getting more people out of private cars, and into shared feeder routes to and from mass transit modes is the most promising way to reduce auto traffic. Computer models show that it can be done, and we don’t need autonomous vehicles to realize the benefits of shared mobility.
The role of government, and the planning community, is perhaps to facilitate these kinds of partnerships and make it easier for serendipity to occur. While many cities mandate a portion of the development budget toward art, this will not necessarily result in an ongoing benefit to the arts community as in most cases the budget is used for public art projects versus creating opportunities for cultural programming.
Rather than relying solely on this mandate, planners might want to consider educating developers with examples and case studies about the myriad ways that artists can participate in the development process. Likewise, outreach and education for the arts community about what role they can play in projects may stimulate a dialogue that can yield great results. In this sense, the planning community can be an invaluable translator in helping all parties to discover a richer, more inspiring, common language.
While the outlook for the environment may often seem bleak, there are many proven methods already available for cities to make their energy systems and other infrastructure not only more sustainable, but cheaper and more resilient at the same time. This confluence of benefits will drive investments in clean, efficient energy, transportation, and water infrastructure that will enable cities to realize their sustainability goals.
Given that many of the policy mechanisms that impact cities’ ability to boost sustainability are implemented at the state or federal level, municipalities should look to their own operations to implement change. Cities can lead as a major market player, for example, by converting their own fleets to zero emission electric vehicles, investing in more robust and efficient water facilities, procuring clean power, and requiring municipal buildings to be LEED certified.