The following is an excerpt from the book, “Planning the Pacific Northwest”
Published by APA Planners Press, 2015
“What is THE city but [connections between] the people?”
(William Shakespeare, THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS)
In Seattle, three independent yet interrelated outcome-based planning efforts – the Seattle Climate Action Plan (CAP), the Seattle 2030 District, and the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict – are prioritizing direct, tactical engagement with the connective networks between people and organizations to bridge the distance between planning and action. The goal is to affect rapid progress toward deeply sustainable urbanism.
Despite each effort’s unique physical boundaries, assets and points of leverage, and actors and audiences, three common themes are contributing to project uptake: an acute understanding of the needs of constituents, direct contact with decision makers, and an ability to continuously adapt both process and outcomes to project goals.
The Seattle Climate Action Plan
In 2013, Mayor Mike McGinn, a former community organizer and Sierra Club state chair, presided over the first major overhaul of the CAP, shifting the overall emphasis from deep-green urban policy toward an earnest call to act (City of Seattle 2013).
With action as the goal, planners at the City’s Office of Sustainability and the Environment (OSE) sought to reframe the immense scale and complexity of city-wide sustainability planning in terms that were clear, comprehensible, and personally relevant to the public. The intent was to build a “climate-friendly” constituency by communicating that the character and basic functionalities of low-carbon neighborhoods were consistent with long-standing community values, and that the CAP could help fulfill familiar needs, such as stable business districts, frequent transit service, and lower energy costs.
OSE enlisted professional design and media firms to provide photo-realistic visualizations of prototypical Seattle neighborhoods before and after the implementation of potential CAP-related policies; it collaborated with musician Chris Ballew to create a web friendly “We’re So Green” music video and infographic slide-deck; and it recruited local citizen leaders as Planning Outreach and Engagement Liaisons (POELs) to organize and conduct events in their own neighborhoods, on the City’s behalf.
The initial public response was positive, but limited. Open houses reached nine underrepresented communities, online surveys garnered hundreds of responses, and in early 2014, CAP outreach expanded to grassroots sustainability organizations through Community Climate Forums at City Hall. But even taken together, these groups represented only a fraction of the City. Legislation reached somewhat farther. With the support of the Seattle Planning Commission, the City Council passed a “Transit Communities” amendment to the Comprehensive Plan, deploying new climate-friendly policy tools to areas within a ten-minute walkshed of high frequency transit service, despite opposition from single-family neighborhood groups, the traditionally untouchable third rail of Seattle politics.
Capitol Hill EcoDistrict
The Capitol Hill EcoDistrict was initiated in 2011 by Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) to investigate how sustainability at the neighborhood scale could be engendered though public engagement. Notwithstanding its diverse and mobile population, the Capitol Hill neighborhood presented significant physical obstacles to building a coalition for coordinated projects. The development pattern consisted of over 1,500 unique structures with fragmented ownership, comprising 70% of the EcoDistrict’s total building area. CHH began the project by embracing this structural granularity, soliciting actionable strategies, plan directives, and communication tools directly from the community.
Visioning and coordination workshops generated grass-roots visualizations and a consensus-based final report that, at the early planning stages, resonated as locally authentic. A series of CHH-led one-on-one meetings with nearby institutions, stakeholders, and potential funders, as well as a Community Forum spawned an all-volunteer Steering Committee, chaired by Seattle University and a prominent neighborhood developer, and within a year, CHH garnered funding to hire a full-time EcoDistrict Director.
Despite early organizational successes, maintaining momentum proved challenging. The EcoDistrict report had evaluated and catalogued sixty-four unique, outcome-oriented strategies that EcoDistrict Director Joel Sisolak describes as suited to “a point in time.” As the effort’s emphasis naturally shifted from planning to implementation and as the leadership structure matured, the mechanics of consensus building, project prioritization, and measurement shifted as well. Sisolak says “visibility” (in addition to sustainability and near- or long-term impact) arose as a key driver in choosing what to undertake first, in part because “seeing” physical progress could garner public interest in a way that plan documents and analytics could not.
