Seattle, Washington, USA

Summary Points

  • The city of Seattle is at the core of an important metropolitan region in the north-western United States.
  • Montreal and Seattle share a similar economic history; both were especially hurt by deindustrialization in the 1970s.
  • Among North American cities, both Seattle and Montreal have reputations for progressivism.
  • In Seattle, the municipal government typically relies on external community groups to set and implement benchmarks of urban sustainability.

Seattle: Urban context

Founded in the mid-19th century, Seattle grew as a supply and distribution centre for resource industries operating in the Pacific Northwest, namely forestry.  The growth in Pacific trade and new transcontinental railways made Seattle an important entry and exit point for the American economy (Bagley 1916).  In 1916, William Boeing’s Pacific Aero Products Company began operating out of a converted factory in Seattle’s shipbuilding yards, and the city’s manufacturing complex was born.  The jet age ushered in twenty years of prosperity in the Seattle area beginning in the 1950s.  An expansive system of regional freeways extended urban growth outside the city limits.  The 1970s brought recession to the heavily oil-dependent manufacturing economy; although Boeing remains the region’s single largest employer, Seattle is perhaps better known today for its knowledge economy heavyweights, including Microsoft and Amazon (Klingle 2007).  Losing approximately 7 percent of its population between 1970 and 1980 (US Census 2011), the knowledge economy corporations pull much weight in urban development.  Municipal governance, urban form, and even attitudes towards sustainability have been reshaped by new industries as the economy has been gone from blue- to white-collar (Gibson 2004).

Key actors, policies, and projects

In recent decades, the City of Seattle has attempted to affect urban sustainability via three general methods:

  • private subsidies for green home technologies and information campaigns targeted at a relatively well-educated workforce,
  • renewal of key works of public infrastructure with the help of higher-level funds, and
  • outsourcing of certain responsibilities and small-scale projects to interested community groups.

For example, the City of Seattle [hereafter: the City] creates and distributes a wide array of Green Home Guides, detailing the selection of appropriate materials and energy-saving technologies; the City also partners with the Washington State Department of Transportation to deliver key projects in transit infrastructure, including the new Alaskan Way Tunnel and improvements to regional light and heavy rail (WSDOT 2012; SDOT 2005).

However, Seattle is perhaps best known in the literature for the third method, and particularly for the initiatives of Sustainable Seattle, a volunteer-run community organization formed in 1990 that undertook to draft and publish a report proposing a graded set of sustainability indicators against which regional and local development outcomes could be measured (AtKisson 1996).  AtKisson notes that the formation of the group convened a broad cross-section of Seattle society, even as it deliberately excluded the formal involvement of city government:

“The indicators project was kept non-governmental and all-volunteer for two reasons: (1) local government officials were not yet sufficiently interested [1990-1991] in sustainability or in benchmarking progress toward it, and (2) a volunteer citizens’ effort was believed to have greater potential for long-term impact than a government-led project.”  (Atkisson 1996: 338-339)

Therefore, AtKisson documents how sustainability in Seattle has largely been seen to rely on the actions of individual citizens: the urban culture emphasizes a liberal, small-government approach to sustainable development outcomes.

Figure 1: Excerpt from a Seattle Green Home Guide. Many City sustainability initiatives include educational measures that deemphasize the role of the government in environmental practices.

Sustainable Seattle continues to operate as one of the primary community institutions in the city, and the organization itself takes on the funding of small-scale neighbourhood improvement projects that may require only a few thousand dollars.  Projects are decided via an application program – in addition to financial support, the community group markets successful applications through public workshops and its informal network of citizen activists, municipal contacts, and local business leaders.

Initiatives have recently focused [2011] on the development of neighbourhood “rain gardens”, which are designed to semi-treat polluted storm runoff from Seattle’s urban hardscape.  Five prototype gardens have been installed in conjunction with the cooperation of neighbourhood businesses responsible for their daily care (SS 2012).  The program is ultimately aimed at reducing the strain on the city’s aging combined sewer system, which currently does not comply with federal clean air and water regulations concerning the release of raw sewage into natural water bodies (SPU 2010).  Indeed, over the next 15 years, Seattle Public Utilities has engaged an infrastructure upgrading project in order to comply with these federal regulations: one of its 2010 report’s main proposals is to reduce sewer overflows by reducing storm water entry, in part via strategic greening (ibid.).

The Blue Ring program unifies both utility upgrades and improvements to the community environment.  Adopted in 2002, it seeks to echo the 1903 Green Ring park system, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and John Charles Olmsted to connect open spaces in Seattle’s outer neighbourhoods.  In turn, the open spaces of the central city will be connected by a continuous network of parkways and streets outfitted with greening, including rain gardens like Sustainable Seattle’s.  The project, as imagined by the Department of City Design, would work in conjunction with improvements to the city’s improvements to sewer and transport infrastructure (Seattle 2002).  The program aims to reconfigure downtown Seattle’s grid of relatively even-capacity alternating one-way streets into a hierarchy of through traffic and calmed spaces and will be implemented in concert with the rapid redevelopment of the central city’s north side.  Currently an area of low-intensity commercial buildings, walk-up apartments, and parking lots, the City has brought a model streetcar service through the area to the already redeveloped South Lake Union neighbourhood (Acutanza et al. 2010).

