Archive for February, 2009

A view on sustainability from Seattle Parks

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Eds Note: Andy Soden of Seattle Parks and Recreation chimes in on defining sustainability

By Andy Soden, Golf Director, Seattle Parks and Recreation

Based on my spell check, even Microsoft does not fully recognize the concept of sustainability. To begin this exercise, we all would have to agree the impacts and effects that we’re having on our planet, our countries our communities and children are not only profound but far-reaching.

Each and every one of us needs to buy in and get in the role and responsibility to sustain and do it together, a feat easier said than accomplished.

A better reason?
The recent war, economic crunch and environmental picture of our world provide another and ample wake up call to the fact that not everyone here in the States is completely engaged and committed to the concept and cause. Just like many things in this land of the free and home of the brave, there is just enough leeway to lose sight of the big picture.

I find it interesting that so quickly after gas prices lowered again, the legions of people who were suddenly riding the bus and the train to Seattle are right back in their cars. Why? They can.

Please let me and other city staffers here in Seattle know what we can do to partner and raise the level of awareness surrounding this issue. Our new Park Superintendent Tim Gallagher is there, I can assure you, and supports all the things we are doing in Parks to raise the bar on this topic.

We’re celebrating Earth Day, March 21, next month at the golf courses in the city to engage our loyal golfers and customers in the leadership role Parks and Recreation is taking to reduce the luxury consumption and use of potable water, fertilizer and pesticides here in the urban environment.

Parks is also rolling out the Green Golfer program this year, which is part of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program’s Community Outreach component for golf courses. We’ve been participating in this 6-stage process towards Certification for about five years.

These are exciting times, and call for extraordinary and unique efforts towards sustaining our environment, economy, communities and future. Keeping in mind that we’re doing this for our children and their future, we feel that to get there, we’ll need to do it one thing at a time.

Sustainability in 50 words

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

Eds Note: These 50-word definitions of sustainability ran in today’s DJC. Agree or disagree, we’d love to hear your thoughts.

For Seattle to become sustainable, it will have to take advantage of the environment we inherited. Preserving open space and protecting the Sound are paramount to a livable and lasting city. The new waterfront will be our next big test. Finding a way to blend the needs of the people with the needs of environment, that’s what will make Seattle sustainable. It’s not a choice between a vibrant urban experience or nature — it’s having both!

Charles Anderson, Charles Anderson Landscape Architects

Sustainability means creating healthy built environments as a means to supporting the larger ecosystems that provide clean water, air and soil for all of us. A collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to designing, building and maintaining buildings is critical to the overall health of the environment.

Yancy Wright, Sellen Construction

We achieve sustainability by fostering long-term cultural, economic, environmental and social health and vitality — by putting all those things together for our future and remembering it is a continuing endeavor, not an end point. That means involving all of our communities in the work, and ensuring that everyone contributes, and everyone benefits.

Richard Conlin, Seattle City Council President

Sustainability requires a vision of where we want to go, and an adaptive strategy to get there in a way that is just for all people and the planet. Seattle needs strong public and private leadership to articulate the vision and inspire all of us to walk in that direction.

Joel Sisolak, Cascadia Region Green Building Council

Seattle must be seen as part of the bioregion and global biosphere. The path to urban sustainability lies in achieving ecological balance integrated with social, economic and environmental regeneration. We will need to retool the urban infrastructure to significantly reduce waste and over-consumption, become less auto-dependent and more walkable.

Peter Steinbrueck, Steinbrueck Urban Strategies

Seattle should broaden the sustainability focus from LEED to SEED: Social Economic and Environmental Design. Environmental responsibility is not a stand-alone issue. Economic equity and social justice are equally essential to creating sustainable communities. If Seattle can achieve this union, we will be the sustainability visionaries we claim to be.

Owen Richards, Owen Richards Architects

Sustainability in Seattle (the cynical version): A term used by politicians and the mostly-white upper class for public appearance or as a business choice, while not actually contributing to sustainability on a broad scale. Real Sustainability: A movement where sustainable actions are an EASY choice and are undertaken by all walks of life, not just the elite.

