Sustainable design is the art of delicately balancing the needs and health of the economy, community, and environment. And it’s the concern of Steve Nicholas, the director of the city’s Offi ce of Sustainability and Environment.
The goals of the organization are broad: increasing the urban tree canopy, strengthening communities, leading Seattle and other cities in meeting the Kyoto Protocol target of reducing climate pollution by 7 percent by 2012, and encouraging building practices that sustain the health of the occupant and the environment.
And since an environmentally friendly city where no one can afford to live is just as bad as a city that trashes its nature, Seattle has a number of challenges before it.
Over the past ten years, the price of housing has more than doubled, leaving many with decent-paying jobs struggling to buy a house. Only nine areas in King County and one area in Seattle remain affordable for median income buyers. The once affordable rental market is disappearing, with 3,900 apartments converted to condos in the past two years. As Seattle and neighboring areas become too expensive, many are living further away, with ever-stretching commutes. Growth has exacted a price on the urban tree canopy, which has declined by half since 1972. The city and the country witnessed extreme, record breaking weather this winter, with November Seattle’s wettest month in history — a possible sign of our impact on the environment, and the dire need for our city to enable residents to enjoy livable, walkable, affordable surroundings.
Nicholas agreed to speak with Real Change recently about meeting the challenges and creating a sustainable community.
Real Change: Can you give me an example of what you’ve recently promoted?
Steve Nicolas: In 2000, we made the decision that we’re going to model sustainable behavior as it relates to the design, construction, and operation of our buildings. As a result, we have the largest portfolio of green buildings of any city in the country. We also made a commitment in 2002 to make our own vehicle fleet more sustainable. We have reduced the city’s fleet use of fossil fuels by 12 percent.
RC: Isn’t there a higher up-front cost?
Nicholas: When we first started doing green buildings, it did appear that there was an additional incremental cost up front. It was usually 2 to 5 percent of the total project cost. We’ve now seen that dwindle to zero, especially when you look over time. Even if you look just at the ones you can measure, such as lower electricity and water bills, you usually get your money back in a short period of time. That doesn’t even count things like people getting sick less because there is better ventilation, or people are happier because there is more natural light.
RC: What has your work been with transportation?
Nicholas: Transportation is one of the top sustainability challenges for a lot of reasons. Motor vehicles are the number one source of toxic air pollution in Seattle and they’re the number one source of climate and global warming pollution in Seattle. We are aggressively promoting more environment, climate, and commuter-friendly transportation alternatives. That includes light rail, street cars, additional bus services, walking, biking, and increasing the number of bike lanes.
RC: What have you pushed recently to the Department of Transportation?
Nicholas: We’re taking a hard look at ways to use price signals to encourage more climate friendly transportation, and ways to discourage less climate-friendly transportation. One example of that is the new commercial parking tax that the mayor proposed and that City Council recently adopted. It tweaks the cost of driving, [and] it can raise some money that we can then dedicate to promoting more climate-friendly transportation alternatives. We’re also looking at what is known as road pricing: finding ways to charge an additional fee of the use of certain roads that are congested at certain times.
RC: Such as a toll?
Nicholas: Yes, tolls are one type of road pricing. A lot of people think it has potential in terms of sending the right price signal and adjusting the economics of different transportation options so that you’re encouraging more climate-friendly alternatives. Everyone recognizes Seattle has a transportation problem. We don’t have the kind of robust public transportation that a lot of other cities have.
RC: Is there an example of a major city with a transportation system that reduced pollution?
Nicholas: We’re looking a lot at London. Their downtown central business district became a complete mess. So they drew a line around the central business district, and to drive a single-occupant vehicle across that line during the most congested times of the day, they pay a fee. It was initially a very politically contentious idea. The business community felt it was going to hurt. People didn’t want to pay that fee, so they started taking the bus. The $10 a day was the nudge they needed to start taking the bus or carpooling. It dramatically raised money, and the business community loves it because it’s easier for people to get in and out. We recognize that if we’re going to do something like that, it can’t be just Seattle. If you dramatically increase the cost of driving in Seattle, then people are just going to end up going to Bellevue.
RC: What’s the sustainable future of the central waterfront? Does it include a highway — buried, elevated, or on the surface?
