The political season is fast approaching and we should ask every candidate for the Seattle City Council that wants our vote or our cash “are you a grasshopper or an ant?” I wrote a post over at City Tank that suggested that our biggest problem in getting to sustainability has to do with the people we elect. I used the Aesop fable about the lazy grasshopper and the hardworking ant to describe the two kinds of politicians we have in Seattle.
When it comes to climate change our politicians and leaders remind me of the grasshopper, and we too quickly follow them, talking about the importance of climate change but failing to take bold actions against it.
In that post, I was trying to point out that many of our elected officials act like the grasshopper in the fable, trying to make us believe that we don’t have to make tough decisions to get to sustainability. Grasshoppers are goat huggers when talking with environmentalists, but become highway huggers when they’re with big shots who support putting more money into unsustainable projects.
I hate the tunnel issue. I wish it would go away so we could focus on land use issues. It’s a terrible distraction from what we should be focusing on. That’s why the upcoming Referendum is so important. My hope is it will give us some closure.
Land use decisions are, I would argue, the most important and most controversial decisions a City Councilmember has to make. Yes, decisions about transportation (parking, transit, roads, and tunnels) are tough too, but if get our land use right most of the transportation issues would, arguably, click into place. But land use affects where people live and what people live in. It strikes at a deeply held set of American ideals. Doing land use right in Seattle requires ants, not grasshoppers.
Telling someone their neighborhood is about to change is tough. Telling someone the may be worse off in some ways because of a land use decision is tough. Choosing to favor the long term needs of a growing city over the legitimate concerns of a few people standing right in front of you is hard. What we have today, though, is a Council that will dig in over a tunnel, but won’t proffer a comprehensive vision for how we accommodate growth, through our land use decisions, over the coming years.
How do we make sure we elect ants and not grasshoppers in this election when it comes to land use? Well here’s my guide to electing more ants. It’s simple and I even created a nemonic device, F.A.R. It’s not ABC or AIDA, but it’ll have to do. When it comes to land use, ask candidates in fora around town, or when they ask personally for your support:
Are you a Friend of density? If the candidate says “I don’t support density for density’s sake,” get out of there quick. We know already that density works. Put a lot of people in one place and magic happens. The job of the Council is figuring out how to make density work, not question its value or try to mitigate it like it was something bad or to be embarrassed about supporting. Density is more people, more people means change and progress, and progress is good.
Will you be Aggressive on land use and zoning? Accommodating more growth in our city means creating more development capacity and that means zoning up to expand development potential for more housing and more commercial space. Sure, maybe we’ll permit too much housing and too much retail space. All that does is lower the price. The best way for us to be attractive to lots of people is to open our arms wide and welcome them with lots of housing options and a great transit system to go with it.
Are you going choose Regional interests over narrow local interests? Imagine the abuse a Councilmember might take supporting an up zone around transit station from neighbors who live right near the station. But light rail is a multi-billion dollar investment that is going to benefit millions of people. It’s amazing, then, that it’s people that live within a few hundred yards of transit stations end up driving the land use decisions there. On the surface that makes sense, but when we consider that light rail is a regional investment those bigger concerns should trump local ones
I know the jokers out there will want to add a “T” for TOD or for TIF. But I think FAR gets it covered. There, of course, lots of other more detailed questions. And being a Councilmember requires courage and subtlety. These questions try to get at the heart of whether the candidate at least has the courage. Making big, bold land use decisions that benefit people who don’t live in a neighborhood yet can expose Councilmembers to lots of short term disappointment and anger from people that live there today. Asking these questions is a good start to finding out whether the candidate will be an ant or a grasshopper once they’re in.