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Originally published Wednesday, April 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

Committing to a shared vision of a future worth having

My daughter's commencement last summer at Qwest Field was a time to think about the past and ponder the future. As Seattle University's Class...

Special to The Times

My daughter's commencement last summer at Qwest Field was a time to think about the past and ponder the future. As Seattle University's Class of 2007 was filing in, I gazed far to the south to Mount Rainier, floating cloudlike on the horizon. I surveyed Safeco Field's dark green roof, spotted a white cruise ship churning across Elliott Bay, and glanced north to Seattle's gleaming new City Hall. As I thought about Joanna's future, I reflected on how much has changed here since my own graduation three decades ago.

Back in 1974, there was no Microsoft, no Costco, no Starbucks chain. Three years earlier, a billboard had declared, "Will the last person leaving Seattle — turn out the lights." The Mariners had yet to play in the Kingdome, no cruise ships sailed from Elliott Bay, and Seattle City Hall could easily be mistaken for a Holiday Inn. There were no cellphones or Internet, and a gallon of gasoline cost less than a dollar. The population of the Seattle metropolitan region was just over 2 million. By 2007, it had reached 3.5 million.

We are now at the midpoint between 1974 and 2040. The next 33 years will bring dramatic growth, untold changes and many questions. My daughter grew up seeing salmon run in the region's streams and crops grow in its river valleys. Will her children have that experience? Will they be able to afford a home and make a living wage? Will they marvel that "the mountain is out"? Or, will Rainier vanish into a carbon-emission haze? Given the enormous stakes, the time has come for smart, effective and bold actions at all levels of government.

The threat posed by climate change prompted the Washington Legislature to take several important steps this past session, including the "Local Solutions to Climate Change" bill. Senate Bill 6580 provides tools and technology for cities and counties to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions through smart land-use and transportation planning. This is vital because 60 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions in this region come from transportation. Further recommendations from stakeholder groups are due before the 2009 session.

At the regional level, the Puget Sound Regional Council is poised to adopt a new regional growth strategy this month. This strategy will guide the region's four counties and 80-plus cities in accommodating the additional 1.7 million people expected by 2040. That's roughly equivalent to today's population of the entire Portland metropolitan area.

The regional growth strategy assumes that almost all of our growth will occur within the existing urban-growth-area boundaries drawn under the state's Growth Management Act, and therefore will oblige cities to update their plans to accommodate the coming wave of growth. The strategy also outlines specific policies to address greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change, emphasizing development that requires less energy use per capita.

At the local level, examples abound of communities taking important actions to combat climate change and adapt to its effects. Comprehensive plans have created more connected, compact and complete communities in Burien, Kirkland, Mercer Island, Mill Creek and Renton. Increased densities have stimulated housing choice, economic vitality, sense of place and an increase in transit ridership. The anti-sprawl, centers-focused direction of the Growth Management Act has also given our region the jump on curtailing the number of miles driven and greenhouse-gas emissions.

The Seattle Climate Action Plan, adopted in 2006, was a forerunner in the region, and Seattle was one of the first to endorse the Kyoto Accord. Other cities in the region are following suit in ways tailored to their scale, community priorities and organizational capacities. The city of Shoreline, for example, has developed an environmental sustainability strategy, which advocates reduction of the community's carbon footprint. Major public facilities, such as Shoreline's new City Hall, are being held to a high "green" standard, and the city's fleet is transitioning to hybrid vehicles.

These efforts to manage growth and change are an important start. They suggest that we can build a future worth having if the people and institutions of this region commit to a shared vision.

Governments, from city halls to Olympia, must look at every major policy decision through the lens of sustainability. So, too, must each of us in the choices we make about where and how to live, work and move about the region.

If we hope to save this place we love, this planet we depend upon for life, we must be willing to embrace change and exercise the political will to shape that change.

Joseph W. Tovar is president of the Washington chapter of the American Planning Association. Contact him at

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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