Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, September 22, 2023

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

  1. A commitment to the development and production of a broad, comprehensive, visionary, and detailed revitalization plan/s (Bilbao, Hamburg, Liverpool);
  2. 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);
  3. 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);
  4. 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);
  5. integrated branding and marketing programs to support the realization of the plan (Hamburg, Vienna, Liverpool, Bilbao, Dublin);
  6. 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).
Flickr photo by John Smatlak.  

In Bilbao, both the Guggenheim Museum and the surface tram system are examples of seizing opportunity.  

The opportunity to snag the museum came up after Graz, Austria balked.  Bilbao already had a broad ranging plan, and it called for adding cultural attractions.  But it wasn't specified.  The Guggenheim became a way to realize that concept.

And the tram system was developed after the museum opened, and they realized they needed better "intra-district" transit service between subway stations to better serve the patrons of the Guggenheim Museum.

The Space Needle in June after heavy rain in Seattle. (Luke Johnson / The Seattle Times)

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.

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At 9:43 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

There was a good article -- which I can't find -- that the pandemic related effects set up back 10 years in a number of areas (crime, eduction, economy, etc).

(Certainly true of my condo values -- just below 2012 prices)

That's one way of framing it.

certainly for cities, they require enormous amount of social capital to keep functioning, and taking out such a big deposit it not great. Again the demographic creeping issues -- lack of younger people, more jobs to hybrid/remote, lack of public transit investment and massive subsidies to electric cars -- don't augur well for the next 10 either.

Again, a charitable explanation I read once on Oakland County is Detroit suffered 20 years of disinvestment (1930-1950) and by the time baby boomers were turning into school kids it was massive dislocation from urban areas.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

A lot of important points here. Quick response not possible... although that FT article I referenced in a post made a similar point, that the cycles of + and - are long.

Wrt Detroit I think before the riots, people weren't really aware that Detroit was declining, even though plants were closing.

My friend who is a 4th generation Washingtonian makes a very good point that the shutdown of the Navy Yard had a huge ecinimic impact on the city that isn't adequately recognized (obviously the same issue in other cities where their yards closed too, Brooklyn gets the most recognition).

Same, you're saying with the economic impact of civid.

And yes to social and community capital. It must be constantly cultivated and refreshed. Withdrawals, like over crime, are almost insurmountable.

The people who believe on social justice grounds we should accept more disorder have no conception about how difficult it was to bring crime down, and how important public safety is to quality of life and urban success and revival.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

William Junius Wilson When Work Disappears is so important. It discusses how the urban working class lost its foundation.

At 1:55 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

Wilson's book is exactly what I was thinking of; it's a secular trend.

We've seen two giant trends since the "riots"

1. The emergence of cities as playgrounds for the bourgeoisie. You blame Friends, I blame Manhattan (1979) which was about the last year a middle class person could buy in Manhattan.There is always going to be a role for this, but striking number of Gen Zero for the next 10-20 years is not going to be a positive.

2. Agglomeration economies, which has helped your "Strong Market" cities in white collar employment. Again, the bosses may still believe in that and in their sunk real estate costs, not clear that 25 years old do.

So just like manufacturing / light industry left urban areas in the 1950s and 1960s were likely to see continued employment reduction for the next 20 years.

At 6:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I hope you're wrong. I am still super focused on agglomeration economies. But even businesses are going to be pulled into two directions simultaneously.

They might want people in the office, but at the same time, they don't want to pay for offices, and are happy to offload the cost of the workplace onto the employee working at home.

Maybe they can pay less too.

While I fervently believe in agglomeration economies, the reality is that they are not only derived from in-person physical contact, but can be derived from high quality online interaction.

I think in person is still very important and you need to build in ways for employees to get together on a regular basis, I will say in my experience, with smart people participating, online meetings can be quite productive.

At the same time they can be underproductive. Perhaps some types of work are better than others for this.

Eg our board meetings, we've only met in person a few times, and a lot of the meeting is taken up by minutiae, so it's hard to get to the meat of things, and we haven't built personal relationships, which are necessary to make Big Hairy Audacious Decisions.

(Plus some tasks for larger groups can take significantly longer when almost 100% online.)

