Thursday, March 10, 2011

Has Seattle "Reinvented" Itself?

I don't normally write online comments to newspaper articles, but every so often one will come along that really pushes my buttons. This recent piece in The New York Times is trying to capitalize on the country's almost cult-like fascination with Seattle that's been around since grunge and Sleepless in Seattle. Not only are we responsible for $4.50 mocha frappuccinos and the Dreamliner, we have also "reinvented" our economy through education and cutting-edge urban design, the author argues, in a way that has uniquely saved us from the recession. Did I get that right? Because of course, Seattle likes to think of itself as being so "progressive" it's practically from the future. But are we really? Does the way we run things in the Emerald City really hold true for other cities?

Here's the original article:

As the 2010 Census rolls out, much of the attention of news organizations is focused on the continuing growth of Texas and Florida, but there is much to be learned from the less extreme, but still significant, population growth in less sunny places, like Seattle.
Seattle is one of the few large cities outside the Sun Belt that is growing more quickly than the country as a whole. The city’s growth reveals the benefits of concentrating smart people in dense cities. 
The success of Seattle was hardly foreordained, as it shares much with America’s many declining cities. Like Detroit and St. Louis, Seattle grew as a node of the great transport network, which included canals from Erie to Panama and intercontinental railroads, which enabled Easterners to access the vast wealth of America’s hinterland. 
Seattle’s growth spurt during 1880s coincided with its rail connection to the East. In its early years, the city specialized in providing access to timber and Klondike gold. 
To succeed in the 20th century, American cities needed to do more than help move natural resources, and Seattle moved into manufacturing transportation equipment, natural enough given the vast distance that separated the city from the country’s population centers. 
During World War I, the city’s shipbuilding industry expanded rapidly, andBoeing began as a partnership between a naval engineer and a lumberman. 
Just as Michigan’s forests were part of Detroit’s early success in making cars, since early automobiles — like the carriages that preceded them — had plenty of wood, early planes used light wood and Washington’s timber industry was a boon to Seattle’s airplane industry. William Boeing’s own expertise in wood products helped him to be smart about early airplane construction. 
In 1954 more than half of Seattle’s manufacturing workers labored in the transportation industry. By 1960, Seattle was seen by many as Boeing’s town, but that should have been recognized as a bad omen. 
For 50 years, economists have documented that urban reinvention and entrepreneurship rely on small companies and industrial diversity, not industrial monoliths. 
At the start of the 20th century, Detroit was one of the most innovative cities on earth, with an abundance of small automotive entrepreneurs supplying each other with parts, financing and new ideas. 
As the Big Three rose to dominance, Detroit became synonymous with urban decline. Boeing’s outsize footprint in Seattle set the stage for the city’s 20 tough years after 1960.
Before the industrial revolution, cities were centers of small, smart companies that connected with each other and the outside world. Small companies and smart people are the sources of urban success today. The industrial city now seems like an unfortunate detour during which cities exploited economies of scale but lost the interactive exchange of ideas that is their most important asset. 
As Boeing scaled back its Seattle employment, the city floundered. By 1971, amuch-discussed billboard read “Would the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?”
But there was a crucial difference between Seattle and Detroit. Unlike Fordand General Motors, Boeing employed highly educated workers. Almost since its inception, Seattle has been committed to education and has benefited from the University of Washington, which is based there. Skills are the source of Seattle’s strength. 
Over the last three decades, human capital has become increasingly linkedwith urban growth outside the Sun Belt. 
The ability to attract skilled people was intimately tied to the success of Seattle’s star companies, such as AmazonNordstrom’s, whose strategy of empowering employees was more feasible because those workers were skilled; Starbucks, a coffee chain founded by educators; and Microsoft, which depends on a steady supply of smart software engineers. (Disclosure: I serve on the domestic advisory board of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.) 
A great paradox of our age is that despite the declining cost of connecting across space, more people are clustering together in cities. The explanation of that strange fact is that globalization and technological change have increased the returns on being smart, and humans get smart by being around other smart people. 
Dense, smart cities like Seattle succeed by attracting smart people who educate and employ one another. 
A person’s earnings rise by more than 7 percent as the share of people in his or her metropolitan area with a college degree increases by 10 percent, holding that person’s own level of education constant. Educated neighbors are particularly valuable in dense cities, where contact is more common. 
Skilled people have often chosen to come to already educated cities, and the share of Seattle adults with college degrees has risen to 56 percent from an already high 47 percent in 2000.
Today, Seattle is one of the wealthier and most productive metropolitan areas in the United States. Per-capita personal income is 25 percent above the United States average. Per-capita productivity is 37 percent above the metropolitan average in the United States. That productivity explains why Seattle has grown so robustly over the last decade. 
Seattle has also helped itself by permitting taller structures. That density enables ideas to flow freely. Building up is also an environmentally sensitive alternative to building out, and Seattle’s height helps the city maintain a relatively high level of public transportation use and a relatively low level of carbon emissions. 
Sun Belt sprawl isn’t the only model of modern metropolitan success. Skilled, tall cities like Seattle provide an alternative model of urban growth that emphasizes the creation of knowledge. 
The Seattle model is particularly important, because the ideas created in skilled cities are likely to be the economic mainstay of America in the next century.

