From the issue feature, "Living by Design in the Pacific Northwest." 
Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

little planet seattle

Illustration: Roman Kogan

According to The New York Times website, last September one of their most emailed stories was an article by Jennifer A. Kingson citing the Pacific Northwest as the most desirable North American refuge on our warming planet. Those living in the drought-stricken South, the hurricane-ridden Northeast and along the sinking Eastern Seaboard may soon covet the Pacific Northwest’s abundant water supplies, temperate climate and land rearing safely out of the ocean’s reach.

We live in a beautiful region endowed with an abundance of ecosystems that provide clean air, water, energy and food. But are we flexible and adaptable enough to live well in a region that is projected to be home to an additional 50 million residents by 2100 (as stated by Oregon State University’s Pacific Northwest 2100 Project)? Can our region’s systems absorb that stress?

In October, Sustainable Seattle launched the Pacific Northwest Resilience Challenge with a summit at the University of Washington. Its goal is threefold:

1. To increase awareness of the interdependencies and vulnerabilities of the critical built, natural and human systems that support our economy.

2. To create a community of resilience thinkers to work across professional silos to solve critical, fundamental needs.

3. To identify concrete short-term actions that will give impetus to smarter thinking about priority investments for our region.

This was not a design challenge, a policy forum or an academic conclave, but all the players were there: developers, corporations, land use planners, angel investors, academics, public utilities, game designers, lawyers, data analysts, insurance brokers, nonprofits and local and state government agencies. The most striking thing about this gathering was the breadth of expertise represented. It is amazing how the conversation about our future changes when it includes all the stakeholders. Not one person at the summit was concerned about our ability to design the technical solutions to our region’s pressing problems, but they unanimously agreed, as both professionals and citizens, that we must break free of the political and financial shackles that bind us.

The financial shackle is a chimera. There is money available to invest in smart solutions—mountains of it. Each year, Seattle Public Utilities alone spends $900 million on improving water quality. The problem is that corporations, governments, utilities and foundations are standing protectively in front of their own Gringotts Vaults, terrified of spending their dollars unwisely.

The biggest challenge is the lack of political will to act. Seattle is at a point in its development where it needs to make huge investments that will set the stage for the next 50 years, but the only proven successes available for reference are from the past—and they are not the right solutions for the coming years. We are afraid to fail and are stuck in a mode of debate—yet the cost of inaction will render all future disagreements irrelevant.

Those who design the built environment are certainly thinking about carbon reduction, resource limitations and human health. Seattle is home to the Bullitt Center, a living building; is piloting performance versus code compliance for energy efficiency; launched the 2030 District program; is considering district energy; and the list goes on. We have much to be proud of, but changes aren’t happening quickly enough or going far enough. 

Current discussions about resilience focus on risk. While mitigating risk is important, motivating change from a place of fear is rarely successful. Instead, we should talk about opportunities for innovation, job creation and greater social cohesion. When making decisions about the Northwest’s future, we have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage the value of every dollar spent by bringing all stakeholders, players and vested interests together—a much broader group than the one sitting at the table today. We have no more time to waste; if we’re going to make real progress, we must have different conversations.

As members of the architecture, engineering and design industry, we pride ourselves on our creativity and problem solving, on our ability to do more with less and provide the greatest value. We understand how integrating the natural environment into cities improves design, performance and aesthetics. As communicators, visualizers and dreamers, we are in a unique position to go out and create the dialogue that will make better outcomes possible. It is unreasonable to think that our clients can figure all of this out on their own. We have essential knowledge that can help them access financial resources, share costs with other stakeholders, engage the support of the community and leverage natural ecosystem services. We can bring so much more than design to the table.

All the easy problems have been solved. We must get together, build constituency and act differently if we’re going to solve those that are left. We have everything we need right here, right now: the people, the ideas, the research and the natural superpower of our region’s unique ecosystems. The money will follow the people and ideas.

As we continue to compete for projects, for money, for position, for design recognition, we’re failing to recognize that we, people, just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. The Pacific Northwest will endure. The decisions we make today will determine whether or not we are part of it.