Twenty years ago, Seattle was America’s epicenter of urban planning. Its mayor, Norm Rice, had sponsored and guided into law a long-range blueprint that laid out in copious detail what the city was projected to look like in the faraway year of 2014.
According to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, as the document was officially known, the city would emerge from a period of slow growth and increase its population significantly in the ensuing two decades. It would use its planning tools to direct the new growth into 39 “urban villages” scattered across the city. These communities would gradually evolve into urbanist showplaces: compact enclaves organized around walkable streets, neighborhood commerce, reliable public transportation and abundant green space. Elements of the plan seemed to come straight out of the writings of Jane Jacobs, the author of the influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.