9 lessons we can learn from Seattle

In 1962, the world took notice of Seattle as a city on its way up when it staged a world’s fair, symbolized by the futuristic Space Needle tower.

This is the second in a series of three articles about what innovative ideas Minneapolis-St. Paul can borrow from our peer cities, adapted from Jay Walljasper’s new McKnight Foundation report, “A Tale of Three Cities.” First we looked at Denver, now Seattle and on Friday Toronto.

In 1962, the world took notice of Seattle as a city on its way up when it staged a world’s fair, symbolized by the futuristic Space Needle tower. By all accounts the fair, officially known as the Century 21 Exposition, was a success, even turning a profit at the turnstiles with 10 million visitors.  

But Seattle’s future looked far from rosy 10 years later when a downturn in the aviation industry, which indirectly counted for as many as one in six jobs, plunged the region into an economic slump so severe that unemployment reached 17 percent.

Those hard times jolted the local community to get serious about diversifying and strengthening its economy, notes Bill Stafford, a former deputy mayor and founder of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle. The region rebounded, he says, by taking advantage of its collaborative culture, willingness to take risks and global outlook. 

Today some of the most world’s most recognizable companies call Seattle home: Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Nordstrom, Costco and REI. The region is projected to generate 1.2 million new jobs by 2040.

But Seattle is known for more than its economic prowess. Pike Place market, grunge rock music, a reputation for environmental awareness, and the iconic Space Needle all put it on the map as an innovative, distinctive and attractive place to live.

“The quality of life, arts and outdoor lifestyle are important to our success,” Stafford underscores.

“We are a high-cost area, but people keep coming here. Google is moving all kinds of staff here. Why did Howard Schultz [of Starbucks] and Jeff Bezos [of Amazon] come here to start their businesses?” And why did Bill Gates come back home from Albuquerque in 1979, bringing 4-year-old Microsoft with him?

Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) is also a high-cost place to do business, but we’re not widely recognized outside the Midwest for our strong economy and quality of life, raising questions about how we will fare over the long haul in an increasingly competitive globalized economy.

The Seattle region could be seen as the Twin Cities’ slightly bigger sister. The Census ranks it 15th in metropolitan population (3.9 million) while we stand one notch below at 16th (3.5 million). Both places are home to large, respected state universities, substantial Scandinavian populations, sometime disagreeable weather and a reputation for decisionmaking through consensus-building.

Seattle is also similar to Minneapolis-St. Paul in its populist liberal political traditions. Strong opposition to economic inequality has been voiced throughout town from the 1919 Seattle general strike (when labor unions shut down the city) to the 1999 Battle of Seattle protests against corporate globalization (when activists shut down a World Trade Organization meeting) to last November when socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to the City Council on a platform of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Nonetheless, economic inequality endures in both regions. Segregation of African-Americans and the achievement gap in city schools were cited as major problems facing Seattle by a number of those I interviewed on a recent visit.

Here are some ideas MSP can borrow from Seattle in a range of fields:

1. Look outward

“We’re a port city,” Stafford reminds, “and that has shaped us.  Forty percent of jobs here are linked to the international economy. Kids in Seattle schools speak 76 different languages at home.”

Seattle’s global view affects how people see their own region, says Kelly Mann, director of the Urban Land Institute Northwest. “We’re outward looking, always asking how we can better.  Why can’t we be more like Vancouver? Why can’t we be more like San Francisco?”

As an inland region, Minneapolis-St. Paul has historically focused less on what happens elsewhere.  Even today pointing to Portland or New York as a model for MSP (not to mention Copenhagen or Shanghai) can sometimes elicit an “I-don’t-care” stare.  That doesn’t serve us well in an interconnected world.

2. Expand light rail in all directions

Seattle and MSP share the dubious distinction of being latecomers to rail transit. Places like Salt Lake City, Sacramento, Edmonton, Buffalo, Dallas, St. Louis, Calgary, San Jose, Baltimore, San Diego, Guadalajara (Mexico) and Bergen County (New Jersey) built new train lines ahead of us.

Seattle was a latecomer to light rail, but has embraced it — and is planning expansions.

Seattle, however, has been quicker to catch up.

A short light rail line running through downtown Tacoma opened in 2003 and they inaugurated a second line between the airport and downtown Seattle in 2009.  That line is now being extended to the University of Washington and plans are under way to expand light rail service south to Tacoma, east to Redmond (home of Microsoft) and north to Lynwood.

