Post-COVID: Reinventing Paris, Settling for a Same Seattle?

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Plans to create “an extraordinary garden” on the Champs Elysee.

Surely there’s no more iconic boulevard than Paris’ Champs-Élysées. At less than two kilometers long, it is France’s grande promenade, host to the annual Bastille Day parade and finish line for the Tour de France. It is named after the Greek Elysian Fields, the mythological resting place for heroic Gods. Its grandiloquent anchor is the Arc de Triomphe and it has been the celebration route of liberation and conquest going all the way back to before Napoleon.

So when Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo recently announced that the Champs would be taken back from the cars that have long choked and degraded the avenue to reclaim it as a long urban park where pedestrians rule, it couldn’t have been a more symbolic gesture. In truth, it’s been a long time since the Champs inspired.

Hidalgo is famously on a campaign to turn Paris into a 15-minute city – that is, a place where any resident is no more than 15 minutes away from the everyday things they require. For all of Paris’ legendary charm at the center, it is a brutally segregated city that has consigned its “less desirable” inhabitants to horrible slums at city’s edge. The contrast is stark between the extreme wealth in the center and the grinding poverty and crime in the slums.

One could see restoration of the Champs as yet more beautification of the legendarily charming central historic Paris of dreams, the Paris of tourists. And how, by the way, does improving the center aid the suffering suburbs where working people live? There are two answers, at least tangentially related to the COVID lockdowns.

Paris, like many other places, has become over-touristed. Several cities – Rome, Florence, Barcelona – have closed down portions of their central districts to cars as a way to manage the mobs that throng there. While over-touristing was a topic of discussion long before COVID, the year-long pause gave residents a chance to understand the negative impacts of tourism in a more direct way.  Like cities from Venice to Amsterdam to Honolulu, the re-emergence from COVID is being seen as an opportunity to rethink controls on tourism. Opponents of limits – the tourism industry – have lost ground as residents have been able to see the benefits of life without the mobs. While closing the Champs won’t make it less desirable as a tourist destination, it will help make the crowds more manageable.

The second COVID-related reason is that lockdown gave Hidalgo an opening to press her rethink of Paris-as-usual. Lockdown scrambled entrenched positions and oppositions, and city residents responded with an expectation that both a collective response was demanded and that new realities demand new ideas. In short, opportunities to reinvent.

Along with the “15-minute” plan, which involves new services and amenities for and rethinking of underserved suburbs, the Centre also gets a rethink in line with reimagining what a livable city should be. Reclaiming the Champs is only one of many manifestations of this for the quality of life for all Parisians, but as a symbol – both within France and to cities everywhere – it is a powerful signal that even our most-iconic spaces can evolve into something better given the motivation and the vision. Also, that – at least in the mindset of leaders in cities like Paris — this may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get important previously intractable things done.

So what are the important things to get done in Seattle? Certainly figuring out a solution for homelessness. And traffic. Public safety. A long list of issues of equity and access. Climate. Affordability. Housing. Crumbling roads and bridges. It’s quite a long list, actually. We haven’t made a lot of progress. And looming over it all are the uncertainties of COVID and restarting the economy.

Are there lessons from Paris here for Seattle? The French capital’s problems are similarly daunting, but suddenly, recently, progress is being made. And here? Well. We’re now deep into local primary season, and is anyone talking about inspiring visions for the region after COVID? We hear about mitigating problems, trying to right historic wrongs, prayers for recovery and pledges of basic competence and equity. All important, to be sure, but so far elusive. And shouldn’t we be demanding more, anyway?

Let’s Be Competent! Now there’s a rallying cry. And, given the recent performance of our city council, even that is sadly aspirational, at least for the moment. But it’s a pretty low bar. Great cities don’t get to be great merely by being competent (though it’s certainly a prerequisite). What happened to Seattle Exceptionalism? We have been touted as a “superstar city” but that was “superstar” as defined by norm-busting growth, infrastructure that couldn’t keep up, a rising gap between the rich and everyone else, and increasingly unaffordable cost-of-living. Not so superstarry for those of us just under the surface of all that growth.

