Five Big Ideas

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Recent scholarship trumpets the emergence of cities as problem solvers in a complex world, sparking debate about the role of the modern city to address public needs while federal government manifests growing paralysis. Simply put, cities are innovating faster and more creatively to solve problems, ranging from environmental quality to traffic congestion.

In order to be a truly “Renaissance City,” Seattle should be nimble and adopt innovations that world-class cities have implemented to tackle tough problems. At the dawn of 2015, Seattle is riding an economic boom evidenced by feverish downtown construction, but is hemmed in by serious structural deficiencies in funding for transportation and social services. From the cranes rising above South Lake Union to the stalled construction of the waterfront tunnel, a sense of a design plan for Seattle is embryonic at best. Gridlock increases frustration for commuters and residents, and development appears to proceed without consideration for Seattle values and residential quality of life.

A few “Big Ideas” successfully implemented in other cities might smooth the way to a saner — and greener — city here.

#1: Chicago’s Appreciation for Architecture

Experimentation, preservation and education are supported by an ecosystem of designers, universities, organizations and a public that has pride in the built environment.”

Architecture defines a city and Seattle is fortunate to have a stunning skyline, courtesy of the Space Needle, the Smith Tower and the Columbia Center. But one searches in vain for an architectural vision of a unified future that will tie proliferating skyscrapers to a revitalized working waterfront.

With several organizations dedicated to shaping an urban vision, Chicago keeps the subject of its evolving architecture front and center. Armed with a $17 million annual budget, the Chicago Architecture Foundation annually conducts more than 6,000 tours that reach more than 320,000 people. Its River Cruise boat tour, snaking up the Chicago River, has become one of the city’s leading tourist attractions.

Originally conceived to preserve historic buildings, the 9,700-member foundation plays a key role in sculpting the city’s future, ranging from exhibitions envisioning the future of the Great Lakes and adjacent waterways to educational programs. While it is difficult to measure “mindshare,” one can fairly say that design is not an afterthought in the city’s urban development dialogue. “Since the Great Chicago Fire more than 100 years ago, Chicagoans have consistently had a passion for design,” says Gregg Garmisa, principal at Chicago’s Studio Gang Architects. “Experimentation, preservation and education are supported by an ecosystem of designers, universities, organizations and a public that has pride in the built environment.”

The new WMS Boathouse at Clark Park along the Chicago River was conceived to integrate form and function. Designed by MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang, the boathouse has a roofline that mimics the rising and dipping movement of a rower skimming the surface of the water. Open to the public, the facility is part of the mayor’s Riverfront Revitalization Plan designed to spur economic development.

Seattle would benefit from a focus on innovative design for both Elliott Bay and South Lake Union. 

#2. London’s Answer to Traffic Congestion and ‘Dirty’ Cars

A city meet environmental goals and reduce downtown traffic congestion in one master stroke? London has proposed a tax on “dirty” cars to take effect in 2020. The long lead time is designed to let car buyers make greener choices in the next vehicle purchase cycle. Here’s how it would work: London will create an Ultra Low Emission Zone, where a charge will be levied to enter the city center — $20 for a car or a truck — in addition to the current “congestion fee.” Diesel emission fumes, according to a study conducted by King’s College London, account for a quarter of the country’s estimated 29,000 premature deaths attributed each year to air pollution.

London rolled out congestion pricing to reduce traffic snarls in its city center in 2003 and vehicles already pay a stiff price for transiting its Low Emission Zone: roughly $19 for a car during the work week, scaling to over $300 for a heavy-polluting bus or truck. The current zone encompasses about 8 square miles, with exemptions granted to low-emission vehicles and taxis. More than 1,300 strategically positioned cameras take snapshots of license plates to levy tolls on vehicles moving in and out of the zone. City revenues from the congestion charge stand at about $450 million annually.

While many visitors credit the program with alleviating traffic congestion, the long-term effects of the 10-year program are more diffuse: Ridership on buses and on the London Underground system is at historically high levels and overall traffic fatalities are down. 

#3. Portland’s Transit Information

Seattle’s transit woes are well known and will only get worse as the density of the city increases. Passage of the $60 car tab fee for additional bus service appears to be the city’s primary tool to combat congestion, especially around rush hour. The overlap among King County, Sound Transit and various municipal authorities only adds to the complexity of navigating transit options in Seattle. But it doesn’t have to be this way, as evidenced by the approach Portland has brought to transportation.

Land at Portland International Airport and one can use TriMet’s mobile and web applications to quickly figure out the best mode of transit to any point in the city. For example, type in The Heathman Hotel (no address required) and the app calculates the quickest trip with a maximum one-mile walk. This suggested route turns out to be 46 minutes via the MAX Red Line to City Center. The app displays approximate walking times and alternate route options. A “transit tracker” also provides updates in real time. Type in a station number and the arrival time of the next bus instantly pops up on your screen. Best of all, TriMet tickets can be bought on the fly with a smartphone. By contrast, Sound Transit tells us that purchasing a light rail ticket is this easy: Either find a vending machine or use an Orca card. Its website gives directions on how to find these outlets, but visitors and new users will have trouble locating them.  

