I’ve always thought of Seattle as a symbol of modernity. Growing up in Vancouver, I viewed the Space Needle as an example of American prosperity and progress. It reached toward outer space while the monorail sleeked along the ground toward the future. I now live in Toronto, but visit Seattle when I can, to keep in touch with the future.
The world almost missed getting these two lasting symbols from the 1962 World’s Fair. The Fair was originally going to be called The Festival of the West, as hard as it is to mix cowboys and technology—Broncos and Boeing. More futuristic heads prevailed and the fair became known as the Century 21 Exposition with the motto “Living in the Space Age.” The Fair turned a profit and left a legacy of civic amenities and revitalization.
Edward E. Carlson, one of the great civic boosters of any time and any city, extracted a victory within a victory. He famously drew the Space Needle on a napkin, obtained funding for the project, started it a little late, but finished on time. The Space Needle retired it’s debt in 18 months. It now has a new pod for more weddings and parties.
My book Safer Cities of the Future is a study of better urban experiences through better design. I began the book with a picture of the Space Needle and the Seattle skyline. I recounted the story of Mr Carlson and the world’s fair as an example that we get things right occasionally.
It’s a lifetime later and Mr. Carlson and Seattle should be remembered for success and foresight. But now we have new challenges — terrorism, a sluggish economy, severe weather events and little faith in space, the future, or in anything. This is where Seattle can lead the world again.
Seattle’s All Hazards Mitigation plan is one of the best I’ve studied. It offers a very realistic view of the risk of floods, earthquakes, and terrorism. The plan notes, for example, that 32.75% of Seattle’s housing stock was built before 1939, an astonishingly high percentage considering that the seismic building code dates from 1992. If there were a serious earthquake, the damage could be enormous and could come at a very high cost. Seattle’s plan notes that property damage claims against the city have totalled as much as $12 million since 2006. In the event of a serious storm or earthquake the cost would be exponentially higher.
Seattle’s plan also includes a detailed summary of activities to mitigate the impact of earthquakes. These include upgrades to buildings to correct structural deficiencies, disaster recovery needs for all IT systems, and replacement of older underground cables. And the plan notes that city departments, the police, and public utilities have all received briefings and training in order to prepare them for seismic events.
These are all steps in the right direction. But Seattle’s plan could be improved by including specific instructions for residents on what to do or where to go in the event of earthquakes, floods, or other disasters; what to take with them; and even how to ensure the safety of their pets.
Don’t get me wrong: no plan is perfect, and there are some very good plans out there that Seattle could borrow from. Auckland, New Zealand, for instance is the only plan I’ve seen that precisely quantifies the economic cost of a volcanic eruption. Kansas City has a unique plan for rescuing citizens’ pets. And Boston’s plan for dealing with climate change is an excellent example for all other coastal cities.
Most plans leave much to be desired. But Seattle’s is a template for progress.