Books & Authors

A City on a Sustainable Hill

Three new books contend Seattle can still teach the world a green thing or two.

By Eric Scigliano November 8, 2010

The women on the jacket are demonstrating against another freeway—in 1961.

These days, as we prepare to build a new waterfront highway—something Vancouver and San Francisco nixed long ago—it’s getting harder to think of this city as a green beacon in the concrete darkness of the Auto Age. But here come three new books proclaiming ways Seattle can teach the world about what one of them calls “urban sustainability.”

Greening Cities, Growing Communities: Learning from Seattle’s Community Gardens (University of Washington Press) by UW’s Jeffrey Hou and two other landscape architecture profs, is a richly illustrated study of Seattle’s burgeoning community garden movement, useful reading for any other city trying to P-Patch itself up. But it may leave other readers wishing they were out planting tomatoes instead. Lofty Pursuits: Repairing the World One Building at a Time (Brown Books), is local developer Mark Richard Schuster’s account of how he built Mosler Lofts, Seattle’s first LEED Silver high-rise condo, back in 2008, when people still built high-rise condos. Aspiring young developers may find it inspirational; Schuster isn’t shy about holding himself out as a paragon.

Jeffrey Craig Sanders’ Seattle & the Roots of Urban Sustainability: Inventing Ecotopia (University of Pittsburgh Press) speaks more broadly, to anyone trying to understand how the city got where it is and guess where it’s going. Sanders, a historian at UW Washington State University, eschews jargon and theory for narrative. He sets the scene with the 1999 WTO demonstrations, then looks back at the citizen movements and civic showdowns that saved Seattle from becoming a chillier, hillier Houston: saving Pioneer Square and the Market, resisting Urban Removal in the CD, deciding whether to preserve or parkify Fort Lawton, launching community gardens and curbside recycling (in Fremont, before Fremont itself got recycled). And finally, the Small Is Beautiful cause’s last stand, repelling the proposed Commons (central park plus redevelopment) south of Lake Union and getting just the development instead.

But Sanders sets up a straw dog at the start. He proposes to show how today’s sustainability movements descend from the “counterculture environmentalists and refute the “popular notion that people who identified as part of the counterculture simply dropped out or left the cities behind after the late 1960s.” This is not news to any red-blooded Fox News fan or Mayor McGinn basher. Especially not when Jerry Brown is once again governor of California.

He also notes how counterculture-born ideas penetrated Mayor Wes Uhlman’s1970s administration but overlooks the man responsible, underground journalist-turned-mayoral adviser Walt Crowley. Such omissions gives Seattle & the Roots of Urban Sustainability a secondhand feel. But secondhand or not, it ties together a lot of material from a febrile, fertile time.

Bonus trivia (not in the book): Armen Stepanian, the Honorary Mayor of Fremont who launched curbside recycling and much more there, got recycled into the Fremontscape himself. Fremont sculptor Rich Beyer depicted Stepanian in his now-famous Waiting for the Interurban—as the bearded, mantichore-like dog. Stepanian promptly shaved his beard.

Show Comments