Rebecca Deehr, Pedestrian Master Plan Advisory Group

Sustainability is grounded in values of stewardship, sufficiency and justice, and includes economic, environmental and community indicators of well-being. Sustainability goes beyond meeting people’s immediate physical needs to creating a just society with laws and policies that allow their needs, and the needs of all Earth’s inhabitants, to be met.

LeeAnne Beres, Earth Ministry

Sustainability is being good stewards of our environment for ourselves, for our community and for future generations. This means creating spaces that give us shelter and comfort in ways that enhance the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the earth that gives us food instead of degrading them.

Christopher Imbeau, Rafn Co.

Sustainability must include our social structures. As the health of our salmon requires sound water policy, the health of our community requires sound social policy: housing appropriate to the needs of the whole community, access to living-wage jobs, and a region-wide transportation plan that provides real options to the automobile.

Richard Bloom, Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness

Sustainability means systemic continuity; it is equilibrium, balance. In relation to the environment, sustainability suggests systems capable of continuing (though not remaining static. Change is constant) indefinitely, perpetuating life (including people). The planet will likely persist for some time; sustainability might enable humans to survive with it.

Gabriel Scheer, Re-Vision Labs, Seattle Greendrinks

Saving bus service actually helps the economy

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

By now, most of us have heard Metro’s grim warning of a $100 million funding decline next year, and a potential 20 percent cut in service. We’ve also heard that an increase in local taxing authority might be a solution to keep our service. If it’s Thursday morning, the anti-tax, anti-transit crowd is undoubtedly out in full force. If history is an indicator, their arguments are hollow.

They’re probably saying more taxes will make the economy worse, and asking how we could even consider such a thing, and don’t we want to be business-friendly?

They’re backwards. Saving bus service will help us IMPROVE our economy, and improve a lot of people’s lives, even if requires a tax increase.

Of course, Metro hasn’t mentioned a tax increase per se, just maintaining a similar amount of revenue via a higher rate. But it’ll be argued as such.

With decent bus service, more people can leave their cars at home, saving operation and parking costs and wear and tear, and keeping away from the financial cliff. Transit gives people the option to not have cars at all, which can make poor people middle class. Anyone need reminding on the importance of saving individuals on the brink for the good of the rest of us?

Businesses are increasingly locating where the transit is good, because transit helps them attract employees. This is a major reason most office construction and tenants stick to a few urban districts in our region, and those in other areas are asking for better transit. Even if the boss doesn’t use it, the rank and file often do. I’ve heard 60 percent of my office uses transit at least sometimes, aided by our Downtown location.

Financial benefits to the region as a whole are less immediate but even more significant. We save tax dollars in the long run because good transit lets us reduce the amount we spend on road capacity, where our wish list is in the tens of billions because road capacity is outrageously expensive. Consumers end up saving because transit can reduce the amount of parking required (or wanted) for everything we spend money on. For example, the City of Seattle has reduced parking requirements for housing in a few areas, often saving tens of thousands of dollars per unit. Why throw these advances away?

Transit helps the nation use energy and materials more efficiently, from steel and leather to gas and oil. True, our whole metro is 1 percent of the country, but we can be part of the solution. Between the materials to produce the car and the resources to operate it, even a US-made hybrid sends money overseas hand over fist. We reduced oil demand when prices rose; again, why throw that away?

It’s hard to tell where the economy will go, and where tax revenues will go. Maybe things won’t be so bad. But count me as one who’s happy to vote yes if necessary to keep our bus service…and to stay up way too late tonight to write this.

Dear Gas, Northwest drivers just aren’t that into you

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Apparently, Northwest drivers are now consuming the same amount of gas on average that we did in 1965.

The average Northwest user is now using about 7.4 gallons a week per person, Sightline reports. That compares with the 10.2 gallons we were consuming in the year Grease came out.

Sightline’s blog has the story.

Lessons on sustainability from Cuba

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Eds. Note: Seattle developer Kevin Daniels, president of Nitze-Stagen & Co. and Daniels Development, recently returned from a week in Cuba on a sustainability research mission sponsored by International Sustainable Solutions through the Global Exchange program. He shares his thoughts with SeattleScape:


I accompanied more than 20 other architects, engineers and developers from Seattle and Portland to Cuba to see what lessons might be adaptable to our communities.