I've lived in Seattle for 21 years, and I have lived in both its central city (Capitol Hill) and in suburban areas (Kirkland), graduated from the University of Washington, now working for a Microsoft vendor.

The article is absolutely right to point out the UW and the Port of Seattle as primary ingredients in the success of our fair city. The Port is responsible for nearly a quarter million living-wage jobs in the city, and as Asian economies grow, so do we. Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the US almost exclusively for this reason.

The UW is probably the world's best kept secret among top public universities - it's affordable (less than $8,000 a year in-state tuition), full of top-ranked departments, with 60,000 students packed into a relatively small city neighborhood a 10-minute bus ride away from one of the best and most vibrant downtown areas of the West Coast.

With other factors, the article is a bit off. Luck has definitely been just as much a factor in Seattle's success as entrepreneurship and the "creative class." Microsoft took root in the Eastside suburbs not because a highly educated workforce was ready and available, or because the various infrastructure was secure and well-established. It did so because two of its founding partners, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, had the serendipity of being upper-crust white nerds at an elite prep school working on computers at the precise economic moment (de-industrialization and restructuring in the late 1970s) when doing so could make any decent programmer a millionaire. Starbucks, likewise, emerged at the tail end of the largest crime wave in American history during the late 90's, before- which building sidewalk cafe culture and walkable downtowns (as the early espresso carts before Starbucks did) would have been unthinkable.

Second, the author is quite mistaken if he believes that Seattle's affinity for density is at all responsible for its growth. 75% of Seattle is zoned as single-family neighborhoods. Areas of true high-density living, like one would find in New York, Chicago or San Francisco? There are exactly four of them: Downtown, Capitol Hill, the U District and Belltown, with a combined population of perhaps 100,000 people. Seattle only rezoned areas of South Lake Union and the Denny Triangle for high densities in the past 5-10 years. Before that, these and several other areas were nearly barren and full of parking lots. We just got to the point where major groceries became comfortable locating downtown, which in the US is some kind of accomplishment. How about families with children living downtown? Elementary schools in high-density areas? Compared to a New York, Chicago, or even Vancouver to the north, Seattle shows few of these key signs of life in its "high-density" areas.

Transportation is a severe problem in Seattle, and it is precisely because the city has not adequately invested in truly high-density, sustainable neighborhoods (especially in its middle-class "urban village" areas), that this is the case. The 520 bridge, the Alaskan Way Viaduct debacle,  and our notoriously pothole-plagued streets do not help our case for being paragons of the quality transit infrastructure needed to "win the future", as Obama might say. Need I mention our relatively pathetic light rail system that was rejected in a public vote in the 1960s - it might reach our suburban job centers by 2030, and that's if Tim Eyman doesn't have his way. Outside of a few key corridors, bus service is infrequent and low-quality. In reality, the city's transportation network is a lot like that LA - lots of transit "ridership" on a few highly-trafficked routes, but with the vast majority of commuters trapped in congested freeways with no alternatives in sight.

What is really so special about Seattle?
1. Seattle really is the most educated city in the country, topping even Boston and SF. Do you have a Bachelor's degree? So do 55% of Seattleites over 25. A Master's degree? 1 in 4. 1 in 10 Seattleites has a PhD. If are you are a high-school grad, GOOD LUCK trying to live here.

2. Compared to local incomes, Seattle has some of the most overpriced real estate in the country. The quality of life here makes up a lot of that. Geographically, Seattle is hourglass-shaped with water on all sides. Pretty much anywhere with a "view" - and this is a large chunk of the city - is out of reach to the middle class.

3. If there was one cultural vibe you get from living in Seattle, it is the feeling of being unique and/or apart from the rest of the US. As one of my transplant friends often tells me, this is a "city of the mind." It's like Scandinavia on the Pacific. If you want to study with some of the smartest people on the planet, write code that will change the world, fight global warming, or do business with China, this is the place to do it. Socially, this feeling of constantly being on "the edge" of the next big thing has some negative consequences. The "Seattle Freeze," an ever-present lack of social energy and perceived coldness to outsiders, is something every transplant experiences. Part of it is indeed due to the gloomy weather. As I'm writing, I'm thinking back to the last time I saw sunshine, and the number of weeks it's been is daunting. Another is the dominant upscale, corporate culture of the city that dampens the nightlife on weekdays in most areas. Finally, the high-tech emphasis of our economy (geeks working long hours) and the influence of Asian and Nordic local cultures blends together to create a relative shyness, indifference even, to new people you don't find in other cities.

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