Guest: As Seattle grows, will the community and character stay?
To be a great city, Seattle must also be a good city for its residents, writes guest columnist Taso G. Lagos.
Special to The Times
NOTING Seattle’s explosive growth, a social critic claimed it would become a great city when all the construction work was finally done. That was in 1905. More than a hundred years later, the construction work still goes on, but are we a great city?
Many elements embody civic greatness: size, industry, influence, regional domination and cultural gravitational pull. Alone, these do not make a city great; but in dynamic combination, they produce powerful urban magnets such as London, Paris, Rome, New York and Tokyo. Great cities inspire the imagination in ways that the not-great places cannot.
The ancient Athenians during the golden age in the 5th century B.C. — first, at least in recorded history — asked questions about the very nature and meaning of cities. Why do people live in cities? What benefits do cities provide? Are cities built for their residents or do citizens live for the sake of the city?
The ancients came to an interesting conclusion little connected to size, industry, power or influence: Cities ultimately grant their citizens the knowledge and possibility for the good life. The greater the city, the more likely the good life.
By the good life, they meant the human exchanges that take place in crowded marketplaces, in social venues like the theater, and in popular festivals and similar experiences. In these places, human beings bounce into each other to produce new relationships or reinforce old ones, spawn new ideas or reinvigorate past notions, and ignite economic or cultural possibilities that simply did not exist before. The good life lies at the heart of community building, or what urbanist Jane Jacobs first called social capital (whether we live as automatons, or as neighbors who lend each other lawn mowers).
Only in cities can this intense human energy exist because only in places of high concentration of folks can the conditions for this kind of community take root. Not all high-density places produce the good life, but certainly it exists only in thriving urban centers. Athenians knew that each city has its own peculiar soul and no two cities are exactly alike, even if they share language, culture, density or industrial prowess.
Without this powerful energy, a city is just a collection of buildings and traffic. Grand buildings may inspire awe, but without human activity, they are just big, hollow, empty caves.
In the modern era, after the automobile swept through major cities like a savage tornado, people asked whether urban centers were built to move traffic or to provide for its citizens the tools they needed to expand their social capital. In the 1950s and ’60s, this was the debate that raged in New York City between traffic expanders like the indomitable Robert Moses and community promoters like Jacobs who saw in cities not just cars but “eyes on the street” and the “ballet of the sidewalk.”
In the end, Jacobs’ vision prevailed over Moses’ but not before whole neighborhoods and thriving communities were swallowed by expressways. It is the dilemma that now confronts Seattle as we struggle with assessing what direction this city takes.
Seattle is the fastest-growing metropolis in America, with 100,000 people coming in the next few years. Where will they live and work, and how will they physically move between the two? Will we just focus on development, traffic flows and mass transit to handle the influx of new residents, or will the new explosive growth be an opportunity to take stock of the city and its soul?
This debate may gather force in the coming months as the election in November 2015 of an entirely new kind of Seattle City Council unfolds. Candidates for the council (and I am one) will, as in every election, promise residents to hire more police officers, manage the growth, provide more accountability to neighborhoods over downtown interests, create more affordable housing, deal with the spreading homeless population and tear down old ugly buildings.
But one thing we cannot promise: how to tap into the good life. That is something each citizen must discover for herself or himself. The great city sets the conditions and it’s up to citizens to partake of them. That can only happen when residents are attuned to this possibility and see the benefits of living in dense concentrations.
The next few years will determine if Seattle’s greatness is made up of viral construction cranes or vibrant human activity.
Taso G. Lagos is program director for Hellenic studies in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.