Nicholas: A sustainable central waterfront is one that protects and improves the environmental, community, and economic health of our city. It’s a waterfront with less noise and dust pollution than we have down there now. It has more and better places for people to bike, walk, wander, and relax. It has more trees and greenery to absorb air, water, and climate pollution. And it has more opportunities for people to access and enjoy those inspiring views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains — and to actually reach down and touch the water, as we can do now at the new Olympic Sculpture Park.
Economic vitality is part of sustainability, too. Some people tend to forget that part of the equation. We need to factor in the well-being of the Port of Seattle and the industrial areas north and south of the central waterfront, which produce a lot of good, living-wage jobs and help to keep our economy diverse and resilient.
So, how do we handle motor vehicles on the waterfront? For me, the key is what’s going to be best for the overall, long-term livability of downtown Seattle. That’s absolutely critical. Studies show pretty clearly that compact, efficient urban development produces less air and climate pollution than sprawl-type development. So downtown Seattle needs to be a place where large numbers of people want to live, work, and play. Right now, about 110,000 vehicles a day use the Alaskan Way Viaduct, because it’s one of only two north-south transportation corridors in our very narrow, hourglass-shaped city. If that corridor goes away, and we end up with a quagmire of cars in and around downtown Seattle, that’s not a sustainable solution, because it would significantly increase traffic congestion and therefore air and climate pollution, undermine the overall livability of downtown, and discourage people and businesses from locating here.
As for the debate over a new elevated highway, a tunnel, or a surface street — I really can’t comment. Since that issue is on the ballot for March 13, as a City official I’m not allowed to state a preference or advocate for one alternative over another.
RC: Can you tell me about your work on urban reforestation?
Nicholas: We got very concerned when we learned through some analysis that we were at risk of becoming the city formerly known as Emerald. The urban forest has declined from about 40 percent of the city’s total land mass to just 18 percent. The Urban Forest Management Plan was released by the mayor in early September of last year. It calls for the planting of 650,000 new trees over the course of the next three years. It’s a very ambitious goal, but we know that we can do it if we rally together as a community. It also calls for significant improvements in the way we protect existing trees. It’s a very difficult, complex, and controversial issue in the city because you get into private property rights. We’re going to put together the Emerald City Task Force; it’ll be a high-level task force of developers, urban design people, landscape design people, and tree advocates. We’ll take a look at what other cities are doing — this is not a challenge that is unique to Seattle.
RC: I know you don’t work on affordable housing directly, but many people who are first-time home buyers are forced into outer-areas such as Everett or Marysville because that’s the only area they can afford.
Nicholas: Affordable housing or lack thereof is one of the top sustainability challenges for Seattle. One thing I’m really proud of is that I think we take that challenge seriously. A large part of it is outside the city’s control because it’s driven by basic economics.
RC: Seattle has large swaths of single-family areas where dense, compact urban development like townhomes or apartments aren’t allowed. Why can’t that aspect of land-use planning and design be more sustainable?
Nicholas: I’d argue that our diverse array of single-family neighborhoods is part of a sustainable Seattle, not something that undermines it. Much of our cultural and ethnic heritage, architectural history, and ethos of community engagement and activism lives in our single-family neighborhoods.
For sure we need to absorb a significant portion of the projected growth in people and jobs into our city, to curb sprawl and the very high environmental, health and financial costs that go along with that. And we’re doing that. But we can do this mostly through “infill” development in our already established urban centers and urban villages, which allows us to deliver services most efficiently and cost-effectively. In fact, we have enough development capacity outside of single-family areas to accommodate projected residential and employment growth for at least the next 30 years.
We are experimenting with ways of thoughtfully increasing density in single-family neighborhoods, as well. For example, by allowing homeowners to add accessory dwelling units to their houses, we can accommodate density while retaining existing structures and neighborhood character.
RC: Where do you see Seattle 10 years from now?
Nicholas: I’m really excited about Seattle. I’m optimistic about all that we see happening in terms of increasing environment-friendly transportation choices. We’re getting a light rail line that will hopefully expand beyond this initial length. Bus service and biking is becoming more popular. More people are living closer to where they work. I love what we have underway.
Interview by DENA BURKE; Contributing Writer
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/21/feb-21-2007-entire-issue