April 27, 2006

Is this as green as Seattle gets?

  • In the next six years, the city will try meet the Kyoto Challenge, matching the pollution-cutting goals of the Kyoto Protocol.
    O'Brien + Co.


    So, how green is our Emerald City? Last week's 36th annual Earth Day celebration prompts us to take stock of efforts to create a healthier world for everyone.

    We have accomplished a lot since the first Earth Day in 1970. Seattle has emerged as a leader in sustainable growth with 38 completed or planned projects targeted for LEED certification and more than 2,500 Built Green certified homes in King and Snohomish counties. But, we still need to do more.

    Our next challenge has a six-year deadline. By the year 2012, Seattle has committed to meet or beat the climate pollution-cutting goals of the international Kyoto Protocol.

    Currently, 4.5 percent of the earth's population consumes more than 43 percent of the earth's fuel. As the world's number one consumer of fossil fuel, the United States has an inherent responsibility to drastically reduce its dependency on fossil fuels in order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

    When the U.S. federal government declined to sign the Kyoto Protocol, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels became a creative problem solver. In February 2005, Nickels issued the Kyoto Challenge to cities throughout the nation to implement the Kyoto Protocol. Initially, the mayor wished that 141 U.S. cities would accept the Kyoto Challenge to symbolically match the 141 countries that have signed up for the Kyoto Protocol.

    Exceeding all expectations, 226 U.S. cities have accepted the challenge. Imagine the positive impact of 226 cities working together. Our collective population is equal to the population of the United Kingdom, Holland and Scandinavia combined.

    Now, we have to roll up our sleeves and get to work right here in Seattle. Thankfully, a lot of the ground work has been accomplished. The Green Ribbon Commission recently issued "Action Plan 2012: Seattle's Six-Year Effort to Meet or Exceed the Kyoto Protocol Target."

    The commission's number one recommendation is to reduce Seattle's dependence on cars. This will require some radical thinking. When we stop designing for cars and start designing people, cyclists and transit riders, we will reap endless benefits.

    Taking it to the streets

    To date, a lot of work in the sustainability movement has focused on buildings. It's time to hit the streets. With 47,000 new residents and 84,000 new jobs coming to Seattle in the next 20 years, our open space and connections will become even more important. To thrive as a community, we need places to connect with our neighbors and with nature. We need safe pedestrian and bicycle routes to and from work and school.

    Streets to plazas

    Our lifestyles have become increasingly sedentary. On average, Americans spend more than 80 percent of their day indoors. But, this could change if we reclaim our streets as our outdoor living rooms. This is exactly what the city of Copenhagen did. In 1962, Copenhagen converted the Stroget, a downtown shopping street, into a car-free street. This change from a car-oriented to pedestrian-oriented environment was so wildly successful that today Copenhagen has six times as many car-free areas.

    We can do this in Seattle, too. In dense urban areas, new plazas can be created by vacating streets. A good example of this is a recent proposal to vacate a street next to the future Beacon Hill light-rail station and turn it into a plaza. The plaza would be become an essential public gathering place for the community as well as visitors.

    Parking lots to parks

    Beginning in the 1960s, leaders in Copenhagen realized that the best outdoor spaces were occupied by parked vehicles. So they removed parking along canals and between buildings and created over 96,000 square meters of pedestrian areas.

    Seattle's waterfront is one of the most spectacular places in the whole region. With the impending replacement of the viaduct, we have the chance to reclaim the waterfront for restored habitat and pedestrian-oriented spaces. One proposal by Action: Better City, transforms today's bleak parking lot under the viaduct at the intersection of Western Avenue and Seneca Street and into a park with a view of the water.

    Biking around

    One of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board's Five Guiding Principles to a Bikeable Seattle is to change the image of bicycling from "simply recreation" to "real transportation." Currently, only about 5 percent of Seattle's commuters arrive on bikes, whereas in Copenhagen 34 percent of commuters are cyclists. Many people retort, "But, Seattle is too hilly! We can't do that here." Sure, Copenhagen has the advantage of being relatively flat but really our challenge is to provide more bicycle facilities.

    In downtown Seattle, many of the north and south streets have gentle inclines for miles. To encourage cycling as real transportation, we need to share the road. The Green Ribbon Commission recommends doubling the number of striped bike lanes in Seattle and completing the urban bike system within 10 years.

    Other simple ways to encourage cycling in Seattle is by providing secure bicycle parking at all destinations and providing showers and lockers for employees that commute by bike. In Copenhagen, free bikes allow for spontaneous trips across town. With about a $3 deposit, anyone can use a free bike. Their money is returned when they return the bike to a designated parking station.

    Trees to the rescue!

    The benefits of trees and natural vegetation are tremendous. Trees provide shade, improve air quality, assist with surface water management, support wildlife habitat, provide visual buffers and increase real estate values. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture: "One acre of forest absorbs 6 tons of carbon dioxide and puts out 4 tons of oxygen. This is enough to meet the annual needs of 18 people."

    When we invite our natural systems back into our urban environments, we will move beyond sustainable communities to truly regenerative communities. Imagine becoming net producers of energy, clean air and water instead of net polluters.

    The trend in urban planning is whole systems thinking. In Seattle, holistic planning is well under way. During the recent Open Space Seattle 2100 Charrette, multi-disciplinary teams of biologists, oceanographers, geologists, public health experts, residents, landscape architects and planners worked together on a 100-year vision for Seattle's open spaces. Charrette teams envisioned restored watersheds, streams, and shorelines that connect to and support dense urban villages.

    A greener future

    The challenges ahead of us are great, but this is an exciting time of change and possibility. Through Seattle's local leadership, steadfast commitment to the environment and creative problem solving, we are setting an example for the rest of the world to follow.

    Nora Daley-Peng is a sustainable design consultant for O'Brien + Co. and a member of Action: Better City. In October 2005, she traveled to Denmark and Sweden as a member of the International Sustainability Study Tour.

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