by Kathleen Braden
The mayor’s July decision to diminish the resource of district councils is symbolic of a wider attempt to undermine the role of neighborhoods in Seattle as our city struggles with the changing dynamics and needs of the 21st century American city. But at the heart of the move is the desire for streamlined political power. Citizen activists in silos don’t invest as much in issues outside their own narrowly defined scope. They are easier to manipulate.
We human beings like to form communities of interest to join together in hopes of achieving outcomes, but there are two paths to how we create them. One path is spatial: we live in areas defined by geography, whether by neighborhood, district, or city. The other path is more narrowly set out according to a specific affiliation.
Let’s suggest an analogy with a hypothetical institution called Public School ABC. The teachers in the school might want to be part of a union that includes teachers from other schools across a larger region, and such an approach would be legitimate to advance the interests of the teaching profession.
But P.S. ABC also includes professional staff, custodians, children, their parents, and even taxpayers who support the enterprise. Under this path, teachers work in cooperation with other stakeholders all joined together around a place to advance a common good: the education of children. The effort requires cooperation and consensus that emerges from a diverse variety of viewpoints.
Seattle has become a great city based on the strength of its neighborhoods- the development of community interests based on the place path. And yet, Mayor Ed Murray is undermining that resource and pushing us on the path of interest communities. He is doing it under the guise of being more inclusive and yet his approach will have the opposite impact: he will silo up our citizens based on a single attribute of our lives and divide us.
We will have to embrace one aspect of our common lives together whether we be bikers, homeowners, renters, income groups, etc. and promote our interests in the public arena based on that characteristic. In some ways, it is an easier approach because the outcomes are more predictable and manageable for those in power: bikers should all want the same thing; renters should all want the same thing. Why should diverse groups based on neighborhood affiliations have to work together? Why should the great urban spaces of the public square – parks, schools, libraries, shopping districts, infrastructure, greenways, community centers – matter as much? The siloed up interests require less compromise and can often be played out in cyberspace and on social media.
Wise urban leaders know that a great city is built on the strength of its neighborhoods acting together for the common good of all residents. Alternatively, cities with activism channeled into silos will soon become not genuine places, but mere locations. So I ask you, dear reader, which path do you want for Seattle’s future?
Kathleen Braden is Professor Emerita of Geography at Seattle Pacific University, a member of the Licton Springs Community Council in north Seattle, and served to represent the NW District Council at the 2016 Large Grants committee for the Department of Neighborhoods. She contributed data analysis to our previous post about District Councils.