By Penny S. Bonda, FASID and Katie Sosnowchik
Mayor Greg Nickels credits Seattle's engaged
citizens and diverse culture for keeping the cityas
well as its natural and man-made treasures clean and
Cover Story Articles
of Seattle, WA, is a virtual treasure-trove of famous landmarksfrom
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 destinationan
estimated 27 million visitors traveled to Seattle in 2001but,
over the years, many of its satisfied guests have elected to come
back and stay awhilea 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 regions incredible beauty and its subsequent
popularity, however, have a downsideexposure 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 Seattles environmental initiatives is the
citys 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
operationsoperations 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 worlda laurel upon which it
does not intend to rest lightly.
Among the most tangible signals of Seattles commitment to
sustainability is its participation in the LEED green building
rating program. Over the course of the next few years, a list of
Seattles 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 regions
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 Seattles 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, green@work 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 areas 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
NICKELS: I loved growing up here in Seattle, and Ive
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 spacefrom
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 isnot just to our environmental quality, but to the
health and vitality of our whole community.
Given Seattles reputation as a green
city, isn't environmental activism almost a prerequisite for your
NICKELS: Theres 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 peoples lives. That includes
doing all I can to protect and restore the environmental resourcesclean
air, clean water and healthy green spaces, for examplethat
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 Seattles
transportation crisis will be among your toughest challenges. How
do you plan to tackle them?
NICKELS: The key is providing our citizens with more transportation
choices. We cant expect people to drive less if they dont
have comfortable, convenient, affordable alternatives. Thats
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, Im 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, Ive 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?
NICKELS: 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 didnt change that much.
Ive always seen public service as a noble pursuit. Thats
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, Im proud of the way our cityand our whole
country, for that matterresponded 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. Im 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 wouldnt move, even if offered
a better-paying job elsewhere. As a life-long resident, why do you
think that is?
NICKELS: Seattle is a great place to live. Its as simple
as that. There arent many cities in the U.S.or on earth,
for that matterthat 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. Id 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
Seattle is home to some of our nations
biggest and best-known corporations. How can the city work with
them to further your environmental goals?
NICKELS: Theres no question that the private sector
has a huge role to play in making our cities more environmentally
sustainable. In the Puget Sound region, were lucky to have
a lot of environmentally friendly companiesnot just large,
well-known corporations like Boeing and Microsoft, but countless
small and medium-sized businesses as wellthat 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 Councils 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 standardincluding
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
weve 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?
NICKELS: Im 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?
NICKELS: I dont think its 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 thats going to require a lot of
creativity and collaboration by both the private and public sectors.
Thats the only way were going to make sustainable development
a reality and not just a buzzword.
Are there other cities or mayors you look
to as models?
NICKELS: Im proud of the leadership role weve
taken in Seattle, and I intend to build on those successes. But
we certainly dont have a monopoly on good ideas and committed
action. Theres a lot of great work going on in cities throughout
the world. We learn a lot by keeping abreast of whats happening
in some of the leading European cities, such as Stockholm and Amsterdam.
Closer to home, were 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?
NICKELS: Each city needs to forge its own path, tailored
to its own unique circumstances. In Seattle, were fortunate
to have a very engaged and supportive population. People came here
because were 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 dont
have. Still, my advice to other cities that might be just starting
out is this: dont 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?
NICKELS: 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, its the people who
live and work here, with their energy, creativity and commitment,
who give Seattle its sparkle.