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Rethinking Development

by Emily Lardner

In July 2007, The Olympian editorial page opined strongly that the Olympia City Council was on the wrong track: supporting a nuclear freeze, supporting fair labor practices, acknowledging the death toll in Iraq—none of these actions were helping the city "develop." Recently, The Olympian and the majority of City Council members have taken the position that allowing high-end, high-rise housing on the isthmus is the right track for development. Many city residents disagree—witness the hundreds who showed up to testify at city hearings about the rezone, signed petitions, installed yard signs, and wrote the City Council expressing disagreement.

The conflict over the isthmus rezone is an indicator of our need to re-frame the development conversation in our community. At issue is the way we as a city think about development, and how we should plan for the next fifty years. Let's harness the energy from the rezone struggle and use it to collectively imagine a sustainable future.

The traditional approach to development is to focus on increasing density in the downtown core. While the proposed high-rise condos might do that, there's a question about whether buyers can be found in the proposed price-range; scant evidence points in that direction. Besides concern about demand, significant site-specific problems exist with building anything on the isthmus. Given the City of Olympia's own projections for sea level rise, the isthmus will become increasingly exposed to flooding over the next several decades.

While urban density is important, sound development is about more than urban density. In the long run, we need to plan for inevitable environmental shifts that will require rethinking how we manage waste, water, food, energy, and transportation; in other words, a more comprehensive framework for insuring the long-term health of our community.

A good place to start is with a report recently released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The report argues that a key strategy for community development in future years will be to invest in green jobs (i.e. jobs connected to reducing the use of fossil fuels, or increasing the energy efficiency of our existing infrastructure) and curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. Not only will such a strategy encourage the growth of living-wage jobs here in Olympia, it will also be an effective strategy for mitigating the impacts of climate change and for adapting to an economy where oil is increasingly expensive.

This focus on creating green jobs could become the basis for new or expanded local businesses, enriching the downtown core as well as our overall community well-being.

President-elect Obama and Governor Gregoire both have talked about the importance of growing a green economy at the state and federal level.

What potential does a greener economy hold for cities like Olympia? For starters, let's organize a city-wide forum similar to the Dream the Dream forum sponsored by the Thurston County HOME Consortium two years ago. Let's get all the stakeholders together and begin a community-wide discussion about the implications of climate change and peak oil for our community. Within the context of such a discussion, we could start to piece together a collective vision for developing a local green economy.

Good resources for a community conversation like this are available at http://www.mrsc.org the website of Metropolitan Research and Services Center, an independent, non-profit organization aimed at promoting excellence in Washington's state and local governments. In the climate change section, they feature a new publication entitled Post-Carbon Cities. Elected officials and city staff can borrow it from the MRSC library. The rest of us can purchase it on-line.


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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22