Transforming Seattle

2009-12-03

Transforming Seattle

Seattle has much to celebrate from the 2009 elections.  Few large U.S. cities have been blessed with anything like the progressive political lineup the City of Seattle now boasts.  In a time of enormous change and  many conflicting goals it is not always clear what it means to be progressive.   Following are seven principles that move Seattle toward more progressive trajectories by changing the way we do business:

1.  Convert the Deep-Bore Tunnel to Transit Use (in 30 or 40 years)

If we are committed to reducing the number of cars on the road, the city and state should commit to changing the deep-bore tunnel to transit use after car tolls have paid for it in thirty to forty years.  This is a win-win.  We know that we want fewer cars on the road and we know that we will need tunnels for subways and high-speed rail in the future.  Since tunnels last 150 years or more the deep-bore tunnel has the life to satisfy near-term and long-term needs in very different ways.  The principle:  capital projects that support single-occupancy travel short-term should  support transit long-term.

2.  One Hundred Year Plans

Think long term.  Twenty and thirty year plans don’t make sense in an era where we are looking to create long-term sustainability.  Rebuilding most of our infrastructure and buildings every generation is not going to save energy.  Let’s decide what we want our cities to look like and build to last.  Long-term planning will help us avoid whipsaw policies and the backlashes wrenching change often creates.  One hundred year plans make it easier to set seemingly impossible goals the vast majority of citizens will view as reasonable, such as reclaiming shore lands and wet lands.

3.  Inventory and Prioritize Assets

Every asset we enjoy – environmental, cultural, and human – can be measured and prioritized.  Unfortunately, we neither account for or care for most of our assets.  Trees and historic properties are two examples of assets that are frequently subjects of dispute.  Other examples abound.  The first step to preserving assets is to inventory and prioritize their importance.  Prioritizing all assets will help us decide how to utilize funds and prevent last-minute asset-protection processes from being utilized to stall change. The second step is to set up a long-term process for updating our inventories and priorities every five years or so.  The internet is a perfect vehicle for finding out what citizens and subject-matter experts think is important – but inventories place the responsibility of prioritizing and preserving our most important assets where responsibility belongs – on our political leaders.

4.  Limit Words in the Law

Seattle should limit the number of words in sections of law such as the zoning code.  There is no end to word inflation and confusion among contradictory provisions.  Today, exposing contradictions only creates more confusing clarifications.  Make no mistake – every additional word costs the city and citizens money.  If politicians and bureaucrats are forced to take one word out for every word they put in they will choose their words more carefully and look for simpler ways of achieving objectives.  The resulting simplicity will save everyone time and trouble.  Ultimately, we need a complete rewrite of many sections of city code.

5.  Base Building Permit Energy Review on Passive Use

How do we define the city’s interest in energy conservation?  The current codes examine the theoretical performance of a building and its mechanical systems as a unit.  Our current approach creates many buildings that are relatively useless or even unsuitable for occupancy without very substantial energy inputs.  The resulting buildings are often complex in ways that shorten their useful life.  For economic and security reasons the city should support the construction of buildings with useful lives of hundreds of years and that are habitable with no energy inputs – very possible in temperate Seattle.  By reviewing buildings primarily on their passive performance we ensure that buildings we erect today will be useful in fifty or one hundred years.  Taxing energy or carbon is a better way of influencing the efficiency of climate-control systems.  Many energy-consuming systems are unnecessary and will not be installed if owners are required to invest first in operable windows and floor plans that allow for cross ventilation and natural illumination.

6.  Require Density to Match Infrastructure Investment

The City of Seattle failed to up-zone land around our new light rail stations proportionate to our investment.  This profound failure of Seattle leadership threatens our future ability to fund transit and create dense neighborhoods.  Cheap, throw-away spec single-family housing was and is being built in the shadow of light rail staions.  This error is not something that can be fixed retroactively – our investment is already depreciating.  Ridership is like compound interest – if the density isn’t in the bank it can not compound.  Looking forward, we should not invest in infrastructure without enabling density first.  New infrastructure investment should lead to new areas of density, not just reinforce existing land use patterns.

