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
A new toolkit has been developed to help businesses think through strategies to decrease mobility barriers to the workplace, which reduces turnover. When workers can reliably get to work regardless of their personal circumstances, it provides employment stability and the opportunity to build wealth. It’s a win-win. Developed through a partnership between Metropolitan Planning Council and a pro bono Boston Consulting Group team, the toolkit includes slide decks, an overview report, customizable templates, a cost calculator, and instructional videos walking a company through the thought process of establishing a baseline situation, evaluating and selecting a solution, and standing up a program.
Depending on the employer’s location and employees’ needs, solutions may range from helping with last-mile transportation to the transit system, to developing on-demand vanpools, to establishing in-house carpool matching systems. The ROI calculator gives employers the ability to determine the break-even cost—the subsidy amount a company can manage without hurting the bottom line.
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
I caught up recently with Sarah Charlton who is Associate Professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
The research she is leading, located in both Johannesburg, South Africa and Maputo, Mozambique, looks at the interface between the mobility use by residents and transportation investments by the state. The question guiding her research is “are ordinary households using the transport modes that the government is investing in and prioritizing?” The research is a partnership between two universities across two countries and two cities.
Sarah reflects on research during the pandemic across languages, countries, histories and cultures.