3. Build a streetcar network

An ambitious streetcar network is also in the works. The South Lake Union line began running in 2007 and a second streetcar line debuts this year, with a third line planned — as well as extensions to the existing lines. The South Lake Union line helped fuel a real-estate boom in a derelict industrial area near downtown, which now sports headquarters for Amazon, REI and the Tommy Bahama clothing chain. Amazon is so convinced that transit connections are essential to its business that it paid for an additional streetcar to be put into service to reduce wait times for its employees. Even Microsoft, which popularized the isolated suburban campus as a corporate ideal, has moved some operations to South Lake Union. 

4. Beef up bus service

Opponents of light rail in both regions touted better bus service as a more efficient alternative to trains, but Seattle did something about it. Hopping around the city by bus on a Sunday evening, usually a black hole in transit schedules, I never waited very long at a stop.  The buses I rode were comfortable and filled with people of all races, ages and social classes. Even after starting to build rail projects, Seattle also beefed up bus service in the city and suburbs with six “Rapid Ride” lines, which incorporate many of the advantages of rail systems: frequent service, fewer stops, distinctly recognizable stations and signs that announce the next arrival. Unlike most regions, Seattle did not slash bus service after the 2008 economic crisis but is planning cuts now to fill a $75 million shortfall.

5. Make walking less dangerous

Despite steep hills and steady rains, Seattle tops MSP when it comes to walking. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey finds 8 percent of commuters in the city of Seattle travel by foot, compared to 7 percent in Minneapolis and 6 percent in St. Paul.

Walk Friendly Communities, a national organization pushing for better walking conditions, singles out the city of Seattle for its highest-level platinum honors. (Minneapolis must settle for gold along with 9 other cities.) The organization cites accomplishments such as: 1) the Neighborhood Traffic Calming Program, which installed more than 1,000 traffic circles, plus numerous road diets, and other improvements to help motorists follow speed limits; 2) the Aggressive Driver Response Team, where neighborhoods work with police to curb dangerous drivers; and 3) 2012’s Vulnerable User Law, which zeroes in on negligent but not criminal traffic errors that injure or kill pedestrians and bicyclists.

6. Grow a market district

In the 1960s, the beloved Pike Place Market looked doomed.  The mayor, City Council and large segments of the business community supported plans to demolish it to build a hockey arena. A group of citizens pushed back, however, and in 1971 the market was declared a historic district.  Now it’s the pulsing heart of the city and the most iconic symbol of Seattle.  An entire food district with specialty shops and restaurants has grown up on the surrounding streets.

Pike Place Market is the pulsing heart of Seattle.

While St. Paul boasts a farmer’s market befitting the agricultural bounty of our Midwest, the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market — hidden in the shadow of a freeway — is a missed opportunity.  It could be improved through better connections to local farmers and to the rest of the city.  Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul markets need to become year-round affairs, a move that some day would look as brilliant to us as saving Pike Place Market does to Seattleites today. 

7. Create a conservation district

The Capitol Hill neighborhood in Seattle is historic, but not in the way you’d expect. First there’s no Capitol, that’s 60 miles away in Olympia. As Seattle’s longtime countercultural mecca, the historical ambience here is more funky than pristine — think a tavern where grunge bands Nirvana and Pearl Jam hung out rather than painstakingly restored Victorian houses.

That’s no reason the neighborhood’s character should be simply wiped away, says Mark Huppert, a real-estate developer who is now senior director of the Preservation Green Lab, a research-and-development team of the National Trust for Historic Preservation based in Seattle. Local preservation activists pushed to enact an innovative tool known as a “conservation overlay.”

Conservation districts offer different protections from historic districts, focusing more on maintaining overall character and less on particular buildings. “The goal is not to stop development, but to help think differently about the historic resources here. Growth is going to come here regardless — but we want some protections in place,” Huppert says

Minneapolis is currently debating a proposal to create conservation districts, which some people worry will become an impediment to density. The experience in Seattle shows that such regulations don’t necessarily obstruct development, but actually aid it by reassuring people that new projects will fit in with old neighborhoods.

8. Take the ‘sub’ out of suburb

Bellevue (pop. 122,000), once a bedroom burg for commuters, is making moves to become a city in its own right. A downtown district with gleaming office towers, high-rise condos, high-speed bus service and hearty nightlife rises like the Emerald City out of a tangle of subdivisions and strip malls. Confirmed urban partisans might scoff at the chain stores and 5-lane roads, but everyone else seems to appreciate an opportunity for street life and pizzazz, if only for a few blocks.

