Urbanites’ Notebook

Thoughts from City Dwellers on Urban Spaces

By Amy Lindemuth

The historic auto row building portion of Chophouse Row in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, prior to development. The building was previously a practice space for local musicians. Photo by Spike Mafford

I’m a landscape architect, and for several years I’ve had insightful conversations on urban issues with friends and acquaintances who are outside and inside the design, planning, and real estate professions. Sometimes their perspectives are incongruous with the worldviews I believed they held. Other times they eloquently describe their daily hassles and heartbreaks, proposing solutions I hadn’t considered.

The following brief interviews (four questions) attempt to gather a range of perspectives from urbanites about the current and future direction of their cities and offer a glimpse into our respective urban think tanks. This is the first installment of what is planned as an ongoing conversation with city dwellers about their changing urban landscapes.

Miki Sodos

Miki Sodos is the co-owner and operator of Café Pettirosso, Bang Bang Café, and the upcoming Bang Bang Kitchen in Seattle’s Belltown, Capitol Hill, and Hillman City neighborhoods, respectively.

What is the biggest challenge facing your city?

The speed of growth. The governmental infrastructure is not comprehensive enough to handle it, in my opinion. There are not enough city employees to make sure that big developers are following codes and permitting rules. There is not enough affordable housing for lower-wage workers, which in turn pushes away the arts and music scene, which has always been the heart and soul of Seattle. The city is working very hard to keep up, but the growth is so fast, and the city is not equipped to maintain its integrity.

How do you personally define “livability” within a city? Is your city more or less livable than 10 to 20 years ago, and why do you think that is?

To me “livability” means that people can choose to live in the same neighborhood where they work or relatively close to it. This is what keeps a neighborhood alive. Businesses and their employees are what make a neighborhood vibrant. Yes, some neighborhoods might be out of reach for the average worker, but in an area like Capitol Hill, living near your workplace has always been the norm. But that’s not the case anymore.

What is the best part of living in your city right now? What is missing from city life for you?

The neighborhood aspect is the best part of living in my city. I love walking down the street and seeing my customers and coworkers and exchanging smiles and hellos. It’s also what’s missing for me right now. I have been on Capitol Hill for almost 20 years. The high rents are driving out neighborhood workers, and the neighborhood feeling is still there, but it is diminished.

How do you think current or emerging technology will change your city?

I see good and bad happening. It’s amazing to see the speed and efficiency that new technology brings to doing business. I’m able to accomplish more in my days than I used to 10 years ago. Hand in hand with that, though, comes the lack of human interaction. I see less conversation and more work and social networking done in my businesses than ever before. It’s unfortunate that people don’t ever unplug. Hopefully that will change as this progresses.

An image of the South Lake Union skyline

Seattle’s South Lake Union skyline earlier this year. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

John Rahaim

John Rahaim is the planning director for the City and County of San Francisco. Previously, he has served as the planning director for the Department of Planning and Development in Seattle.

What is the biggest challenge facing your city?

San Francisco has become the poster child for 21st-century urban regeneration and the resultant impacts now being experienced by many coastal cities. While providing unprecedented revenues and neighborhood revitalization (and a broad new range of urban activities), we have been caught off guard by the pace of growth. The result has been major disruption in many neighborhoods, particularly those of color. As a result, housing costs, displacement, income inequality, and homelessness have become our primary urban issues.

How do you personally define “livability” within a city? Is your city more or less livable than 10 to 20 years ago, and why do you think that is?

Livability for me is primarily defined by ease of access—physical, financial, social. By this definition, San Francisco has become both more and less livable. Physical access has in many ways improved with growing density and access to services, many of which can be achieved on foot in most neighborhoods. Conversely, transportation congestion, economic disparities, and housing costs have reduced access for many, resulting in fewer housing choices and longer commutes.

What is the best part of living in your city right now? What is missing from city life for you?

San Francisco is dynamic and vital. It is increasingly characterized by active and safe neighborhoods and access to a range of services and great food. While not always politically correct to admit, I find the growing global presence of the city and the city’s constant innovation to be energizing. Perhaps most of all, the political values of the city are a source of pride and comfort in an otherwise upsetting political era.

The question we face: Is the city losing its soul in this time of rapid change?

How do you think current or emerging technology will change your city?

The current national economic boom is largely urban. This is more than locational. The conditions creating this boom come from urban innovations that have quickly spread to all sectors. It is fueled by a growing acceptance of technology in our lives that begins in big cities. I do not believe that the access provided by technology has caused or will cause social isolation; in fact, the opposite has occurred—we live together because we choose to, not because we have to. Nonetheless, technology will have major impacts on mobility, access to services, and perhaps the design of the public realm. But it will not change the fundamental physical qualities of our cities.

Aerial images comparing the Duamish Valley in the 1800 to the valley today

The Duwamish Valley in the mid-1800s and today. Circles in the top image represent locations of Indigenous Coast Salish place names. Detail of The Waterlines Project Map, Burke Museum.

Amir Sheikh

Amir Sheikh is a curatorial associate at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where he is a team leader for The Waterlines Project. He is also affiliate faculty at the University of Washington Bothell, where he is a program manager for the People’s Geography of Seattle Project.

What is the biggest challenge facing your city?

This is already being discussed ubiquitously: income inequality and related issues such as housing affordability.

How do you personally define “livability” within a city? Is your city more or less livable than 10 to 20 years ago, and why do you think that is?

Livability is access to basics such as nutritional foods, clean water, healthy environments, mobility, and the choice of adequate affordable housing as an intrinsic human right. The unprecedented amount of capital that has been flowing into Seattle has so skewed the market that livability is difficult for many. But there have always been communities that have been denied these amenities.

What is the best part of living in your city right now? What is missing from city life for you?

I walk a lot. Walking is one of the primary ways I learn from, experience, and enjoy the city. Through these walks, I feel there seems to be a heightened air of cosmopolitism that people are experiencing. A large swath of this, however, is a very class-based cosmopolitism. It is also a cosmopolitism that falls into a type of lifestyle marketing that sets up the urban landscape as a site of consumption (e.g., “live, work, play”… and eat) that is targeted to very specific demographics. I feel there is a lack of a more organic cosmopolitism that is inclusive of lower-income people, communities of color, and communities that have been in existence here.

How do you think current or emerging technology will change your city?

There is a lot of discussion these days about smart cities, the role of big data, and related technologies to help manage our urban landscape. I’ve always been enthusiastic about the power of place-based storytelling (perhaps “slow data”?), not only for more broadly informing and shaping our relationships to each other, history, and this place, but also for community empowerment, mobilization, and influencing cross-sector urban planning and environmental decision making. There are several examples of projects around town that are utilizing technologies: analog, digital, or hybrid approaches for storytelling, particularly around the narratives of resilient communities experiencing the processes of urban transformation, gentrification, climate change, and displacement we are seeing today. Not that these processes are new—there are long-standing relationships and legacies between history, place, and power here in Seattle, some of which can be traced back to settler-colonialism and the occupation of Indigenous lands. These relationships are being actively experienced, shaped, contested, and reshaped in the present. I do think that effective storytelling, utilizing multiple ways of knowing and various ways of presenting narratives of place, is one element that can lead to increased intersectional awareness, dialogue, and ultimately greater equitable democratic governance.

Amy Lindemuth is a landscape architect and writer living in Seattle. Her frequent wanderings around urban landscapes and conversations with urbanites never cease to entertain and surprise her.