2013 Field School Seattle: The Emerald City

Seattle, also known as the Emerald City, stop number three on the Cascadia Sustainability Field School. We arrived by bus from Vancouver; awaiting was our shuttle to bring us to the funky neighbourhood of Fremont. Fremont, just north of the downtown core, was our home from May 19th until May 22nd.


The Fremont Troll, funded by the Seattle Department of Neighbourhood's Matching Fund.



On the bus to Seattle!

Our accommodation was the Hotel Hotel hostel, just above the pie shop and ice cream parlour. Upon arrival we raced to the local eateries to grab lunch, the Cascadia field school 'diet' consisting of infrequent meal times and not enough time to make a decision. Prior to our Seattle orientation by the Washington Shipping Canal, the Sunday market was a popular event to check out. It was full of colourful and lively people, as well as having a number of Asian-flared food carts, artisan crafts, and people walking their dogs, soaking in the sunshine.

As the afternoon simmered into the evening breeze we spent our first night checking out the vibrant area called Fremont, some people went for a jog, some to yoga, and others to the local pub. Mutually calling it a pretty early night.

First thing on May 20th, we headed to the High Point community centre by shuttle. Along the way we experienced the ineffective freeway and road infrastructure in Seattle, which according to our driver, "is always under construction". This exemplified the contrast to Vancouver, which chose not to build the massive road systems such as the I-5 and the Alaskan Way Viaduct that runs through Seattle's downtown core.

I-5 freeway cutting through the downtown core.


Our tour with Jim Diers started off at High Point Community Centre. Previously a low income area, known for racial tensions and gang violence, has now blossomed into a safe mixed-income community with people coming from as far away as South East Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East. Housing in the area is now twice the density, providing homes for over 4,000 residents. People from diverse backgrounds are brought together at the High Point Community Centre where they can access social services. The space is shared by both the Neighbourhood Association and Seattle Housing Association. The building comprised of bioswales, designed to remove pollutants from surface water runoff; refurbished furniture from recycled materials, and solar panels. The art in the centre exemplified the community's collaboration and resourcefulness. With this, the community has multiple market gardens, beehives, playgrounds, and parks. Of great importance to the community are the services provided by the High Point Centre, including pre-natal classes, the Headstart program for kids, daycare services, counselling, housing support, and career building exercises. Not to mention free conference rooms open to the community!

Community beehive and viewing area.

High Point Community: Market Gardens

We really appreciated the social services that the centre provided, and the green initiatives of the neighbourhood ... but many in the group did not feel a real sense of community. It reminded us of Pleasantville, in that it was the ideal suburban neighbourhood. Fundamentally, the community is still auto dependent and lacked a mixed use of commercial and retail space, forcing people to travel outside the community.

Our second stop on the tour was Youngstown Cultural Arts Centre, which comprised of a "second chance"/alternative high school, youth arts programs, and 36 live/work spaces for young artists and families. A lot of the facilities are rented out to the community, including a theatre, an art studio, and a dance studio; the centre prioritizes the space to be used by non-profits and other community groups. Unlike High Point which relies solely on government and corporate funding, Youngstown Cultural Arts Centre also receives funding from the community. They even had support from Burning Man for annual fundraising festivities!


The Bullit Building: "If this is still the greenest building in ten years, we will have failed." ~ Rob Pena

Next stop, the Bullitt Building, the so called "greenest building in the world". The Bullit environmental foundation designed the building in collaboration with the University of Washington in accordance to performance standards of the Living Building Challenge. Three primary reasons the building is green is that it collects own rain water for storage to use for landscape irrigation, creates its own energy through solar panels and a closed-loop geothermal heating/cooling system, and it restores an ecological relationship with the landscape. An interesting concept incorporated into the building was bio-mimicry, the local ecological design being integrated with the building as a living organism

Biomimcry: Look at the gaps in the solar panels! emulating a tree canopy.

Energy use: the Bullitt Center vs. a typical office building.

This building is an important landmark in the Cascadia region; it is an example of sustainable leadership in the world's shift to a green economy. "If this can be accomplished anywhere on the planet, it will be done in Cascadia."

We then were granted the opportunity to explore the sights and sounds of the city... but really mostly eating. We headed to Capitol Hill, Pike Place Market, and the Piers. When we headed back to Fremont, we made sure to hit up the pie shop and ice cream parlour below our hostel. We ended the night with a friendly game of sociables and enjoying the musical talent of the group.

Top Left Clockwise: Seattle Art Gallery, the Seattle Great Wheel, the original Starbucks, and Chief Si'ahl.

Tuesday morning, we hopped on the bus to the City of Seattle, another Cascadian rainy day. Multiple experts of the Office of Sustainability and Environment informed us on: Adaption to Climate Change at Seattle Public Utilities, the Food Action Plan, Seattle Department of Neighbourhoods, Historic Society, Neighbourhood Matching Fund, and Electric Car Initiatives. These programs were a way to prepare for the future challenges that the City of Seattle will face. In adaptation to climate change, we appreciated that the City of Seattle is trying to be a "smart city". The top four priorities for the City of Seattle's Food Action Plan are: healthy food for all, growing local food, strengthening the local economy, and reducing waste. We also touched on the heritage value of Seattle buildings, especially Pike Place Market keeping its renowned historical charm while integrating with sustainable architecture practices.

Another social sustainability initative, the Neighbourhood Matching Fund is about having Seattle citizens decide what they want in their community while providing them the funds they need for a given project. While the city will provide the funds, the community will have to match the value through cash, volunteer labour, material, and services. The Matching Fund contributes to the environmental and social values of each unique neighbourhood. In addition, the Seattle Department of Neighbourhoods gave out free swag! Now we all have matching items.

One of the more popular initiatives by the City of Seattle is the promotion of the public use of electric vehicles; meanwhile replacing their gas-guzzling fleet. Initially the flashiness of electric vehicles seemed like the sexy option, but after critically analyzing the technology we were skeptical. One of the main barriers is that there is too much range anxiety, and not enough recharging stations to make electric cars a reality. Furthermore, the technology still relies on the use of rare earth resources and is fundamentally tied to the use of fossil fuels (i.e. the construction of roads and the manufacturing of car parts). With this, are we condoning the status quo of an auto-dependent culture? Is it just the lesser of two evils?

Electric car recharging stations at the City of Seattle.

Our next conversation was with Mark Purcell, discussing the meaning and values we associate with democracy. Challenging our contemporary conceptions, Mark spoke to behavioural change towards participation and involvement. The model of centralized, decentralized, and distributed power depicted how a distributed method is ideal, much more resilient, sustainable, and deeply democratic. We found that both democracy and sustainability are alike in that each is a movement as opposed to an end goal.

After absorbing massive amounts of information, we dispersed around the city and enjoyed our final afternoon in Seattle. We ended the night by watching Portlandia, in preparation for the hipster experience we were about to encounter.

Seattle harbour, looking over the port.

In many ways Seattle and Vancouver are similar in that they are trying to set a global example, and lead the way towards sustainable urban environments. In contrast to Vancouver's goal of becoming the "greenest city", Seattle plans to become the first carbon neutral city. Although Seattle has a number of programs touching on the three pillars of sustainability (economic, environmental and social), the city is still fundamentally tied to large multi-national corporations, such as Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks; as well as being one of the largest ports for trade between China and the United States. With this, we found that the glozablized economic influence keeps the city from being truly sustainable. 


Seattle, WA
United States


Location type: