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Seattle's Mayor: Green Keeper

Mayor Greg Nickels credits Seattle's engaged citizens and diverse culture for keeping the city—as well as its natural and man-made treasures— clean and green. By Penny S. Bonda, FASID and Katie Sosnowchik

The City of Seattle, WA, is a virtual treasure-trove of famous landmarks—from the Space Needle to Puget Sound, from the Experience Music Project Museum to Mount Ranier, from the Seattle Aquarium to the Olympic Peninsula. This northwestern metropolis, which has been dubbed the “Emerald City,” is not only an attractive tourist destination—an estimated 27 million visitors traveled to Seattle in 2001—but, over the years, many of its satisfied guests have elected to come back and stay awhile—a long while, in fact. Population in the Greater Seattle area has grown nearly 20 percent since 1990; an estimated 3.3 million people now reside there.

The attraction of the region’s incredible beauty and its subsequent popularity, however, have a downside—exposure to the myriad of problems brought on by unchecked development and too-rapid growth. Luckily, Seattle also has its protectors, people whose passion, commitment and creativity provide a measure of insurance that its fragile magnificence will be not despoiled. Both the former mayor, Paul Schell, and his recent successor, Greg Nickels, are resolute environmentalists. The city council also has had a number of members who, for many years, have put programs into place that have set unparalleled sustainability standards.

Helping to oversee Seattle’s environmental initiatives is the city’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE), which was created in 2000 to help put sustainability into practice, both within city government and in the community at-large. Its primary mission is to increase the environmental sustainability of city operations—operations that reach across 10,000 employees, 23 departments, 700 facilities and thousands of acres of land. The result: Seattle has rightfully earned a reputation for being one of the greenest cities in the world—a laurel upon which it does not intend to rest lightly.

Among the most tangible signals of Seattle’s commitment to sustainability is its participation in the LEED™ green building rating program. Over the course of the next few years, a list of Seattle’s newest landmarks will also include several very green attractions. Seattle currently has a dozen city-owned projects aiming for at least a silver LEED rating, which represents nearly 2.75 million square feet of space. Some of these projects currently under construction include: the Seattle Justice Center, which will house the municipal courthouse and police headquarters; Seattle City Hall; the McCaw Performance Hall; Seattle Central Library; the Cedar River Treatment Facility; and renovations to Key Tower.

Though he only assumed the reins as Seattle mayor in January of this year, Greg Nickels is a familiar player in the region’s sustainability enterprises. A veteran of local government, Nickels served on the King County Council since 1988. He has earned a reputation for protecting children and has been in the forefront of the fight for more parks and green spaces. Nickels is also well-known for his work to improve Seattle’s transportation system and is a passionate advocate for creating a mass transit system as well as improving bus transit in the region. As part of its journey to Seattle for the EnvironDesign®6 conference, [email protected] had the chance to interview Mayor Nickels about Seattle and its gung ho approach to green.

As a King County council member, you were instrumental in insuring that the area’s open space would be protected by authorizing the 1989 King County Open Space Bond Issue. What early experiences led you to your interest in environmental protection?

I loved growing up here in Seattle, and I’ve loved raising two kids here. One thing that makes Seattle so special and so much fun for kids and adults alike is all the green space—from big parks like Discovery Park with its incredible views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to all the small “pocket parks” and community gardens in our neighborhoods. Even as a kid growing up in this city, I understood how important preserving these great places is—not just to our environmental quality, but to the health and vitality of our whole community.

Given Seattle’s reputation as a green city, isn't environmental activism almost a prerequisite for your job?

There’s no question that environmental stewardship is an important part of my job. My mission as mayor of Seattle is simple: to make a difference in people’s lives. That includes doing all I can to protect and restore the environmental resources—clean air, clean water and healthy green spaces, for example—that the people who live, study, work and play in Seattle depend on for everything from basic sustenance to recreation to spiritual well-being.

You have said that solving Seattle’s transportation crisis will be among your toughest challenges. How do you plan to tackle them?

The key is providing our citizens with more transportation choices. We can’t expect people to drive less if they don’t have comfortable, convenient, affordable alternatives. That’s why I believe so strongly in the need to build a light rail system here in Seattle and to explore the possibility of extending our existing monorail system as well. In addition, I’m committed to continuing our efforts to make Seattle one of the most pedestrian-friendly and bicycle-friendly cities in the country. At the same time, we need to take actions that will get real results in the near-term. In my first few weeks as mayor, I’ve launched a number of simple, common-sense initiatives, such as synchronizing traffic lights on key streets and placing tow trucks near key roads and bridges throughout the city to tow or assist vehicles that are blocking traffic. These kinds of small steps, taken together, can really make a difference.

How has your perception of governing a city changed since the events of September 11?

Obviously, the horrific events of September 11 put issues of public safety and emergency preparedness front-and-center for all of us. One of my priorities is to make Seattle the most prepared city in America. But as far as my overall perception of government is concerned, September 11 didn’t change that much. I’ve always seen public service as a noble pursuit. That’s why I chose a career in government. I do think September 11 changed the way a lot of people view the public sector. I think a lot of people were reminded of the essential services that government provides and came to see government in a somewhat more positive light.

