On the campaign trail, Harrell has placated NIMBYs by saying we don’t need to eradicate exclusionary zoning, even as he acknowledges its racist roots.
On the campaign trail, Harrell has placated NIMBYs by saying we don’t need to eradicate exclusionary zoning, even as he acknowledges its racist roots. LESTER BLACK

Bruce Harrell’s campaign calls his Climate Plan a “comprehensive 7-page plan contain[ing] ambitious ideas, thoughtful frameworks, and specific details for new projects, policies, and programs.'' Unfortunately, it contains none of those things. To quote Harrell’s repeated, misogynistic “rebuttal” to City Council President Lorena González at a mayoral debate last week, his Climate Plan is “just a bunch of words strung together.”

The most noteworthy statement in the entire document is: “Seattle has set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, but we are not on track to meet these critical targets without immediate action.” The two reasons we’re off track involve cars and single-family zoning, and we’re off track on those issues because Harrell’s backers have spent decades fighting to make Seattle as suburban and as car-dependent as possible.

Harrell wants to hire “top” climate scientists to figure out what to do, but he apparently forgot to consult them when drafting his web copy, since he confuses “urban heat sinks” with “urban heat islands.” (Urban heat sinks describe a situation where cities are cooler than the surrounding landscape). But more to the point: hiring top scientists is an expensive way to further delay climate action.

Seattle doesn’t need another group of consultants to repeat what they’ve been bellowing from their green rooftops for years: get out of your cars and eliminate exclusionary zoning, embrace sustainable building practices, and electrify everything.

Seattle Hasn’t Been a Climate Leader

Harrell’s plan begins with a lofty declaration: “Seattle is in a unique position to lead cities worldwide in addressing climate change." That dream could be a reality if the Seattle Times Editorial Board and others who have endorsed Harrell in this election hadn't also helped install two car-loving mayors in the last two cycles.

Mayors actually leading on climate — such as Montreal’s Valerie Plante or Paris’ Anne Hidalgo — would have those folks howling about the need to protect street parking, the city waging a war on cars, or making itself unfriendly to business. Unlike Hidalgo, Harrell says nothing about meaningfully liberating our streets from cars for the sake of people and bikes, he’s not stumping for subsidizing active solar protection for new and existing buildings, nor does his plan match the transformational change and climate action underway in cities such as Brussels, Rotterdam, and Vienna, who are also light years ahead of Seattle.

Between 83% and 94% of those on the center and left in the U.S. are willing to make major lifestyle changes to combat climate change. Unlike the leaders in those European cities, our last few mayors didn’t ask them to, nor did they give them safe and direct options. And with Harrell, we’ll get more of the same.

Not Exactly a Champion

A promise to “develop a localized clean energy economy” tops Harrell’s to-do list. Green jobs with a just transition sounds great! Which is why the council unanimously passed it in 2016. But does Harrell have a plan to add something substantive to it?

During the HALA discussions in 2018, I [Michael Eliason] had a brief opportunity following a March 2018 council hearing to chat with Harrell about the deep-green construction/retrofit jobs Brussels accomplished in 2015, and I asked if he supported Passivhaus Tradesperson Training in Seattle. In 2010, Brussels went from having the E.U.’s worst energy code to having its most stringent by mandating Passivhaus five years before the E.U.’s Nearly Zero Energy Building required this kind of energy efficiency. Brussels did this through training the trades, promoting projects, and incentivizing developers. Harrell said it “sounded great on paper, but didn’t see the need.”

Today, Seattle only has a handful of buildings that meet the Passivhaus standard. As a result, the city has missed out on the green jobs that could have created buildings that are not only incredibly energy efficient but also more durable, more comfortable, more resilient against wildfire smoke, and more resistant to heat waves and cold snaps. Unfortunately, many corporate developers, like the ones heavily funding Harrell's PAC, are actively fighting energy code updates or mandates such as Passivhaus.

Since Harrell's plan lists no specifics regarding the types of retrofitting and green construction he'd want to mandate, we wrote to ask if he still "didn't see the need" for Passivhaus. A spokesperson for the campaign said green jobs were essential to his just transition plan, which "includes passive house architecture [sic] certification standards, as well as other low- and zero-carbon emission building code changes.”

Harrell didn’t see the need a few years ago, and now, after being asked, he's playing catch-up — which is progress of a kind. Still, given his history of holding out, and given the profile of his mega-donors, it’s hard to imagine this will amount to much more than words that “sound great on paper.”

