Seattle's Next Experiment in Urban Planning: Inclusive Engagement

Seattle is tapping technology to reach previously unheard from -- and often culturally diverse -- citizens.
June 15, 2015 AT 11:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

Chinatown in Seattle. Immigrants comprise 20 percent of Seattle's population. (Shutterstock)

Seattle is a mecca for planners.

While there are a number of communities that have special significance to practitioners of the urban planning profession, Seattle leaders – past and present – have earned a reputation for strategically assessing the city’s strengths and weaknesses, setting goals and objectives, and then sticking with a plan.

It's not really a coincidence that the national conference for the American Planning Association was just held in Seattle in April 2015 with more than 6,400 planners in attendance. Many planners (this one included) drew much of their initial inspiration and early career choices from observing and studying the multiple transformations and innovations of this special city.

Some of us older, more seasoned planners can recall the sense of excitement surrounding the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. We in the southern United States watched from thousands of miles away with awe and wonder, hoping that someday we might have an opportunity to visit, ascend the Space Needle and ride the futuristic monorail. It sparked our imaginations and gave us a glimpse of how future cities might be different: sleek, clean and efficient. It looked like Disney’s Tomorrowland, but turned out not to be so far-fetched after all. We saw dreams becoming reality and concluded it might be fun to devote our lives to help build something similar.

In the May 2015 Governing article, “A City of Villages: Was Seattle’s experiment in urban planning really as big a gamble as it seemed?” Alan Ehrenhalt notes that, even 20 years ago, Seattle was “America’s epicenter of urban planning.” He credits the city’s then-mayor, Norm Rice, with summoning the public will and spending the necessary political capital to produce an innovative and challenging blueprint for how the city should look and function in 2014.

Ehrenhalt describes the process that took place back then – the successes and the concessions, the projections that hit the mark and those that missed, the inevitable wrestling matches with the local Chamber of Commerce over automobile-related issues and other such planning matters with which today's planners will identify.

He also describes the failure of the planning process to deal effectively with income disparity and economic polarization. These issues persist and are becoming even more pronounced in Seattle and other cities across the U.S. While planners will probably find little comfort in that analysis, it underscores one of the hard lessons that we might have learned during more recent decades: People tend to support that which they help create. And the best, most effective plans are those that involve the broadest cross section of the community.

Seattle's application video to be part of the second cohort of the City Accelerator spells out some of the city's current challenges. For example, Seattle is already one of the fastest-growing large cities in the U.S. – and that trend is expected to continue. Robert Feldstein, director of the Office of Policy and Innovation for Seattle, cites projections of 120,000 new residents and 115,000 new jobs expected in the next 20 years. Clearly, the need to plan has never been greater. However, Kathy Nyland, senior policy advisor in the same office, notes that Seattle is also a culturally diverse city with a population that encompasses 129 languages. Immigrants comprise 20 percent of the city and 33 percent of those individuals are "linguistically isolated" – meaning no one in the household speaks English. Nyland correctly characterizes attempts to rely on public meetings – a system of public participation established decades ago, long before the Internet – as "an obstacle that prevents people from participating."

Perhaps it was not a coincidence, but certainly it was a fortunate concurrence, that Seattle chose to address the issue of civic engagement as the principal theme for its City Accelerator initiative. Truly, there is nothing more relevant or important in fashioning new plans for coming decades. The digital era has given us new tools, but it has also instigated an even greater disruption of traditional methods of communication and public participation. Where people once had to choose between three or four television channels, they now have more than 300. Even when people come to meetings, they often are more attentive to their smart phones than the subject of the meeting at hand.

Seattle's public engagement process as a major part of its comprehensive plan, Seattle 2035, is already underway. In fact, the city is maintaining a very impressive "digital open house" for public information and input and survey responses will be received until June 18. All those interested in civic engagement – especially urban planners working with culturally diverse communities – should visit this site. It has a language tab in the upper left corner that uses a Google-based service to quickly translate the information on the site and survey questions into dozens of languages and dialects. Frankly, even after more than 40 years in public life, I've never seen anything quite like it.

Patrice Carroll, senior planner with Seattle's comprehensive planning staff, notes that because of the plan's potential impact, the city is completing a full-blown formal Environmental Impact Statement. The Web-based survey is just one piece of the effort. "This is a piece that is designed for people that normally are hard to connect to," she says. "The online open house gave us an opportunity to hear from people that otherwise might not be involved." As of this writing the city had already received over 400 responses to the survey.

When asked about coming steps, Carroll said, "(Our next step is) to outreach to ethnic media that serve some of our many cultural groups and neighborhoods and use face-to-face contact with people on the ground. The real challenge is to identify the issues that we want people to comment on. This will be a tool that is intended to promote online dialogue (as opposed to isolated, one-way comments). We plan to use a digital tool called "Consider It" – an existing computer program which is used by legislatures to sort and weigh options."

Seattle's current mayor, Ed Murray, has taken a public stand and made a strong commitment to Seattle 2035, and the updated, hopefully more effective and inclusive process that will help produce it. He stresses the current planning process must involve those who are affected, but from which leaders rarely hear. "We must use new social media tools and strategies, many of which were developed in our own backyard," he says.

Planners and the staff of the Mayor's Office of Innovation – those working on the comprehensive plan – stress that what they are doing today is not a replacement for meetings and other strategies of the past, but it is an effort to engage a younger and more diverse group – the very people most likely to be impacted and marginalized by changes in quality of life and affordability as the rapid growth and development of Seattle continues to unfold.

In the words of Mayor Murray, "We want more chairs at the table and more voices heard."

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.