In 2014, the EcoDistrict successfully lobbied the City Council for funding for on-the-ground pilot projects, (Seattle City Council 2014, 1) and as Sisolak describes, it began working with local partners to implement high-visibility projects such as “Community Solar,” district-wide shared parking, and new “Pollinator Pathways” along neighborhood Greenstreets. It also signed on to the Seattle 2030 District (detailed below), allowing access to the 2030 District’s membership base, discounts on high-efficiency building energy systems, and other financial tools and resources.
SEATTLE 2030 DISTRICT
The Seattle 2030 District began in 2009 with an audacious charge: establish a high-performance building district in the city’s commercial core, halving energy and water consumption and transportation emissions among existing buildings and achieving net zero energy use for new construction by 2030. Two dozen local leaders in government, real estate, construction, and design initiated the effort by personally lobbing their organizations for in-kind contributions to the project, amassing donations of $225,000, which leveraged a $450,000 EPA Climate Showcase Communities grant to support administration and start-up costs. If there was a coordinated engagement strategy, it was to maintain what 2014 Board Chair Brett Phillips calls a bias toward action.
From the outset, the District’s Board structure required a majority membership of building owners and property managers. This helped place project planning decisions directly in the hands of those who would bear the risk of implementation; it reduced much of the initial member outreach to peer-to-peer conversations; and with nearly five million square feet of the District’s building area controlled by the Board alone, it helped establish an early foundation of organizational credibility.
To demonstrate that the District’s goals were achievable across the breadth of building types, the group established district-wide baselines for energy and water consumption and commute-related transportation emissions by tuning national averages to local conditions using members’ aggregated building performance information. In the District’s first three years, fully 38 million square feet of building area signed on, representing over 1/3 of the 96 million total square feet within the District’s boundaries.
As of 2014, District members’ buildings were beating the District’s 2015 targets for energy and water twofold. However, the performance of the District as a whole lags behind. Like the EcoDistrict, most buildings in the 2030 District are small in building area, controlled by unique ownership, and have older, low efficiency building systems.
The CAP, the EcoDistrict, and the 2030 District may be best understood as organizations in process, working actively to connect people to deeply sustainable outcomes. Their achievements and shortcomings suggest that progress can be incremental and as much the result of thoughtful, tactical interactions with people as advance strategy and planning.
When viewed together, the CAP’s top-down climate messaging operation, the EcoDistrict’s bottom-up visioning process, and the 2030 District’s lateral membership drive reveal three basic contributors to forward progress:
- Understand the audience. Early on, OSE recognized that, even in Seattle, where politics are progressive and educational attainment high (Buckner 2004), the public perception remained that sustainability planning was indecipherably complex and of limited personal relevance. CAP outreach was tailored to instill the political confidence to enact new climate-friendly legislation and programs. Similarly, the EcoDistrict built a constituency by reflecting community diversity in its myriad outcome-based strategies and visualizations. The 2030 District’s property owner Board could credibly make the business case for District membership.
- Involve decision makers. The CAP’s messaging to neighborhoods helped build political comfort with highly impactful climate-friendly legislation. The EcoDistrict’s involvement of the City and local institutions on its Steering Committee helped address barriers to supportive investments and legislative actions. Likewise, the Seattle 2030 District’s decision to place real estate entities at the center of the process removed the traditional separation between planning and action, allowing projects to be conceived and implemented simultaneously.
- Adapt tactically, with goals in mind. After CAP adoption, OSE shifted its focus from engagement to interdepartmental coordination and management, shepherding CAP-supportive implementation projects. To strengthen the organization, EcoDistrict projects were reprioritized to build public momentum. Despite heavy interest and involvement from design and planning professionals, the 2030 District deferred the development of detailed analytics to focus on membership growth.
Taking a step back even farther, viewing these project’s focus on engagement against the backdrop of the “Seattle Process” – that is, perpetual debate, introspection, slow decision making, and revisionism – (Moody 2003, 66), it is not hard to imagine that Seattle itself is simultaneously the thing that each effort is looking to overcome, to embrace, and ultimately to transform. It appears that the job of urbanism is never complete.