7.  Pedestrian Primacy (see previous post)

In the current election, all Seattle City Council candidates elected pledged to “support war on cars”.  (The Bus has you on tape.)  We don’t need a war, we need Pedestrian Primacy.  Pedestrian Primacy means putting the interests of pedestrians ahead of automobile drivers – converting streets to exclusive pedestrian & bicycle use (not just adding sidewalks), expanding auto-free zones, measuring pedestrian & bicycle commute times and improving the quality of pedestrian & bicycle paths (and ten other ideas explored in the previous post).

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7 responses to “Transforming Seattle

  1. Matt the Engineer

    This was a very thoughtful piece, and I agree strongly with almost all of your points. I do need to take issue with a minor point in #5.

    We live in a heating climate. As such, the majority of the energy we use to condition buildings is in producing heat. Natural ventilation is not a solution to heating. Actually, it’s an enemy to heating efficiency unless tightly controled (no trickle vents, absolutely keeping occupants from opening windows during heating, etc.).

    Natural ventilation can be a good thing if done well, as it can remove both cooling energy and ventilation energy. But it doesn’t remove heating energy. I’d argue that strategies such as forced ventilation with heat recovery can save more energy than natural ventilation alone.

    • Thanks Matt. There are great technologies out there that require a continuous energy supply. I would just like to see us go as far as possible with passive technology first. I can imagine ways to incorporate heat recovery in the ventilation of a passively heated and cooled building.

    • Another thought Matt – when buildings are constructed with a mechanical system, the system tends to get used most of the time and the building is optimized to the system. The investments go into the mechanical system rather than into passive technology. In Seattle buildings can be designed to be comfortable most days using passive-only technology. When thinking about whether an extremely efficient sealed building saves energy one needs to ask whether the system isn’t being used far more than necessary. If a building designed primarily for passive performance only uses mechanical systems for a fraction of the days that a sealed building dependent on a mechanical system, it will use less energy overall even if it is not as efficient on those days. And the passive building will be habitable even if no energy is available or is too expensive to use.

      • Matt the Engineer

        I completely agree. I think we can go a long way toward zero energy in this climate. My only caution is in trying to design completely zero energy buildings here. Even with an amazing envelope it would take a huge amount of thermal mass to make the middle of the winter comfortable here with no heating. Of course, a large amount of thermal mass will require a larger envelope, which will leak more heat and require more thermal mass… It can be done, but it requires enough embodied energy in construction that it probably shouldn’t be done as a typical design, whatever our energy situation (at some point it becomes a better deal to move everyone to San Diego).

        I also think we should design buildings to be flexible for future needs. But I’m not sure I’d design buildings for the case of power shutting off completely unless it can be done without increasing the building’s energy use while the power is on.

      • Designing for zero-energy use with a comfy steady-state interior environment is overly ambitious. But there are other strategies for maintaining livability, especially in residences. Closing off portions of a residence and putting on a sweater were common practice not so long ago. A case can be made that design targets based on zero-discomfort and zero-adaption by occupants are incompatible with a sustainable future. It should be easier to ask people to wear a sweater than switch from automobile to bicycle.

      • Matt the Engineer

        Right, but go too far and your requirement for zer0-energy buildings is easy. A drafty shack with no windows is habitable with zero energy if you are ok with putting on enough sweaters and stumbling around in the dark. The goal should be to make buildings as energy efficient as possible without making them too uncomfortable.

      • No drafty shacks! Codes do not encourage the same level of engineering and technology in support of passive design that are mandated for active mechanical design. From a public-policy point of view, passive design is preferable as the starting point in the design of all buildings. Current policies do not encourage or mandate a preference for passive over active design.

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