Space needle thinking: Seattle, seizing opportunity, and transformational projects action planning
Visionary thinking comes up because of a recent matter I lost out on, in my board service, over the inability to see the value in responding to changed circumstances and taking advantage of an opportunity "suddenly" presented.
I thought about it in terms of what I call "transformational projects action planning," and how part of the concept was influenced by the articles I wrote about culture-based urban revitalization in 7 European cities, for an EU National Institutes of Culture project in Baltimore.
Based on my observation of cities like Bilbao ("Why can't the "Bilbao Effect" be reproduced? | Bilbao as an example of Transformational Projects Action Planning"), I concluded that best practice revitalization initiatives, especially in those cities that were working to overturn serious disadvantages, were comprised of these six elements:
- A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
- the creation of innovative and successful implementation organizations, with representatives from the public sector and private firms, to carry out the program. Typically, the organizations have some distance from the local government so that the plan and program aren't subject to the vicissitudes of changing political administrations, parties and representatives (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool, Helsinki);
- strong accountability mechanisms that ensure that the critical distance provided by semi-independent implementation organizations isn't taken advantage of in terms of deleterious actions (for example Dublin's Temple Bar Cultural Trust was amazingly successful but over time became somewhat disconnected from local government and spent money somewhat injudiciously, even though they generated their own revenues--this came to a head during the economic downturn and the organization was widely criticized; in response the City Council decided to fold the TBCT and incorporate it into the city government structure--in my experience, over time, such initiatives become less focused under city control);
- funding to realize the plan, usually a combination of local, regional, state, and national sources, and in Europe, "structural adjustment" and other programmatic funding from the European Regional Development Fund and related programs is also available (Hamburg, as a city-state, has extra-normal access to funds beyond what may normally be available to the average city);
- integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
- flexibility and a willingness to take advantage of serendipitous events and opportunities and integrate new projects into the overall planning and implementation framework (examples include Bilbao's "acquisition" of a branch of the Guggenheim Museum and the creation of a light rail system to complement its new subway system, Liverpool City Council's agreement with a developer to create the Liverpool One mixed use retail, office, and residential development in parallel to the regeneration plan and the hosting of the Capital of Culture program in 2008, and how multifaceted arts centers were developed in otherwise vacated properties rented out cheaply by their owners in Dublin, Helsinki, and Marseille).
Recently the Mayor of Seattle, Bruce Harrell, called on the city to once again start thinking big ("Harrell’s ‘Space Needle thinking’ needs to aim high," Seattle Times). From the article:
He also called for “Space Needle thinking” to bring forward ambitious ideas for the city’s future. It’s a catchy phrase and plays on something I’ve long noticed about Seattle: Its ability to reinvent itself over and over. The concrete plans that come from “Space Needle thinking” have yet to emerge. But it allows for a thought exercise about Seattle past, present and future.
What's interesting about "space needle thinking," is that according to the columnist, Jon Talton, it was anomalous at the time, that Seattle was actually pretty conservative and in some ways backward. Committing to being the location of the World's Fair was a big jump from a standing start. The Space Needle and the World's Fair were initiated by the private sector, not local government.
But because 60 years later, Seattle is in a much different place, and much more economically successful, it has different opportunities. From the article:
Today, Harrell’s “Space Needle thinking” is a means to bolster and grow ingredients that we already know make great urban spaces.
One example might be rezoning in Belltown and on blighted Third Avenue to encourage taller buildings and residential development. More than 106,000 people are already living in the central core, a 61% increase since 2013. Build the First Avenue streetcar to complete the Center City Connector, enhancing mobility from the Chinatown International District to Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market, First Hill and South Lake Union.
Our downtown assets will bring people there (recent summer tourism seasons reinforce that we’re building from a great base), but we need to make sure we’re getting the basics right (a clean, safe and welcoming downtown) if we’re going to keep bringing workers and foster an environment where people want to locate their businesses.
Harrell has found a relatable and fun way to encourage people to think creatively about what’s possible downtown. Perhaps it’s a way to shift thinking by using a symbol of pride and accomplishment to rally people around change. Can Seattle still muster its genius for reinvention? I hope so.
Post covid urban revival. I've also been thinking about this in the context of post covid urban revival.
The biggest thing is to double down on the elements that make urban living worthwhile--high quality urban design and placemaking, things to do, access to cultural institutions. Not just high quality transit, but support for sustainable mobility--walking and biking. And a reasonably attractive environment for business and commerce.
Addressing disorder is fundamental to public safety. charlie calls our attention to a report by the DC Chief Financial Officer, that outmigration of population during covid, especially of relatively young high earners, has cost the city $200 million per year in lost tax revenue.
Some of this has to do with public safety. I first moved to DC in grim times, the late 1980s and 1990s, when crime burgeoned. charlie frequently points out that it was the crime drop starting in the very late 1990s that set the stage for city revival across the nation.
Having lived through that period of disorder, I am always amazed that elected officials in cities like SF, Seattle, Portland, and DC are happy with encouraging it. To be fair, I don't think that's what they intended.
But as crime dropped, they thought on social justice grounds that we could absorb a bit more disorder by decriminalizing certain quality of life and other crimes, that improvements in public safety meant it wouldn't be that big of a deal.
Instead what happened is instead of being grateful for the light treatment, perpetrators saw this as a signal to commit more crime, that anti-social behavior was not being sanctioned, but dismissed, and even encouraged. Hence, more crime.
DC is a laboratory now for failed approaches. Lenience for youth perpetrators is fine when they are acting out in simple ways. But carjackings and robberies by youth as young as 12, murders by kids under 16 years of age are not merely "kids being kids."
It's a dire problem, requiring a serious response.
Like with the decriminalization of crimes by adults, anti-social acts by youth are seemingly accepted and dismissed, when the consequences for committing crimes are minor.