Does the way we organize our politics and government in Seattle and in our region have any effect on transit and land use? Does the structure of our political institutions result in bad outcomes for transit-oriented development, for example? Would changing that system result in better or worse outcomes? That’s the question we should talk about more actively at urbanist and transit advocacy events, like tomorrow night’s City Builders. Does getting better transit and land use require fundamentally changing the way we organize government and elections?
Since my post at Publicola last week a number of different perspectives and thoughts have appeared in my in-box and in the comments. Here’s a cross section of those perspectives.
Change would make things worse.
This view is best articulated by Frank at Orphan Road, who suggests that tinkering with the way we elect the Seattle City Council could make land use and transit worse. He drills into district elections, suggesting that doing things that way would ensure NIMBY dominance, by giving neighborhood ne’er do wells elected office.
Change would make things better.
There is an odd assortment of bedfellows here. Councilmember Mike O’Brien has been exploring the idea of publicly financed elections, and John Fox has been suggesting district elections. Some commenters in other posts have offered ideas about ways to rig the voting system using proportional voting systems to get better outcomes. The problem is that the outcome of these changes is uncertain.
More after the jump.
Increase the conflict, and the accountability.
I suggested in the Publicola post that one thing that would help would be more clearly defined parties, especially a pro-growth and pro-development party that could do the things that political parties typically do: elect candidates who will support an urbanist, transit focused agenda, and defeat candidates who don’t. The point here is to be right on the facts and figures, but also win elections.
Make better arguments and tell better stories.
Some people think it’s about messaging. If we can find a way to explain why something like density around transit is better, then people will support it; especially if we can avoid the “d” word. This is the brainy, liberal, progressive approach: win with facts and appeal to people’s reason.
We’re already winning!
This group tends to think we’re actually doing ok. Sure, we spend a lot of time in meetings, task forces, gabbing about Urban Design Frameworks, and fending off NIMBY attacks, but, after all, things are getting better. Sticking with the process, staying involved, and doing things like amending the City’s Comprehensive Plan will get us to where we want to go—eventually. No need to blow up the system now.
My view: Us, them, right, and wrong
We are right, they are wrong. We have to win, and they have to lose. There is a difference between those of us who acknowledge that growth is going to happen and that we can and must do it sustainably, and the entrenched group of single-family owners who are intent on keeping housing supply low to keep their property values high. We who support a sustainable vision of the future must never compromise with those who favor a no-growth fantasy; we who know the facts shouldn’t broker deals with those who base their views on a fiction.
The single-family party has our process in a headlock, extorting it by using delaying tactics, rhetorical devices, and simply stoking fear of change. Instead of planning, we are negotiating. Instead of building for the future, we are arguing over height. Instead of creating the financial tools to capture value and create jobs, we allowing the current lull in the real estate market to pass without implementing any new ideas.
Something has to change, and we are the ones to change it. I can’t promise that district elections, campaign finance, or even creating a strong pro-growth party will work. But I do know that while we are debating design, and best practice at a high level, 100-year decisions are being made all over the city and around transit in particular. As new buildings go into the ground, we are seeing opportunity to shape the future slip away.
Whether we change the City Charter or start raising money to run our own candidates or both, we have to recognize that the political system is a reflection of who we are. We are either going to be two gentleman in a doorway, perpetually saying “no, after you,” or we are going to actually do something big.
We know that we are right, and that smart, well-organized, compact, transit oriented communities are better for the environment, for our health, and for our economy; better, in the end, for people. We can either sit around being right while others set the regional agenda, or we can endeavor to bend the political process to our will, whether that’s changing it fundamentally or simply winning more elections. In the end, we only have ourselves to blame if we miss this opportunity.
What do you think? Are you with me?