Shaping Cities with Integrated Green Infrastructure

Date Posted: 02.25.2016

By Jason King

Throughout the Puget Sound, rapid urban development is shaping the landscape in ways that will define our cities for the next century. How can we capitalize on this growth to create livable, regenerative places for people and other species? How do we think big and envision holistic green infrastructure solutions integrated with the social, physical and economic systems of the city? By supporting a robust green infrastructure system as a common and synergistic thread, cities become more friendly to all species and therefore, more resilient and adaptable for people.

Learning from the Past

The Pacific Northwest culture was built around access to water and nature which has also led to periods of rapid growth. At the turn of the last century, the City of Seattle expanded 400% between 1890 and 1920 – growing from 80,000 people to over 300,000. During this time, amazing infrastructure was implemented, like the water system piping clean fresh water to the city from the Cedar River Watershed to reservoirs within the City in 1901. We also envisioned City Beautiful strategies by embracing the ambitious Olmsted Park Plan in 1903, which set the stage for the largely intact green space network we have today. We celebrated with the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition in 1909, which introduced Seattle to a broad audience and set the stage for today’s world-class city.

Expansion and urbanization also meant filling in creeks, felling trees, paving streets and erecting buildings, and expanding city limits – transforming the natural landscape into the urban. There are many examples of this, none more dramatic than the Denny Regrade. The Regrade was a systematic blasting of the topography between the current South Lake Union neighborhood and Elliott Bay – using powerful jets to slurry millions of tons of earth to create flatlands for development.

This infrastructure which was once innovative and adequate is now bursting at the seams, dumping sewage into our water bodies, and aging past its intended lifespan. So we have an opportunity to plan and implement with new thinking for the next 100 years and beyond.

Targeted Green Infrastructure

In our current boom, Seattle is now the fastest growing big city in the United States, adding another 150,000 people in the last 15 years, and the transformation of parts of the city is seen through the forest of construction cranes. Our knowledge and sophistication of stormwater management has allowed us to accommodate this growth and become a national example by mandating management for new development and retrofits and development of innovative technologies and designs, however, we still have far to go to fully address the issues of rapid urbanization.

By understanding the links between the incremental projects solutions can link together across scales, we catalyze great positive impact. One way is to plan and predict the best locations to employ green infrastructure solutions, and use mechanisms for trading and optimizing location efficiency to fulfill our desire to be more strategic, not just opportunistic, when deciding where to focus our attention with green infrastructure.

Engaging Communities with Storytelling

A multi-pronged green infrastructure agenda relies on some basic human behavior to be most effective. To influence that behavior we can turn to our water-based culture and connect the stories of our watersheds to people’s sense of identity. Compelling stories include ideas to rally around, such as visualizing the magnitude of millions of gallons of runoff, or to revel in the solitude of a Coho salmon spawning in an urban creek. These stories encompass not just clean water, but also provide multiple benefits such as clean air, enhancement of wildlife habitat, increased economic prosperity and social equity, neighborhood scale resilience, and the ability to enhance public health to all communities.

There are many projects that tell stories of green infrastructure solutions for community. These work to provide habitat interconnectivity, like habitat crossings and large scale pollinator pathways along the Creston-Duwamish corridor, district stormwater solutions that enliven communities like the Swale on Yale, and daylighting urbans streams in tandem with development like Thornton Creek. We can also find high visibility green solutions that in vibrant places like Seattle Center, where planned green roofs and stormwater plazas will educate and provide respite to thousands. And we need to think beyond the site boundary, like the recent Center of the Universe project, which aims to clean polluted runoff from the adjacent Aurora Bridge and create amenity space in the process.

Engaging Research and Science

We can also engage the senses through art, like the recent Duwamish Revealed series, and strive for urban ecological development with Salmon-Safe, a certification program raising the bar on green projects in the Northwest through integration of design and science. To provide much needed research, we can engage in educational institutions like the Green Futures Lab, which has spun off visionary place-based projects like the Open Space 2100, as well as ROSS, the Regional Open Space Strategy which adopts a philosophy of Nature as Infrastructure in blending recreation, ecosystem health, and community development. We can use biomimicry-inspired solutions for water and biodiversity using Urban Greenprint as a model, and can strive for ‘Nature-ful’ cities, by joining Tim Beatley’s Biophilic Cities Network, inspired by E.O. Wilson’s model of our innate biological connection to nature.

Emerald Corridor Initiative: Regional Leadership for the World

Lastly, there is limitless potential in terms not just of shaping the communities we live in, but in how that can ripple well beyond our bioregion throughout the globe. The Bullitt Foundation has recently established the Emerald Corridor Initiative, highlighting the collective expertise and knowledge that exists in our region, similar to what the factors driving regional innovation economies and tech hubs, and can galvanize us as the ‘Silicon Valley’ of green infrastructure.

Denis Hayes in his January 2016 letter outlining the initiative says, “…the Corridor is a place worth fighting to protect. It encompasses crucial parts of the Cascades, the Columbia and the Fraser Rivers, and the incomparable Puget Sound. It contains three amazing cities, linked by rich productive farmland, forests, and parks. It is the best-educated, most abundantly resourced, greenest, most progressive corner of the wealthiest nation in human history. If humans can achieve a deeply sustainable culture anywhere, it will likely happen first in the Emerald Corridor. We intend to catalyze that transition”

We have the best brains, with the most extensive knowledge here in the Pacific Northwest around green infrastructure and its potential to be world changing. We have deep knowledge of science, design, and policy and can pair that with a strong connection to technology to provide additional tools to explore innovative strategies and delivery projects that inspire the world.

This is a vision includes everyone – from government, non-profit, education and private sectors, from neighborhoods and communities through the region, with strong a diverse voices. Working in tandem, together, we can cultivate this vision and our strength for shaping the Puget Sound region for the next century.

This article was originally developed by Jason King as a keynote presentation for the 2016 Puget Sound Green Infrastructure Summit.