So if iconic Paris can recognize a disruption as an opportunity to help reinvent the City of Light and use its most famous road as a symbol of that change, surely now is a once-in-a-generation chance for Seattle to demand that we don’t just try to “recover” from COVID (whatever that means) to carry on as usual, but use this break from the norm to articulate a compelling vision for the future.

COVID has scrambled long entrenched positions. For example, Compassion Seattle is an idea which came from outside our political process and which has an astonishing 67 percent approval in a recent poll, suggesting that there is (1) public appetite for new thinking and (2) a corresponding weariness and frustration for the slow-grinding deadlock that hasn’t solved much. Our impatience over the city’s inability to solve basic problems and a growing perception that our leaders don’t know what they’re doing is growing.

To be sure, the city is involved in some big projects: the tunnel and remaking of the downtown waterfront, the new Climate Pledge Arena, the convention center expansion. Nice additions to the city furniture. But the waterfront has been so long coming it’s barely more than a chimera at this point. And the arena and convention center are baubles of the “superstar” era that will only exacerbate congestion and strain resources rather than make us more livable. Not that there’s anything seriously wrong with any of these projects, but again, shouldn’t we demand better?

At the national level, Joe Biden and the Democrats are focusing on boring things — competent government, rebalancing the economy, fixing long-neglected infrastructure, redefining what infrastructure is to reflect modern realities, and a long list of essentials including equity, environment and climate. But after decades of gridlock and disfunction, neglect of basic government mechanisms, a disastrous Trump administration, and an unprecedented shutdown of the country, the Biden agenda isn’t incremental, it’s potentially transformational.

No settling for just “getting back to normal.” No nibbling around the edges of problems. No more half way. Whether he succeeds or not is still a very big open question, but polls suggest he’s getting broad support for bold ideas that actually address problems. Biden’s vision for America is a country that works, can solve problems and get things done. How radical, indeed. After 16 months of shutdown, there’s no such thing as “normal,” which means that there may be appetite for dreaming about what a “new” normal might be. It takes leadership to define and articulate it.

Nick Licata’s excellent recent piece on the use of fear and hope in our politics essentially described a politics of mitigation — promising to protect us from the threats that are all around us and hope for lives that aren’t crushed by inequities and systems that oppress. These are powerful motivators because they connect with our basic insecurities. And they are easy to lean into when you lack ideas.

But whether it’s the mayor of Paris, savvy stock investors like Warren Buffett, or the record hundreds of thousands of people who have filed for licenses to start new businesses in the past year, recognizing crisis as opportunity and acting on it will define the next round of winners. That this opportunity doesn’t seem to include Seattle, where the economy has thrived on big ideas built to compete in a global marketplace — Boeing, Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon, etc — suggests that the infrastructure that produces leadership in this city is broken. Who would seriously want to be mayor right now? Do you imagine it’s a fun job?

So what is the big Paris-size vision for a new Seattle — for a city that works better, spreads its wealth more equitably and is built to thrive during the challenges ahead? And more important — where is the leadership — people who aren’t just selling themselves as mitigators, but who have a vision for the extraordinary region this can be? Now that’s someone I could get excited about.

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Doug is a longtime arts journalist, and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com, he's frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works with a number of arts organizations nationally.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The “big thinking” about what Seattle should become happened 35 years ago, and it produced some state laws that require local governments to upzone for, and permit construction of, vast amounts of residential and office “transit oriented development.” Now all that upzoning, permitting and TOD is worse than useless because employers adopted remote work policies. Residents of this region no longer need or want to commute daily to packed downtown offices, so the small apartments by transit nodes now have falling rents. Lots more TOD is set to hit the market over the next five years — adding to the obsolete infrastructure that is accreting up an down the shores of Puget Sound.

    Why did the visionaries of the late 1980’s have it so wrong? They hadn’t heard of the internet. They had no idea businesses and government administration would operate so productively for workforces distributed all over the region.

