When I read this headline in Grist a couple weeks ago, “What other cities can learn from Seattle’s troubled ‘deep green’ building program,” the first thought that came to mind was that it isn’t the program that’s troubled, but our culture in Seattle. The problem, somewhat unique to Seattle, is the tendency to think big, plan big, but when it counts, hit the brakes. Other cities could learn a lot from Seattle, but unfortunately the lesson is about what not to do.
The author of the article cites a list of what he means by troubles, and it includes resistance from “code cops,” problems with financing, the expense of building green, and, of course, neighborhood resistance to change. He also wisely points out that you can build the greenest of green buildings only to find people’s behavior doesn’t change; make your building perfectly balanced and watch someone turn the thermostat up or down to get more comfortable.
Unlike the weather, for which we just have to accept and prepare, these troubles are all things within the limits of our control. What I’d call the Seattle Problem is the tendency to push for innovation that will create great things, but then, at the same time, create rules to be sure absolutely nothing bad happens. Ironically, this rule making ends up limiting the good things we want. More after the jump.
Yes, the Stone34 project will go forward (and it got a 9-0 vote), but the question that many of us had was “why was there so much controversy about that issue in the first place?” Shouldn’t the controversy be about why there weren’t 25 more projects like Stone34 awaiting the outcome of that decision so they can go forward?
We are risk averse as a rule (except for big stadium projects, it would seem). When confronted with the opportunity to allow one project some relaxation of regulation, we worry that someone might be trying to, “get away with something.” This goes for NIMBYs as well as the extreme greens who all felt that moving the rules around a bit for Stone34 would provoke a flood of bad buildings, big, out of scale, too expensive, but called “Living Buildings.”
What the City should be doing is subsidizing projects like Stone34 by removing even more rules and requirements that would allow riskier projects fewer costs and more revenue. If we really wanted an explosion of living or green buildings in Seattle we’d take rules away, not make more of them and we’d embrace a green building when one came to our neighborhood.
The Seattle Problem can be fixed. I’ll use an example from public health.
A great but unknown hero in the history of public health in cities is Hermann Biggs, a health officer in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century. New York was a big, dirty, sick city and tuberculosis was a growing problem. There was a simple solution. Observing simple rules like washing hands and observing basic hygiene could reduce the prevalence of the disease called the White Plague. But doctors, at the time, thought this was silly and refused to cooperate. They rejected Biggs’s advice.
Biggs argued that, “public health is purchasable. Within natural limitations, a community can determine its own death rate.” At the time people, including doctors, resisted that notion, even though science was on his side. The biggest gains made in beating TB were made not with penicillin but by changes in behavior. Lives were saved not with a magic pill or shot in the arm, but motivating people to do things differently.
The similar thing can be said of land use: Sustainability is purchasable within the limits of our willingness to take risks. When we reduce rules and regulations we can reduce costs, making better buildings possible. If we expect private industry to produce great green buildings at a loss then we’re expecting them to function as a charity, and that isn’t what they do. Turning the Seattle Problem into the Seattle Solution means changing our thinking, behavior so we can take some reasonable risks (maybe even break some rules) as we build the city’s future.