9. Reinvent the mall as a community center

Downtown is not the only surprising spot in Bellevue. Crossroads, a 1970s-era shopping mall, has reinvented itself as something approaching a town center. 

You notice something different about this mall immediately. Businesses have grown up in the parking lot — a veterinarian office, cupcake shop, movie theaters — connected to the main mall with crosswalks, as if these traffic lanes were downtown streets. All the outlets in the food court — Korean BBQ, Mexican, sushi, Middle Eastern, pizza — are local restaurateurs, not fast-food chains. 

There’s an Old Navy, Jo-Ann’s Fabrics and Pier One, of course, but also a grocery store, a used book store, public library and branch of City Hall, where business can be conducted in Spanish, Chinese, Bengali. Hindi and Urdu. This is not your mother’s mall. The lesson here is that to survive, shopping centers must become places to do many things besides shopping. 

Friday: What we can learn from Toronto.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Jeremy Zoss on 06/05/2014 - 10:42 am.

    #10: Loosen up

    I recently spent a week in Seattle, and one thing I noticed is how slavishly devoted to rules we seem in comparison. My mind was blown when I saw cars parked facing both directions on either side of the street. I had never thought about it before, but it really is a pointless rule that helps no one.

    Also, liquor stores in Seattle can serve beer on tap inside the store (and sell it on Sundays). The zoning laws appear to allow for much more mingling of residential and retail, making for little neighborhood-y pockets throughout the city. In short, things feel “looser” there, and I feel like we could really learn something from that.

  2. Submitted by Stephen Przybylinski on 06/05/2014 - 12:00 pm.


    No mention of density? Minneapolis is 30 square miles less than Seattle, yet Seattle has more people per square mile. Seattle is thus drawing on more mileage to get that per-person density. I agree with the author’s implication that Seattle is in pursuit of global city status. This is reflected in the landscape, where corporate culture shapes downtown vertically. One explanation for this is topography. Seattle is spatially bound by steep grades and the Sound. When both downtowns took off (went up) in the second half of the twentieth century, Seattle’s concentration was more intractable than with flatter Minneapolis. If your historical planning agencies cannot agree to put in growth limits, good ol’ nature can help with that.

    • Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/05/2014 - 07:22 pm.

      More data

      The Seattle MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area) extends far beyond the limits of Seattle, as does the MSP MSA. The relative density is approximately 600 per square mile in the Seattle MSA and approximately 500 in the MSP MSA, due in part to the fact that the MSP CSA contains 500 square miles more than Seattle’s. (Roughly 6,400 vs. 5,900.) The lay of the land is markedly different, as is the climate.

      The Twin Cities are sui generis. You won’t find a good overall comparison anywhere in the U.S. and shouldn’t expect what’s worked elsewhere to work here without a good deal of thought about how those differences will come into play.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 06/05/2014 - 01:08 pm.

    A map would be a good tool in making recommendations or

    even knowing what is going on in the metro area.

    As to number 9 taking the sub out of suburb, according to Wikipedia there are 182 cities and townships in the Minneapolis/St. Paul SMSA. At least one of the townships has a larger population than many of the cities. Many of these cities were stand alone entities before the suburbs grew out to them. Many of them just contain houses.

    We have an excellent example of transit center, and cute “down town” in Maple Grove. Every one who likes it raise your hands. Everyone who likes it better than downtown Wazata, White Bear Lake, Afton, North St. Paul raise your hands. Not quite so many I am sure.

    It would be nice to get a clear definition of what a suburb is. It is bandied about like it is anything outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul. I don’t now that it is. If it is why to do all these city dwellers take day trips to the suburbs of Stillwater or Excellsior?

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/05/2014 - 01:47 pm.

    Here’s another rather unique thing about Seattle…

    …- outdoor preschools !! There is no “indoors” at all, the whole time every day is out-of-doors. While weather in Seattle is nearly always tolerable, the winter months in Minnesota would probably require an indoors space. But a great deal of our year has weather no worse than Seattle. The kids come to school with rain gear and warm clothes, ready for any weather that might show up.

    Two of my grandchildren attend one of these and they have a ball !! I recently visited the site and it’s all woodsy with lots of footpaths everywhere. They study nature and create their own play in it, with the guidance of a teacher.

    Below is a list of 12 such schools in the Seattle area. I can find none in Minnesota, based on a cursory web search.


