Seattle, I hate to break it to you, but you’re not as pretty as you think.
That is not, of course, the position of City Councilmember Tammy Morales, who last month visited Seattle’s sister city of Nantes, France. But the more I dig into her trip abroad, the harder it is to escape the conclusion that our precious little Seattle — the Emerald City; the Queen City; City of Flowers and Goodwill; trusty old Skedaddle, Washington — is struggling with issues that our older, prettier sister seems to have tackled more effectively.
Can Morales bring back some solutions to housing, transportation, and development woes? Will our big sister city save us? The answer to that is a saucy “peut-être! Éventuellement! Si nous avons de la chance!”
To compare us to Nantes is generally appropriate: We’re both port cities, both in the throes of an economic transition to industries more focused on knowledge, tech, and the arts. Our climates are similar, we’re both working on restoring local wetlands polluted by decades of heavy industry, we’re both increasingly reliant on tourism, we’re both dabbling in bikeshares, we’re both struggling to provide sufficient housing.
Of course, Seattle’s also much larger, with more than double the population. Nantes is about 25 square miles to Seattle’s 80-something. Nantes’ industries date back to 900 BC; Seattle’s been inhabited for thousands of years, but was only taken over by colonizers and industrialized in the 1700s.
Still, scope notwithstanding, many of the day-to-day issues faced by elected officials are the same.
“Something that surprised me, frankly, is Nantes is dealing with many of the same kinds of issues,” Morales said, “whether it’s displacement or homelessness or a lack of green space.”
Morales and her team made the excursion in December, with assistance from the Sister City Association and Seattle’s Office of Intergovernmental Associations. The delegation toured the city with staff on a fact-finding mission to understand the nitty-gritty policy details that have been successful overseas.
One of the most noticeable findings, Morales says: “Everybody’s talking about climate change and building for a green future. Everybody’s talking about equality and equity, and [the principle that] everybody has a right to the city.”
For example, over the last few years, Nantes has focused on a housing initiative called, in English, “5Bridges” that consolidates services for people in need: There’s a drop-in shelter, mailboxes for people who need a fixed mailing address, transitional housing, job training, health services, a sliding-scale restaurant — and of course, free or low-cost daycare for all, because, you know, Europe.
“It’s the whole idea of integrating all of the things that somebody who is experiencing an emergency needs in order to get themselves back on their feet,” Morales says of 5Points’ Solidarity Village.
“That’s a word we heard over and over, ‘solidarity,’” Morales says, describing the ethos as “we’re here for everybody in our community, everybody has a right to be here, and it’s our job to make sure as a city we’re functioning in a way that provides that functionality.”
She adds, “we talk about that in Seattle, but … we’ve also heard a strong narrative that ‘Seattle is dying and it’s all the fault of homeless people.’ It’s really refreshing to hear all the city officials we spoke to … come at their work from a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together, we all do better when we all do better.’”
Morales is particularly interested in Nantes’ deployment of social housing — that is, affordable housing provided by the government. Every new project in Nantes includes a social housing component, according to Morales’ District Director Devin Silvernail, who spent additional time in Nantes working alongside local officials.
“The idea of requiring inclusion of mixed income opportunities in every building is something we kind of started doing with Mandatory Housing Affordability,” Morales says — referring to a proposal looooong in the works in Seattle and adopted on a limited basis in 2019.
Morales is interested in revisiting that legislation, she says: “We cut out requiring the production of affordable housing.”
She’s also interested in making Seattle more of a “15-minute city,” that is, a place where everything you need is within a 15-minute car-free trip. “To create a patchwork of a city where on a block you have a daycare and a pharmacy and a baker and a second hand toystore, and two blocks away is your office,” Morales says. “I think that’s the idea that we can export from Nantes. ... We need to shift the way we’re willing to think about our land use and be willing to experiment with designing our city in a way that serves people better.”
That’s nice, but not very specific. Experiment how? “We’re still working on our work program for the year,” Morales says. “We’re making a list of committee priorities.” That’s politician-code for not wanting to disappoint anyone in the long term by making any specific commitments … which means disappointing everyone in the short term by not making any specific commitments.
To be fair, Morales says she’s thinking about Seattle’s Neighborhood Plans, and questioning whether they’re even necessary since they were designed decades ago to favor “people with access to power.”
She’s also interested in “looking at the ways the city’s permitting works, the way zoning restrictions work.” Okay, sure, let’s look! Then what? Morales won't say. Yet. Stay tuned.
And: while she was in Nantes, Morales tweeted her appreciation of green tramways and separated bike lanes. Any chance of boosting such projects here, particularly since a neighborhood group along Aurora is specifically interested in calming that deadly street with a green tramway? Maybe! Maybe not! When asked where Nantes’ street designs could work in Seattle, Morales says she doesn’t have an answer: “That’s the idea we had for when the viaduct came down. The whole idea was not to turn that into another highway.” Oh well!
Seattle clearly has a lot of catching up to do if it wants to be compared favorably to its sister. Toward the end of our call, I ask Morales if there are any parts of our city that currently feel like Nantes. She thinks for a couple of seconds, then… “Bakery Nouveau?” she jokes.
“Pike Place Market,” Silvernail chimes in.
“Yeah, I guess so,” Morales says. “Outdoor seating, high density … some of the alleys, that community of sharing the dining and shopping and strolling experiences with your neighbors.” She goes on to offer one of her most concrete positions of the entire conversation, an enthusiastic endorsement of making the market more pedestrian-friendly by removing private through-traffic. “It is so densely packed with pedestrians, tourists, little kids, I don’t understand why there are cars through there,” she says.
The Market is indeed a solid analogue: It’s a place that people from all over the world want to visit, a place that’s jammed with visitors even in our rainy off-season. For now, it’s only a couple blocks’ worth of space in a city with thousands of miles of pavement, a success that is infinitesimally small compared to the rest of Seattle, and to the cities with which we invite comparison.