... I didn't say but the reason I just wrote about Bilbao and the six elements of transformational planning is my failure to convince the board to take advantage of a serendipitous funding opportunity. I mean there's still time, but it's much more circuitous--I'll have to bust my ass to do it, mostly myself, to get the money to do a plan, because to be positioned to get the money, we need a master plan and compelling narrative. For 2025 and a once every 8 years capital project funding round in Salt Lake County.

OTOH, our capital planning committee is me and two ladies in their 30s, and they are so amazing (one is a lawyer). We accomplish so much, using Google Meet, and Drive and email.

But it works because we're all "amazing." Committed, each of us can write, have skills, know stuff, have been able to work out great ways of collaboration. Sure I have to compromise more than I'd like, but at the end of the day, I am so amazed by them.

The trick is, how many employees are that amazing to do all that online? I suspect a lot more people are capable of that than what the bosses clamoring for coming back to the office believe.

The big thing is working out how to collaborate online. The three of us did it, I don't know how it works in larger settings. We didn't have any kind of "HR assistance." Just a recognition that the park needs to move forward on so many dimensions that we had to step up. I think there was some latent trust out of the recognition that each of us is intelligent and committed to the park.


In any case, I haven't yet figured out the future of cities.

I think the cities still have all of those advantages of facilitating exchange.

But it will require much more purposive cultivation (the social and community capital element) and I don't think the average city, especially larger ones, is good at that.

Salt Lake has a bunch of those elements. But desire is sometimes ahead of capacity. In fact, with Sugar House Park, I have a platform to kind of demonstrate a lot of those things. Civic assets as foci for civic engagement.


At 6:18 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


David Engwicht describes exchange well. And yes, I worry about the decline of "spontaneous exchange" as the result of the decline of face to face interactions.

“What is the city all about? The efficiency of exchange. There are two types of exchange, planned and spontaneous. For traffic engineers, planned exchanges can be translated as “trips”- this is the only focus of engineers. Spontaneous exchanges are known as exchanges for free- they don’t cost any more infrastructure- but they are almost impossible to measure.”

Instead of having to travel the world in search of consumables, cities act as a magnet attracting inwards the material delights of what the world has to offer. Cities, he says, ‘are a mechanism for maximising the diversity of exchanges while simultaneously minimising travel’. While there exists planned exchanges and unplanned exchanges, what ultimately drives the creative city and the economic vitality of the city is the spontaneous exchanges that it creates.

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I like the idea of exchange both in a narrow sense and in a broader way to think about urban life.

However, to tie back to earlier FT piece on "death of cities" I remember the Tennessee Williams quote that there are only three cities in the US -- NY, SF and New Orleans.

Exchange is an inherently elite concept. There is a reason why London, Manhattan and other are recovering stronger. I'm not sure "Exchange" even works in DC anymore outside congressional staffer bubble. And move down the food chain it gets worse.

So we either go back to a model where there are 2-3 cities in the US (as in the 1950s) that have a purpose and the rest of zombies locked in by sunk costs. Generally speaking the period of 1965 to 1980 was not a good one for urbanity in America.

Looking at the birth year cohorts, you can see a big drop in 1995 to about 12M births per year. That lasted until 2010, when it dropped to about 10M. Starting in 2028, those reduced cohorts is turning 18 and starting to want to live on their own. Urban life can be great for that, a lot more fun. But it's a huge drop in numbers from the Gen Z now moving in, and an even bigger drop (15M a year) from the millennial. So you can't surf that demographic wave anymore.

At 8:38 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

also, going back to original comments. As I said one of the best ways to think about pandemic effects is to lock at the loss of a decade of progress.

Post just had a good piece that homicide rates in DC are now at 1997 levels, so you've lost 20 years of progress. SO an outlier and evidence of the level of disfunction.

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

The only thing I'll say wrt crime is I'm not sure it's all covid. My hypothesis is that the social justice folks unleashed more disorder, thinking the system could withstand it, that it wouldn't get worse, on eve of covid, into conditions where the ability to withstand became much weaker.

But it's semantics more than anything. Important to understand the why, but the end result is the same.

HOWEVER, DC is an outlier. Which doesn't say much for the quality of leadership. But also of the failure for the city's previous resurgence over the previous not quite 20 years to not having much in the way of benefits for the persistently poor, not even trickle down.

Again, a huge failure by Bowser et al.

At 11:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Outlier in that violent crime continues to get worse. While in most other cities it has stabilized and dropped from covid peaks. (Philadelphia still a problem too.)


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