I have to say, I’m proud of the way our city—and our whole country, for that matter—responded to September 11. We pulled together and supported each other. It was gratifying to see the community focusing on all that we have in common, rather than on the things that divide us. I’m committed to nurturing and building on that spirit of community during my time as mayor.

As reported in The Seattle Times last May, 60 percent of residents said they wouldn’t move, even if offered a better-paying job elsewhere. As a life-long resident, why do you think that is?

Seattle is a great place to live. It’s as simple as that. There aren’t many cities in the U.S.—or on earth, for that matter—that enjoy the natural beauty we have in and around Seattle. In addition, we have safe, clean neighborhoods, good schools and a strong, increasingly diverse economy. Most important, we have people who are engaged and committed to keeping their city healthy and livable. My job as mayor is to help make Seattle an even better place to live, work, study and play. I’d like to see the percentage of residents who say they would never leave Seattle go even higher, to 90 or 100 percent! That is a true indicator of “sustainability!”

Seattle is home to some of our nation’s biggest and best-known corporations. How can the city work with them to further your environmental goals?

There’s no question that the private sector has a huge role to play in making our cities more environmentally sustainable. In the Puget Sound region, we’re lucky to have a lot of environmentally friendly companies—not just large, well-known corporations like Boeing and Microsoft, but countless small and medium-sized businesses as well—that are eager to partner with city government to keep Seattle clean and green.

I think the best roles for city government are to lead by example, to provide information and technical assistance to businesses, to create incentives for environmentally responsible business practices and to identify and remove barriers that may exist to businesses that want to do the right thing.

Our sustainable building program is a great example of how this can work. A couple of years ago we adopted a sustainable building policy that commits all city construction projects over 5,000 square feet, both new construction and remodels, to meet at least the silver standard of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. I believe we were the first city in the U.S. to do this. We now have 12 city buildings that will meet the silver LEED standard—including our new Justice Center, our new City Hall and our new Central Library, all of which are under construction.

We want private developers in the area to follow this lead, and we’ve got a number of programs in place to encourage them. For example, we provide limited financial and technical assistance to building owners and developers to incorporate sustainable building goals into their design decisions. And we maintain a library and resource guide that provides up-to-date information on sustainable building methods and materials to designers, builders and do-it-yourselfers.

What do you hope that the first annual BEST awards will achieve?

I’m a big believer in recognizing and celebrating success. There are many businesses in the Seattle area that are showing real leadership in water and energy conservation, waste reduction, green building and other sustainable business practices. These companies should be recognized and rewarded for their efforts. The new Businesses for a Sustainable Tomorrow (BEST) awards program will do just that. My hope is that this program, in addition to shining a much-deserved light on these pioneering companies, will encourage other businesses to follow suit.

There are many things that a city can and should control and implement. Are there areas of sustainable development better handled by the private sector?

I don’t think it’s a matter of certain areas being handled by government and certain areas being handled by business. The key is to find better ways of working together toward our common goals. We waste a lot of time, energy and money in this country on the “jobs-versus-the-environment” debate. The reality is, we need both livable-wage jobs for everybody and a healthy environment. And that’s going to require a lot of creativity and collaboration by both the private and public sectors. That’s the only way we’re going to make sustainable development a reality and not just a buzzword.

Are there other cities or mayors you look to as models?

I’m proud of the leadership role we’ve taken in Seattle, and I intend to build on those successes. But we certainly don’t have a monopoly on good ideas and committed action. There’s a lot of great work going on in cities throughout the world. We learn a lot by keeping abreast of what’s happening in some of the leading European cities, such as Stockholm and Amsterdam. Closer to home, we’re very fortunate that some of the “greenest” cities in North America are right here in the Pacific Northwest, including Vancouver, British Columbia and Portland, OR. Also, Santa Monica, CA, and Austin, TX, have some great programs in place. We continue to draw both ideas and inspiration from these and other leading U.S. cities.

What kind of a role model is Seattle for other cities just starting their environmental activism?

Each city needs to forge its own path, tailored to its own unique circumstances. In Seattle, we’re fortunate to have a very engaged and supportive population. People came here because we’re surrounded by the beauty of the water and the mountains, and they want to preserve that beauty for their kids and grandchildren. Our electric and water utilities are publicly-owned, which provides a lot of opportunities for practicing and promoting environmental stewardship that other city governments don’t have. Still, my advice to other cities that might be just starting out is this: don’t underestimate your ability to make a difference. City governments are in a unique position to lead the way. At the local level, we can do things that are unthinkable at the state or national level. While federal governments are arguing over the science, we have lots of opportunities to improve our own practices, to lead by example and to leverage broader change in our communities by providing information, ideas and incentives to our businesses, neighborhoods, households and residents. As mayor of Seattle, I intend to take advantage of these opportunities. And I encourage my colleagues in other U.S. cities to do the same.

What is it about Seattle that has made it the “Emerald City?”

One of the benefits of all that rain for which Seattle is so well known is that it keeps our city pretty green! And we put a lot of time, energy and money into preserving our open spaces and forested areas, restoring our urban creeks and watersheds and keeping our city green. But in the end, it’s the people who live and work here, with their energy, creativity and commitment, who give Seattle its sparkle.


By Penny S. Bonda, FASID and Katie Sosnowchik. [email protected] is a GreenBiz News Affiliate. This story appears by permission. Story copyright 2002 [email protected] magazine, all rights reserved.

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