I was struck by the massive contradiction posed by a country whose people continue to overwhelmingly support a specific political agenda and leader while living within a failed economy for most of the last 50 years.

But since I am not a political or social scientist, I’ll leave that contradiction to others and focus on lessons to be learned from the decisions made by the Cuban people after the collapse of the Soviet Union — the “Special Period,” during which the country’s gross national product was reduced to 34 percent of its former self within a few weeks.

Urban farm in Havana
Given our country’s current economic challenges, are there sustainability lessons to be learned that we could apply here?

Numerous interesting sustainable approaches were adopted. One of the most interesting is how the country adapted to its loss of ability to trade major commodities (sugar, hardwoods, construction materials, etc.) for food products. Following a Soviet agricultural model, Cuba had ruined its farmlands with pesticides, applying more than 10 times the amount on average that our farmers do in the U.S. At the beginning of the Special Period, soils were infertile and incapable of feeding the population, and trading options were limited by the U.S. embargo. The average Cuban lost 20 pounds in the first year alone.

To combat the soil infertility, organic farming methods were adopted that are slowly repairing the land and increasing its productivity. Today, the crop yields within certain cooperatives exceed our national averages.  It’s a great model for further study. (more…)

Sustainability and the other Washington

Friday, February 13th, 2009

The compromise stimulus bill that’s received Congressional approval and is expected to fly off the president’s desk this weekend actually had quite a bit of greenbacks for green initiatives: at least $62.2 billion in spending and $20 billion in tax incentives, according to a preliminary analysis from the Center for American Progress.

Is that enough to set us on a path for sustainability? Check out an excellent roll-call of programs and efforts getting dough at Gristmill.

Surface water mismanagement

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Seattle’s hefty Comprehensive Plan is subtitled “Toward a Sustainable Seattle.”  In the vision section of the plan there is a sub-section called Environmental Stewardship which calls for compact development for  reasons that sound familiar.

The emphasis on compact development is intended to mitigate air and storm water discharge pollution from automobiles, loss of green space, and increases in impervious surfaces that results from non-compact development (page vi)

But what about the Mayor’s latest efforts to put people back “to work and get our local economy moving?” Those plans will include $16 million for sidewalks and repaving.

The City of Seattle has a serious consistency problem when it comes to sustainability. Surface water is probably the best example.  The right hand is working on fixing pot holes and keeping promises of building more sidewalks, while the left hand is writing glowing language about the importance of reducing impervious surface. This is a case where being ambidextrous is a bad thing.

Of course it feels great to pander to demands from neighborhoods for more sidewalks and acknowledge the importance of reducing storm water discharge caused by paved surfaces.

Surface water management is perhaps the most glaring example that the City is still a long way from a real comprehensive plan that moves us toward a sustainable Seattle. We need to ask: What are the actual outcomes of what we do, compared to what we say?

The bottom line must be to limit the creation of more impervious surface, reduce the impervious surfaces we have, and develop safe walkways for pedestrians and lanes for bikes that don’t create more water discharge. Tto do that, we have to know how much impervious surface we have, set a quantifiable goal to reduce it and hold ourselves accountable. Change starts with measurement.

We need to grab the measuring tape before we go for the shovel.

More than sustainability

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Sustainability means doing the minimum necessary to avoid ecological or societal trauma, whether for one location or ecosystem, or worldwide. In other words, it’s a half-measure.

People like half-measures. Public discussions of sustainability tend to reflect giving people everything they already have, but in less-wasteful formats. We hear more about hybrids than encouraging people to have fewer cars, more about responsible forestry than about using less wood, and more about recycling than about “reducing” or “reusing.”

That’s a start, and plenty for some people, but perhaps we need to work harder on the big stuff too.

