The City of the Future


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.  

Today in History: July 4th

1911: A heat wave with record-high temperatures begins in the northeastern U.S., killing 380 people during the next few weeks. The end of the 1911 heat wave was marked by a severe thunderstorm that killed five people. For more on Crisis Management: Click Here

1886: A crowd of 1,500 British Columbians cheers as the Pacific Express, the CPR’s first scheduled transcontinental passenger train from Montreal, rolls into Port Moody, the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railway, after a five-and-a-half day journey.

1776: In the midst of war with Britain, the Second Continental Congress adopts the Declaration of Independence, announcing that the thirteen American colonies regarded themselves as independent and no longer part of the British Empire.

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Today in History: July 3rd

1970:  A British airplane crashes into the sea near Barcelona, Spain, killing all 112 people on board. As the plane approached Barcelona, the pilot called the air-traffic controller and said he was 12 miles away. This was the last anyone heard from the jet.  The remains of the wreckage provided no clues as to the cause of the sudden crash.

1958: President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Rivers and Harbors Flood Control Bill, which allocates funds to improve flood-control and water-storage systems. The bill was introduced in the wake of disastrous and deadly floods caused by Hurricanes Connie and Diane.

1957:  Nikita Khrushchev takes control in the Soviet Union by orchestrating the ouster of his most serious opponents from positions of authority in the Soviet government. Khrushchev’s action delighted the U.S., which viewed him as a more moderate figure in the communist government of Russia.

Today in History: June 6th

1981: More than 500 passengers are killed when a train plunges into a river in India. Heavy rains meant the tracks were slick. The engineer was Hindu and believed that cows are sacred. As the train was going over a bridge, a cow appeared on the track. The engineer, wanting to avoid hitting the cow, braked too hard, and the train derailed.

1971: A mid-air crash between two airplanes near Los Angeles kills 50 people. A DC-9 with five crew and 44 passengers collided with a U.S. Navy F-4 Fighter. One of the two F-4 crew members was also killed.

1944:  The Battle of Normandy begins. D-Day begins with the landing of 155,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy in France, in the largest amphibious military operation in history.

Today in History: June 4th

1979: Pierre Trudeau’s first term as Canadian Prime Minister ends as he is replaced by Joe Clark, who defeated him in the May 22nd Federal election.

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1972: The collision of two trains in Bangladesh kills 76 people. The disaster results from one simple error by a train-station operator, who threw the wrong switch. With no other safeguards in place to protect it, the train was sent on local tracks straight into a train standing at the station.

1940: British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivers his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the United Kingdom’s House of Commons.

Today in History: June 2nd

1997: Prime Minister Jean Chretien is re-elected, with the Liberals taking 155 of the 301 seats. The Reform party wins 60 seats; the Bloc Québecois, 44; the NDP, 21; the Progressive Conservatives, 20; and there was 1 Independent.

1953: Queen Elizabeth II is formally crowned in a lavish ceremony, with 1,000 dignitaries and guests at London’s Westminster Abbey. Hundreds of millions listened on radio and for the first time watched the proceedings on television. In five decades of rule, Queen Elizabeth II’s popularity has hardly subsided. She has traveled more extensively than any other British monarch.

1921: Torrential rains slam Colorado, causing a flash flood and the Arkansas River overflows. Earth levees prove no match for the extremely heavy rains and 120 people lost their lives. Further, a massive mudflow caused by the floods knocks over homes and causes $25 million in damages. The flood waters take nearly a week to recede.

Today in History: June 1st

1980: The world’s first 24-hour TV news network, Cable News Network, signs on. CNN changes the idea that news TV news is packaged for a once-daily 30-minute newscast. Although first ridiculed, CNN soon was known for broadcasting news events as they unfolded, and often beat the conventional networks.

1974: An explosion occurs at a chemical facility in Flixborough, England, killing 28.

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1965: A coal mine explosion kills 236 workers at a mine in Japan.  A sudden explosion led to the collapse of many of the mine shafts and caused boulders to block the escape routes. The trade and industries minister of Japan, Yoshio Sakarauchi, resigned in the aftermath of the disaster.

Today in History: May 23rd

1967: Ernest Manning’s Social Credit Party is re-elected in Alberta, with a ninth consecutive majority. Social Credit wins 55 of the 65 seats, but popular vote drops to 45 percent.

1960: A tsunami caused by an earthquake near Chile travels across the Pacific Ocean and kills 61 people in Hawaii. Warnings are issued six hours before the wave’s expected arrival, but some ignore the warnings, and others head to the coast to view the wave. More than a day after the earthquake, the tsunami reaches Japan, killing 180 people.

1949:  The Federal Republic of Germany – known as West Germany – is formally established as a separate nation. Following  World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones, with the British, French, Americans, and Soviets each controlling one zone. But there were differences between the communist and non-communist controlled sections. East and West Germany, symbols of Cold War animosities, were reunited in 1990.

Today in History: May 19th

1967: The Soviet Union ratifies an agreement banning nuclear weapons from outer space. With the advent of the space race in 1957, some begin to fear that outer space might be the next frontier for the expansion of nuclear weapons. With this action, outer space is officially declared off-limits for nuclear weapons.

1958: United States and Canada military formally establish the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) to coordinate continental defence.

1939:  King George VI becomes the first reigning monarch to address the Canadian Parliament.

Today in History: May 11th

1985: Fifty people die in a fire in the grandstand at a soccer stadium in Bradford, England. The wooden roof that burned was scheduled to be replaced by a steel roof later that same week. The official inquiry blames an accumulation of garbage beneath the stands. Most likely, the fire was sparked by a cigarette.

1963: Prime Minister Lester Pearson says Canada will buy nuclear war heads after meeting with President Kennedy. Pearson’s predecessor, John Diefenbaker, had refused.

1919: The German delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference, convenes in Paris after the end of the First World War and pore over their copies of the Treaty of Versailles, drawn up in the previous months by representatives of their victorious enemies. They prepare to lodge their objections to what they consider to be unfairly harsh treatment.