More Durkan-like Dithering on “Clean Buildings”

The next item on Harrell’s list involves a desire to “establish truly 100% clean buildings.” As someone who has been working on sustainable buildings incorporating passivhaus and mass timber for over 15 years, I'm not sure what a “truly 100% clean building” even is. Perhaps Harrell means the elimination of natural gas in new buildings? The city council, under President González, already largely did this, and Harrell’s plan offers nothing to generate a dramatic increase in energetic retrofits.

Notably, he also hedges by saying that “shifting home heating to electricity will do nothing if we do not also provide the needed carbon-free electricity capacity.” That claim sounds like an excuse for more Durkan-like dithering. It is also not true.

Natural gas is harmful in many ways beyond just carbon emissions, so shifting home heating to electricity won’t “do nothing” without carbon-free electricity capacity. Plus, City Light actually has capacity in winter, and it will continue to with the combination of conservation, energetic retrofits, onboarding of more sustainable energy sources, and with the number of heating degree days declining due to a warming climate.

Even More Durkan-like Dithering on Connecting the City without Cars

The third item on the list: “better connect our neighborhoods.” Who doesn’t want better-connected neighborhoods? Apparently that would be Harrell, who praised the construction of the 99 tunnel, stating, “After a decade of debate, I am excited to finally start work on a safe and superior corridor that will improve mobility in this region.”

He also wants to exercise climate leadership by buying a $420 million dollar bridge so people in Magnolia can cut their car commutes by a few minutes.

Harrell plans to “address all modes of transportation,” but his all-of-the-above approach to mobility simply follows Durkan’s path, and that’s why our mobility is so poor and so carbon-intensive compared to peer cities. We’ve never once heard Harrell advocate for car-light/free streets, pedestrian zones, cargo bike logistics — the kinds of stuff discussed by leaders who are working to make greener, better connected cities.

The best he’s done is laud Durkan’s Stay Healthy Streets. In a request for comment regarding his stance on car-light/free streets, pedestrian zones, and cargo-bike logistics, his campaign pointed to the section in his plan that expresses his desire to “review, expand, and connect these non-motorized roadways, creating cleaner, quieter, safer, and zero-pollution corridors and communities in our city.”

This is the wrong approach for many reasons, but primarily because Stay Healthy Streets are wholly situated on residential streets largely in single-family neighborhoods, far from renters. Those streets don’t connect people on foot or on bikes to places they quickly and directly need to go, such as shops, grocery stores, or jobs. If we really want to get people out of cars, cycling routes need to be direct — what Copenhagen cycling expert Mikael Colville-Anderson calls “A-to-B-ism.”

Furthermore, Harrell seems unable to complete a statement about reducing the need for cars without falsely stating they will get smaller (cars continue to get larger and deadlier, including electric cars), or hiding behind electrification, or without saying that people are going to continue to drive as if it were some sort of first principle of physics, and as if cities that have nudged people out of their cars don’t exist. With that kind of mindset, does anyone really think he’ll do anything meaningful on sustainable mobility?

The Glaring Omissions in Harrell’s Plan for Parks

Harrell says he wants to “preserve and invest in Seattle’s world-class parks,” but the best way to give Seattleites access to parks is to fund transit to them and rezone all the land within a half-mile of parks for multifamily housing. Exclusionary zoning locked many of our parks within the city’s wealthy enclaves — we just need to unlock them for the rest of the city.

A Harrell administration won't pursue those solutions. At the debate last week, he stood quite proudly in his opposition to eliminating single-family zoning, instead saying we “have to work collaboratively with neighborhoods.” This consultative approach is the same one that has been designed for generations to shut out apartments from high-opportunity neighborhoods. It means, “We will change zoning as long as rich people don’t object.”

Harrell’s plan also fails to acknowledge Seattle’s massive open space deficiency in renter-dominated Urban Villages. Since we must drive down vehicle miles traveled dramatically to get anywhere close to meeting our climate goals, and since these dense areas lack adequate parks and public spaces, we have to redistribute many of our rights-of-way for cafes and bikes and trees. This means removing street parking and transforming our car sewers into places where people can actually enjoy living in a city – especially within, and even between, Urban Villages and neighborhood business centers.

We wrote to the Harrell campaign to ask if Bruce supports removing street parking in business districts for cafes and parks. They did not address business districts, but said the “pandemic created an overdue opportunity to rethink outdoor dining in this city, and we should look for ways to make these changes permanent where they make sense, expand where possible, and go the next step in making our roadwards greener, more pedestrian friendly, and transition impermeable surfaces to green spaces where feasible. It’s an exciting opportunity.”

