Skip to main content

Originally published Friday, March 16, 2012 at 4:02 PM

  • Share:
  • Comments ((0))
  • Print

Safety, opportunity, schools: recipe for a flourishing city

Good places don't happen by accident, writes Seattle City Councilmember Tim Burgess. City government should focus on three essential place-making ingredients: safety, opportunity and high-quality public schools.

Special to The Times

No comments have been posted to this article.


REAL-ESTATE agents cry, "Location, location, location." In my job as a Seattle City Council member, I've learned to repeat, "Place, place, place."

Be it a coffee shop, playground, music venue or front porch, we all have favorite places. Physical and social environments dramatically affect our behavior and quality of life.

Good places don't happen by accident. It takes strong, consistent and deliberate leadership to foster and sustain magnetic places — places that draw people in, mix them together and create flourishing communities.

City government plays an important role in helping create magnetic places. In doing so, we should focus more purposefully on these three essential place-making ingredients — safety, opportunity and high-quality public schools.

Public safety

A neighborhood can have good transit service, the ideal clustering of jobs and residents and wonderful restaurants and shops but still fail as a magnetic place because of safety concerns. Put simply, maintaining public safety is an absolute prerequisite for bringing people together. Day or night, people need to feel safe.

Recent research on the geographic concentration of crime confirms our intuition about unsafe places. From 1989 to 2004, half of all reported crimes in Seattle occurred at just 4.2 percent to 6.7 percent of the city's street segments; these places did not materially change throughout this period. Crime is geographically concentrated and anchored at microplaces.

Knowing where crime occurs, we should reorient policing toward crime prevention at specific places. This will take a big culture shift for police officers whose longtime mission has been catching the bad guys after crime occurs. Place-based crime prevention requires sophisticated data analysis and strategic planning. It also takes more than a police response, though the police must play a leadership role; it requires a carefully knitted partnership that includes various city departments, service providers and, above all, local residents and business owners — the natural guardians of a place.

Perhaps nowhere is place-based crime prevention more important than downtown Seattle, the economic engine of the entire city. Downtown hosts nearly half of the city's workforce (about 222,000 jobs) and nearly 60,000 residents, including a growing number of families and a more racially diverse mix than the city, county and nation as a whole. Taxes generated downtown subsidize amenities across the city.

The persistent street crime and disorder that plague parts of downtown and other neighborhoods are extremely damaging and must be stopped. We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that crime is an inevitable part of urban life. Adopting place-based crime-prevention strategies is the first step.

Social and economic opportunity

In addition to ensuring safety, city government should cultivate social and economic opportunities to attract people to work, live, shop or play at specific places.

The city of Seattle has successfully done this in South Lake Union where we targeted specific economic growth sectors — global health and biotech industries. The result is a strengthened economic foundation for the entire city and a revitalized, energetic neighborhood.

We should repeat similar efforts elsewhere. To do so, the city has multiple tools at its disposal: the creation of pocket parks, easier permit processes for outdoor cafes, zoning adjustments, city-sponsored neighborhood marketing campaigns and street-level design improvements to create an inviting pedestrian experience.

Critical to these efforts is the placement of more residential units a short walk or transit ride away from job centers. The City Council recently did this surrounding the future Roosevelt Link Light Rail Station. Concentrated density provides a critical mass of people for economic development and the creation of new social capital. And by channeling new residential units into strategic areas, we protect Seattle's cherished single-family neighborhoods and the region's undeveloped land.

Our challenge now is to press forward with thoughtful policies that encourage the clustering of residential units in other urban centers, at transit stations and along major transportation corridors.

To fill these units — and ensure a vibrant and diverse mix of people — the city must increase efforts to keep urban life affordable for individuals and families, students and seniors. We should develop proactive long-term strategies to foster racial, ethnic, generational and economic diversity. As income inequality has increased, so too has the segregation of high- and low-income families by neighborhood; we must proactively reverse this trend.

Effective public schools

One of the best ways to attract and keep people in our neighborhoods is to provide high-quality, effective public schools. Parents often move, when their children reach school age, to avoid poorly performing schools. Persistent academic achievement gaps, low graduation rates and inadequate preparation for college or vocational certification plague many Seattle schools.

Successfully transformed, these schools can serve as indispensable anchors that become a focal point for community identity and pride. We should strategically align more city resources with the Seattle School District for the sake of our children. Everyone benefits when schools improve.

Safety. Opportunity. Schools. These three ingredients reinforce and strengthen community. If we feel safe, we are outside talking with neighbors. As we rub shoulders with others, we create social and economic opportunity. If we effectively educate our children, we secure stable communities for the future.

Across Seattle we have places that attract people and places that don't. City government should marshal its resources to create magnetic places in every neighborhood. A focus on place leads to stronger neighborhoods.

Tim Burgess is a member of the Seattle City Council. He currently chairs its Government Peformance and Finance Committee and is former chair of its Public Safety Committee. Burgess' essay on a new philosophy of policing is at Email him at

Relive the magic

Relive the magic

Shop for unique souvenirs highlighting great sports moments in Seattle history.



NDN Video