Figure 2: Seattle’s Blue Ring concept, a network of parks and improved streets connecting central city neighbourhoods. Courtesy Seattle, 2002.

Furthermore, the City is in in negotiations with internet retailer Amazon to develop 3-million square-feet of office space across three city blocks in the Denny Triangle neighbourhood in exchange for public space related to the Blue Ring program (Pryne 2012).  Nearby condominium development indicates that the north side of downtown Seattle is rapidly becoming dense, walkable urban environment, even though the lack of a cohesive public transit system in the region presents a stumbling block to more extensive transit-oriented development and active transport (SDOT 2005).  While improvements to green corridors within the city will undoubtedly work in conjunction with the expansion of the city’s bike lane network, regional transportation continues to rely on the freeway system: a 25-km light rail line between downtown Seattle and the city’s airport opened in 2009, but ridership has so far failed to meet growth expectations (see Table 1), and single-occupancy vehicle mode-share for work-trips in the tri-county metro area has remained slightly below 80% over the past two census periods (Sound Transit 2011; PSRC 2006).

Table 1: Excerpted table from Sound Transit, 2011. New light rail ridership and performance – 25-km link will form backbone

Summary evaluation

Seattle has seen its greatest successes in implementing sustainable programs where municipal government works in concert with and devolves responsibility to private individuals and community groups.  But this is not to say that this method of project delivery is appropriate for key sustainability strategies surrounding the renovation and construction of public infrastructures.  The success in small-scale neighbourhood activism seen in Seattle communities must not excuse the stunted development of the region’s public transit system or failing combined sewer network; community networks can hardly step in to fund the bulk of such projects, and may even be nonchalant towards those projects which, although in the public good, do not fulfil the specific objectives of a particular community group.   The potential for NIMBYism, were the Seattle model of citizen participation in community development to include the provision of works for the public good, discredits this very model where large-scale projects are under consideration.  Even as much as commendable private initiatives can create sustainable, vibrant, and engaged community environments, the lesson from Seattle is that citizens are capable of doing their part at their own scale – but government must remain responsible for instituting broader programmatic changes in sustainability policy and infrastructure provision, even if those projects inevitably limit or direct the ultimately unsustainable choices in regional development that continue to be made in Seattle’s new era of corporate expansion and educated activism.


Acutanza, Jeanne; Roger Mason; and Angela Brady.  2010.  “Creating a Sustainable Neighbourhood: Mercer Corridor Project”.  Conference paper – Green Streets and Highways 2010: an Interactive Conference on the State of the Art and How to Achieve Sustainable Outcomes.  Seattle.
AtKisson, Alan.  1996.  “Developing Indicators of Sustainable Community: Lessons from Sustainable Seattle”.  Environmental Impact Assessment Review 1996(16): 337-350.
Bagley, Clarence.  1916.  History of Seattle from the earliest settlement to the present time. Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company.  Excerpt viewed 21/05/2012 at,5
Gibson, Timothy.  2004.  “Chapter 2: Crisis and Opportunity in the Post Fordist City”.  In Securing the Spectacular City: the Politics of Revitalization and Homelessness in Downtown Seattle. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Klingle, Matthew.  2007.  Emerald City: an Environmental History of Seattle.  New Haven: Yale University Press.
Pryne, Eric.  2012, February 15.  “Amazon to buy Denny Triangle property; plans 3 big office towers”.  Seattle Times.  Accessed 21/05/2012 at
Puget Sound Regional Council.  2006.  “Destination 2030 Metropolitan Transportation Plan: Progress Report”.  Draft Environmental Impact Statement.  Accessed 21/05/2012 at
Seattle, City of.  2002.  “The Blue Ring: Connecting Places”.  Seattle’s Open Space Strategy for the Central City.  Accessed 20/05/2012 at
Seattle Department of Transportation.  2005.  “Seattle Transit Plan: Executive Summary”.  Adopted September 2005, resolution 30799.  Accessed 19/05/2012 at
Seattle Public Utilities.  2010.  “Combined Sewer Overflow Reduction: Long-Term Control Plan – Community Guide to the Plan”.  Accessed 21/05/2012 at
Sound Transit.  2011.  “Service Delivery Quarterly Performance Report: Fourth Quarter 2011”.  Accessed 21/05/2012 at
Sustainable Seattle.  2012.  “Sustainable Rain”.  Community group webpage.  Accessed 20/05/2012 at
United States Census.  2011.  “Annual Estimates of the Population of Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2011”.  Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas: Tables.  Accessed 21/05/2012 at
Washington State Department of Transportation.  2012.  “SR 99 – Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement”.  Official project public webpage.  Accessed on 20/05/2012 at

1 Response to Seattle, Washington, USA

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