Arriving at SeaTac Airport, if a visitor doesn’t know the light rail schedule into the city, there are few options for discovery: Either walk a few hundred yards to the light rail station or find a travel kiosk in the baggage claim area, which is equipped with three phones that connect to operators. It’s a less-than-optimal user experience, especially for a jet-lagged first-time visitor to the region who might expect the Emerald City to be a leader in mobile applications for transit.

Boarding the big data train, TriMet also provides a performance dashboard that gives current statistics on ridership of each segment of its system, operating cost per ride and on-time performances. Actual versus budget revenue is charted for fiscal 2014 and estimated for fiscal 2015. Perhaps due to the integration of bus, rail and streetcar service as well as its innovation in customer ease-of-use, Portland is consistently ranked among the top cities in public transportation. Commuters there spend 20 percent less time commuting, compared to peer cities. Like any forward-looking organization, the system has published its priorities for 2015, which include a process for guiding future investment in customer information and transit projects.

#4. New York City’s Digital Roadmap

Seattle’s boosters promote the city as a high-tech giant, yet Seattle lags behind peer cities in terms of internet connectivity and city service engagement via the web. The city pulled the plug on its Free Community Wireless Service in 2012. Gigabit Squared — a venture to bring ultra-fast broadband to select neighborhoods — went belly up last year. While Seattle took a step in the right direction by hiring Rebecca Lovell to spearhead the StartUp Seattle initiative, the city invests very little in digital infrastructure. If Seattle could dream big about the full scope of digital engagement with the people who live and work here, what would that array of services look like? New York City posed the same question in 2011 and developed an ambitious Digital Roadmap, invested the required funds and executed on its goals.

New York’s Digital Roadmap tackled five major areas:
1. Expanding internet access for all citizens
2. Education, with a focus on STEM and digital literacy
3. Open government, featuring real-time data feeds and the creation of a central hub for developers
4. Engagement, adopting social media and crowd-sourcing while relaunching the NYC.gov website
5. Industry, working with the private sector to support both diversity and tech startup infrastructure needs

As a result, New York brought free wi-fi to more than 50 public parks and partnered with Google to cover Chelsea and the low-income Fulton Houses project. Archaic public pay telephones were turned into wi-fi hot spots and cellular service was expanded to 277 underground subway stations.

The city went to school, initiating more than 40 digital learning programs covering one million New Yorkers. It brought iZone — featuring real-time assessment and online learning — to 280 schools and started Digital Ready, a pilot program for mentorship and deployment of new media tools in the classroom, in 30 high schools.

On the open government prong of the roadmap, the city realized the wisdom of directly engaging with the local developer community to bring new apps and services to New Yorkers. It launched NYC Open Data, a portal offering more than 1,300 datasets and visualization tools free  to the public. Imagine if Seattle’s own local success story, Tableau Software, were engaged by the city to create data maps illustrating city trends and identify core needs relating to crime, traffic patterns or environmental needs.

Finally, New York turned city services “inside out” with web and mobile apps that brought crucial information to the population. This ranged from the 311 Customer Service home page to using digital crowdsourcing in emergencies, such as Hurricane Sandy, to allowing citizens to use SMS codes to request city services relating to food stamps and temporary housing. It posts job alerts in real time, a function that used to take more than a week to match an applicant to a new listing.

Most remarkably, New York measured itself against the 40 goals set out in the Digital Roadmap and hired a chief digital officer to lead a well-funded NYC digital team, which promptly wrote a new strategic plan for further digital engagement. By keeping the Digital Roadmap front and center, the city planned its way through new waves of digital growth and evolving trends in social media. Rather than reacting to the “next big thing,” the Roadmap enabled the city to allocate resources toward previously identified goals serving citizens’ needs. 

#5. Los Angeles’ Urban Gardens

Downtown Los Angeles is embracing urban gardens — even in the poorest neighborhoods like South Central. Through the Garden School Foundation, students in select Title 1 schools are taught about the significance of seed-to-table practices, including how to create, maintain and cultivate a nutritional garden.

The city is jumping on board by promoting tax breaks to lease abandoned land parcels to build community urban farms in areas that may have previously been used for adverse purposes. The Los Angeles Times estimates that 8,600 parcels of land may be eligible to hop on the bandwagon. Consultants, such as Farm Urbana, specialize in creating sustainable green spaces, creating vertical tower gardens and reservoirs of water-conserving green spaces.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, rooftop gardens reduce energy use by absorbing heat and insulating buildings while simultaneously cutting air pollution and greenhouse emissions by reducing air conditioning usage. The plants themselves help combat air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Oases of quiet result in the busiest urban corridors.

“Urban gardening brings a touch of civility to the concrete jungle,” says Jennifer Schwab, managing partner for the Sustainable Innovation Group. “It makes organic vegetables more accessible for everyone, not just the intellectual elite. This is a new phenomenon that should spread like weeds throughout megacities worldwide.” 

 

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