Like density. We’re improving a bit, but we still strictly limit density in this region, making it more expensive than necessary (through bonus fees, additional process, lack of sites zoned higher than what’s already there, etc.) and therefore reducing its market share, which in turn adds to sprawl. Meanwhile, denser construction brings huge efficiencies in energy, materials, and land use, due to factors such as shared walls and reduced commute distances. (Transportation is sometimes forgotten in analyses of energy use!)

The trend toward smaller homes (or plateau?) is encouraging. Smaller homes use less materials and energy to build, use less energy to heat, cool, and light (all else being equal), and don’t leave so much room to fill with unneeded stuff. The trend toward multifamily helps for similar reasons, plus multifamily residents have the option of simply deleting the astonishing array of tools and materials often kept by house residents, from paint to edgers to four kinds of shovel.

It’s great that we’re focusing on transit, because transit benefits energy use, land-use, runoff, the need for parking infrastructure, and so on compared to driving. Biking and walking are even better. Density automatically makes all of these modes more viable. Of course we still don’t put our policies where our mouth is on pedestrian issues, with many “no crossing” points even in our most urban districts, our lax oversight of speeding and red light running, and so on.

It’s disgusting what’s happening with the global warming “debate.” In fact it’s a fake debate kept alive by certain industries and those who believe them. We’re exactly where the cigarette “debate” was a couple decades ago. Scientists agree that humans are a contributor to the problem, as much as they agree about anything, except the corrupt (bought) ones and a small number of honest devil’s advocates. The cigarette deniers are now seen as having contributed to countless deaths (and they still troll online bulletin boards, denying everything!). In the coming decades the global warming deniers will be reviled in the same way for the same reason. I’ll applaud any leadership Obama might provide on this issue, and we can all act locally as well, as an industry adding to the strides we’ve made, as a region with policy, and as individuals.

The importance of defining sustainability

Friday, February 6th, 2009

Eds. Note: Words like affordable, sustainable and livable are thrown around regularly in conversations about how Seattle should grow. But we want to know what these words actually mean, and how the city can achieve them.

Today, SeattleScape blogger Roger Valdez introduces the topic of sustainability. An upcoming editorial page will offer 50-word definitions of sustainability provided by members of the community, including elected officials, organizers and A/E/C industry players. Bloggers at the DJC blog SeattleScape will also weigh in. We hope you will join in the discussion.

There are as many definitions of sustainability as there are people who care about the issue.  Platitudes about environmental degradation almost always include the word “sustainability” and now it has taken its place alongside meaningless terms like “proactive,” “value added” and “win-win.”

Sustainability gets used interchangeably with words like “green,” “environmentally sensitive” and “green building.” To builders, “sustainable” applies to material. To a salmon advocate it means sound water policy and to someone working on climate change, it means reducing the vehicle miles traveled in our region. The word has become all things to all people.

Seattle even has the Office of Sustainability and Environment, with the laudable but broad goal of collaborating with “city agencies, business groups, nonprofit organizations, and other partners to protect and enhance Seattle’s distinctive environmental quality and livability.”

The Brundtland Commission defined sustainable as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  This language — borrowed from the Iroquois — is comforting, but can it help us make sensible land use policy?

Mithun’s unbuilt Center for Urban Agriculture

It is time to develop a definition of the word that is tied to measurable outcomes. Change begins with measurement. Sustainability is an economic concept, like return on investment. Economies aren’t just about money, but about the relationships between production, distribution and consumption.  Our bodies, our physical environment and our time all have economies.

We can assess sustainability by asking whether something (a project, a plan or a policy) consumes only as much as it can viably produce or less. Our activities should generate long-term profit whether that profit takes the form of excess energy, materials, dollars or other measurable benefits.

Planning, building, eating and living should generate something extra for future use. For example, developable land should not lay fallow and we should replace impermeable surfaces with permeable ones. Some areas should be up-zoned for more housing and others should be depaved for open space and urban farming.

Imagine a city that produces its own food, energy and goods.  This vision of sustainability is possible with a definition, a plan and a system of accountability.

Is DPD doing a good job?

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

The Department of Planning and Development has an online customer service survey on its site. The survey, which lets you respond anonymously, asks about experience and interactions with the agency, and what you might like to see changed in the future. It takes a few minutes to complete.