We agree that it is exciting, but we find the topic’s omission from his plan, his hedging with phrases like “where it makes sense” and “where possible,” and his historic coziness with car culture as reason enough to doubt he plans to act with urgency or ambition on these solutions.

NIMBY Nirvana

Harrell heralds his housing plan by saying he wants to support the “continued” development of dense, vibrant communities. He points to his vote in support of the Mandatory Housing Affordability’s affordable housing rezones, but those rezones were woefully insufficient, and the rest of his record doesn't inspire confidence, either.

Back in 2014, he tried to reduce the Mt. Baker rezone by a third, and when that failed he voted against the bill. On the campaign trail, he has placated NIMBYs by saying we don’t need to eradicate exclusionary zoning, even as he acknowledges its racist roots. Meanwhile, like most of the E.U., Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have no single-family zoning. The history of Seattle’s land use, like most cities in America, is riddled with racism and rife with economic inequity. Continuing to outlaw affordable housing in 85% of the city does not allow for the creation of “more affordable housing options for all of our people regardless of economic circumstances,” as Harrell put it.

In a recent mayoral campaign hosted by Queen Anne Community Council, Harrell — admitting what single-family zoning actually does — suggested that instead of reforming it to be less exclusionary we could add new housing on Aurora Avenue. Aurora Avenue — that beacon of accessibility, lacking sidewalks for much of it, where another person was killed by a driver this week — is one of the loudest, most dangerous, and most polluted streets in the city. Unless Harrell is endorsing my proposal for a car-free Aurora, this is the last place we should be adding housing if we’re concerned about environmental justice.

What Climate Plan Would Be Complete Without an Over-Reliance on Electric Vehicles?

Harrell rounds out his list with a line about fighting “air and stormwater pollution with an emphasis on environmental justice” by phasing out the internal combustion engine.

A phaseout of gas-powered cars sounds great, but it is no panacea. Manufacturing electric vehicles and their batteries still spews lots of carbon. EVs are also a convenient distraction in this election, since state and federal authorities drive most of that work, which lets Harrell pass the buck.

The EV switch is also wholly inadequate for livability in urban areas in a warming world. Electric cars have the same spatial problem that internal combustion vehicles do, and Seattle will be getting much denser. Where does he plan to put all the pretty Teslas? Moreover, their tires kill off salmon just as fast as the tires of gas guzzlers, they are heavier and accelerate faster than internal combustion engine vehicles, and the concrete that they rely on creates runoff risk in extreme weather and amplifies urban heat-island effects in a warming world.

If we really want to fight air and stormwater pollution, create open spaces, and increase our tree canopy, we should make it easy to ditch our cars, put sustainable mobility ahead of single-occupancy vehicles, and remove tens of thousands of on-street parking spaces.

Paris is making exactly these very moves, under Hidalgo, creating room for bioswales and expanding a connected and protected bike network — on arterials(!) — actually linking people with places they want to go. We don’t recall Harrell ever once mentioning sponge cities, making it harder to drive, or massively repurposing our rights-of-way. We do, however, see that González is running on a “car optional” platform.

A Surefire Way to Keep the Fires Burning

Harrell’s plan is not only inadequate to the moment, but it is also the very plan we would expect to see pushed by the people who have fought for decades to keep us from building climate-friendly housing, or from prioritizing public and active transportation over cars.

His claim that we are going to “defeat” climate change is a sign that he clearly hasn’t contended with the seriousness of the problem. There is no defeating climate change. It’s already here. Yes, we can make a difference in how bad it will get, but we will have to learn to live with it, and to adapt as well.

Making a dent in its impact means drastic revisions from how we lived even a few years ago. You certainly can’t “defeat” climate change by driving two Teslas and putting photovoltaic cells on your rooftop, nor by putting pablum on a website and calling it “climate leadership.”

As a council member and council president, climate advocates didn’t know him for pushing for faster, deeper climate action. He mostly just went along with the majority. Jess Wallach of 350 Seattle said, “Mayors have been making promises about ‘bold climate action’ since I was a kid. And here we are in 2021, with Seattle’s climate pollution still going up. To be a climate and GND champ, candidates need to commit to action at the scale of the crisis AND specific plans for action. Those plans should be ambitious, grounded in equity and informed by communities and workers most impacted by both the climate crisis and transition off fossil fuels.”

Harrell’s plan doesn’t fit that bill. However, Harrell’s opponent, Lorena González, takes the problem seriously, offers specifics, speaks honestly about tradeoffs and sacrifices, and as such has earned the endorsement of every environmental group — from centrist to progressive — in this race. She is the climate leader for this moment. If you also care about livability, affordability, and climate action, then you should join us in casting our votes for her.