  5. Submitted by Dave Peterson on 06/05/2014 - 04:42 pm.

    A reopened 7th Street could serve as a retail/market street.

    The city of St. Paul has done much in recent years to create a more vibrant downtown, but reopening the original 7th Street (now known as 7th Place and covered by Town Square and the Wells Fargo tower) as a retail street would do much to revive the downtown’s retail trade. A reestablished 7th Street could serve as an attractive pedestrian street connected both ends of downtown and making for an attractive walk between Lowertown and the Rice Park area. This street could also serve as an incubator of locally owned shops. Finally, it could serve as market location for the St. Paul Farmer’s Market on weekdays. A successful market already exists by the Palace Theater.
    The one drawback is it would cost a lot of money to remove parts of the failed Town Square and Wells Fargo retail malls, however, opening up the street would be a better use than the current old mall space.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/06/2014 - 08:07 am.

    I lived in Seattle for two years

    Actually, I lived in Bremerton, but took the ferry to Seattle frequently.

    The place is so full of smug, self-obsessed people that it reminded me a lot of Minneapolis.

  7. Submitted by Robert McManus on 06/08/2014 - 03:15 pm.


    Legalize recreational marijuana and get a step ahead of the rest of the nation while taking advantage of the tourism it will create.

  8. Submitted by Ross Bleakney on 06/12/2014 - 11:44 am.


    I’m a long time resident of Seattle, and I follow land use and development issues a lot. Here is my critique of the points the author raised and how they might apply to your area:

    1) I agree. To be fair, though, Seattle was well suited for globalization in part because it is so isolated. It has a port which connects it to the Pacific, but it is a very long way from other cities.

    2) I completely disagree. Seattle’s light rail is stuck in a political quagmire that has occurred because of the jurisdictions involved. The most important part (downtown to the University of Washington) is just now being built, while the existing system gets very little use. In short, it is a lot like BART; it spreads outward, providing neither fast service from the suburbs, nor efficient, important coverage for the core city. The DC system is a much better model, as is the light rail line in Vancouver, BC (a city that is very similar to Seattle).

    3) I’m not a fan of streetcars, but at least they aren’t expensive. In general I think they get a lot more credit than they deserve. This is definitely true for Seattle’s streetcars.

    4) I agree. Bus service is very important. I’m not sure if Seattle is a great example of efficient bus service, but historically, we’ve done a pretty good job.

    5) I completely agree, it is pleasant and safe to walk throughout most the city, and it has helped make Seattle popular.

    6) I agree that the Pike Place Market has played a very important role in making Seattle (especially downtown Seattle) very popular with both tourists and locals.

    7) I also agree. In many ways, 6 and 7 are basically about the same thing: preservation. Restoring old architecture goes a long way towards making a place desirable.

    8) Also true. I’m not sure if Bellevue deserves all the credit. Some of this is simply because Microsoft is located in Redmond and Bellevue is half way between Seattle and Redmond. A lot of office buildings went up in Bellevue as a result. To its credit, Bellevue has spent time and effort creating nice park space and other public amenities to compliment the office towers, making it a nice (if expensive) place to both work and live.

    9) Yes, much has been written about the fact that malls have to reinvent themselves. The Bellevue mall is a bit lucky in that it now sits inside a downtown city, as opposed to in the suburbs (which is what it resembled when it was built).

    I want to add a few more:

    10) Fund the local universities well. This is far more important than anything else on this list, really. The University of Washington is well within the city limits and less than five miles to downtown. The area between the two is the area that is booming right now. Amazon has moved there, and is driving the boom, but before that it was bio-tech. I can’t imagine Amazon, or many of the other companies in Seattle thriving, or even locating here without the University of Washington. I shouldn’t shortchange the other schools either. The mix of colleges (including solid community colleges) all play a part in the city’s success.

    11) Provide a nice, affordable alternative to more expensive cities. A lot of Seattle’s success is spun off of California. People take high priced jobs in the Bay Area or L. A., but they get tired of the really high cost of living down there. So, they take a small pay cut, but move to Seattle. This has driven up the price of housing, but it has also helped the economy. I’m not sure if that could happen with the twin cities, although if Chicago becomes really expensive, I could see that happening.

    12) Provide excellent bike infrastructure. This could provide the greatest bang for the buck for an area like Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Seattle has extremely challenging topography for a bike, but plenty of people manage to get around in part because there are so many good bike trails. Investing a bit on this type of thing could get you national attention (e. g. “Top ten cities for bikes”) which spurs development.

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