    The author of this piece ignores the vast taxing and remaking of transportation facilities caused by light rail. Exceedingly few need it now, and that won’t change. Light rail is an abject lesson in how local government and business minds reach conclusions about land use policies that may have immediate plausibility but lead to horrible outcomes. Until the lessons are learned more “big thinking” needs to be truncated at the outset.

  2. Seems to me the planners of 35 years ago were prescient. We’ve added 150,000 people in Seattle proper in the past ten years. Where exactly was that growth with all those Amazon jobs going to go if we didn’t densify? Our traffic congestion is terrible, and clearly the roads can’t accommodate more. So how are you going to move people around? Before COVID, ridership was growing. And the light rail has been a hit with riders. The growth isn’t going to stop.

    As for falling rents around stations? Seems to me that’s a good thing for the short term in a market where housing for regular income workers is scarce and out of reach for most.

    In any case, I’m fascinated that you’ve determined definitively that workers won’t be returning to downtown. Most accounts I’ve seen don’t consider the issue settled by any means. And so far at least, there’s evidence to the contrary in many cities.

    But what I’m talking about isn’t about placing bets on Big Think projects and guessing right. It’s about setting priorities and getting things done.

  3. Our traffic congestion is not terrible. Here’s a recent presentation to this state’s transportation commission.

    https://wstc.wa.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/2021-0720-BP3-GlobalScorecard-INRIX.pdf

    On page 3 it summarizes some recent data regarding Seattle traffic. In 2020 the amount of time spent in congestion was down 67% from 2019 levels and vehicle miles travelled in Seattle was down by about a quarter. On page 12 it indicates that last month downtown trips remained down 30% from 2019 levels. Central Seattle has far less traffic as remote working trends are solidifying.

    You ask: “How are you going to move people around?” I’m not going to do that, and neither is light rail. Even the buses are woefully underutilized. Transit was helpful when employers were demanding hundreds of thousands of daily commutes to downtown, but that won’t be happening at nearly the levels forecasted.

    “And the light rail has been a hit with riders. The growth isn’t going to stop.” The growth was lower than forecasted through 2019, and since then ridership has dropped by three quarters. This year light rail ridership is on track to be less than 20% of what Sound Transit forecasted last September. Nobody needs “a commute alternative” to the station locations – the reason that grandiose mode of transit was dreamed up.

    The new normal is here. Employers can not force mass daily commutes to downtown offices – the reason for all the TOD (residential and commercial). Employers don’t want to pack in bodies to downtown offices because it is productive for them to use distributed workforces. You understand Amazon moved HQ1 and its 54,000 employees out of South Lake Union and migrated them onto computer-network clouds it is building out, right? Those 11 buildings that used to be packed daily will remain largely empty.

    • You keep using figures from the height of the COVID-19 shutdown. People ARE returning to work downtown. Amazon and other major players are planning for workers returning to their downtown offices. I-5 is once again backed up every morning and evening, though not yet to pre-pandemic levels. Ridership on buses and light rail is increasing every month. Emmett Watson and Lesser Seattle are long dead, and your lack of vision should be too.

      We do need that visionary leadership. Paul Schell had it, and so many of his great ideas were put in motion in his one term; it was an insult to his legacy to witness Mayor Greg Nickels cut the ribbons and try to claim ownership. Mayor Norm Rice had competence enough to save our downtown when other cities were losing theirs. Woe that we might get the competence of Rice with the vision of Schell, but for the idiots and fools in their performative activism in the Seattle City Council.

  4. One thing that seems to be happening is the development of a Twin Cities distribution of population and jobs, namely the Eastside. Amazon is said to have stopped future growth in Seattle, an important signal to others. The basic Sound Transit alignment, linking Seattle, Bellevue/Redmon, Tacoma, and (some day) Everett, should be a good multi-nodal pattern for absorbing growth, particularly if a robust bus system (including bus rapid transit) is implemented. Federal funding might make this happen. If so, we don’t need to have Seattle hog all the future growth of population.

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