A tech-centered vision of the future of the Pacific Northwest envisions creating a series of new urban centers 40 to 100 miles away from the region’s current largest cities—Seattle, Vancouver and Portland.

The answer to sustainability isn’t building new cities somewhere else, it’s making the urban centers we already have more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable.

By Ethan Seltzer

City Observatory is pleased to feature this guest commentary by Ethan Seltzer. Ethan Seltzer is an Emeritus Professor in the Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University. He previously served as the President of the City of Portland Planning Commission and as the Land Use Supervisor for Metro, the regional government. He has lived and worked in Oregon and the Portland region since 1980 and is a contributor to City Observatory. 


“A region is an area safely larger than the last one to whose problems we found no solution.”

Jane Jacobs

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor Partnership—a project of Challenge Seattle and the Business Council of British Columbia—is the latest organization to claim Cascadia as its territory of interest and to promote interconnections between Vancouver BC, Seattle, and Portland as the solution to our problems. You can view their vision for our region at Connect Cascadia.

To their credit, the Partnership is trying to envision how we’ll welcome 5 million new residents in the I-5 corridor over the next 30 years without blowing apart the reasons that this has been a good place for people for over 14,000 years.

Any vision for Cascadia has to position itself within this landscape, its livability, and the closeness of nature that has attracted and kept so many here through economic ups and downs, and as other parts of North America have thrived. The most recent term of art for matching growth with livability and environmental quality has been sustainability, and the Partnership is proposing nothing less than the build-out of Cascadia as a “global model for sustainable growth.”

While seeking to be a model for any other place is of questionable significance for sustainability either here or elsewhere, at least aspiring to be more sustainable is an important goal. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that we have a bunch of work to do. We are nowhere close to meeting our carbon emission goals, and the trends are in the wrong direction. Our iconic salmon in this region continue to decline in number and in health. Forests on both sides of the border are in deplorable condition. The entire region is attempting to build itself out of its failing transportation and transit systems despite employing the same strategies that got us into this mess. And social justice, a presumed cornerstone for sustainable development, remains in the eye of the beholder.

You might expect a manifesto for the next global sustainability leader to explicitly address at least some of these in a convincing way. Unfortunately, the effort isn’t there, now or perhaps ever. Their vision for sustainability, borrowed from the World Bank, posits that sustainable cities have three central features: a growing economy, declining greenhouse gas emissions, and livability for all. The Partnership expects to become a global sustainability leader by focusing on housing and “development”, transportation, and environmental stewardship, in sum poor proxies for even the World Bank’s definition of the term.

Their proposal is to expect little out of the three central cities other than current trends, including the growth of their suburbs, and to grow new population centers out of existing mid-sized cities located 40-100 miles from each of the three central cities. All of this would be linked by high speed rail. If only it made some sense.

Three problems with this vision

The first problem: Most of what they present is not actually about Cascadia. Most of it is how we might appear in contrast to other so-called megaregions. We never got anywhere by trying to be better versions of other places. This vision does nothing to paint a picture of a better Cascadia. Instead we get a picture of a Cascadia marginally better than other places we’d rather not be, and rather not live.

Second problem: there is nothing bold or even new about growing outlying cities into bigger places. In 1938 Lewis Mumford was hired by the Northwest Regional Council to visit Cascadia and think about how the provision of cheap, plentiful electricity at Bonneville could change the Northwest. His report, issued in early 1939, basically concluded that existing cities should not be the location for new growth because they were already lost. Instead, the new development coming with all that power ought to go into new garden cities in the countryside.

Mumford’s prescription was inspired more out of concern over inadequate town planning than sustainability, but the “logic” is not unfamiliar. Like the Partnership’s vision, Mumford’s was equally sketchy, and both of them promise the same thing: innovative growth and development brought about by avoiding the real problems already present in real places. Whether the “hub cities” proposed by the partnership or the garden cities that Mumford famously championed, both completely ignore the dynamics of sprawl and the engines of growth and infrastructure development that have already made growth management terrifically elusive even in Cascadia.

Fundamentally, putting our chips on these new towns while writing off the existing cities might work as a real estate strategy, but there is no way that our northern temperate rainforest will become a sustainability leader if we leave out the cities. Any convincing tale of sustainability leadership has to be about the whole thing, not about the favored locations.

Third problem: This is ultimately an infrastructure vision, not a vision for sustainability. The central goal here seems to be the development of some sort of high speed rail. However, it occurs over very short distances likely to do little to get people out of their cars. Where is real road pricing? What will they do to ensure that relatively short commutes in and out of hub cities will not be accompanied by even worse carbon emissions performance in the future? Back in the 30s, Mumford and Benton MacKaye came up with the notion of the “townless highway” as a means for coping with the already evident problem of car-based sprawl. It never came to pass, and instead we’ve got the highways and sprawling housing we only know too well.

What might be an authentic vision of Cascadia ?

There are other weaknesses here, but instead of focusing on the inadequacies of this vision, I’d rather offer some building blocks for a real vision for Cascadia. To begin with, for business organizations to not focus on what would make their own operations more sustainable first seems like a giant omission.

What can the members of these organizations making up the Partnership do to reduce employee commutes? Certainly the pandemic has given us all some ideas. And what can they do to even make their own operations more sustainable? Where are they located right now, and what are the implications for both equity and sustainability of creating isolated corporate campuses? What do they sell, and how do we, as a region, take into account their business practices and product lines when assessing our supposed sustainability? How is their political and economic power helping to make Cascadia a better place, a healthier place for everyone to live? In essence, “Physician, heal thyself.” That could be innovative, and impressive.

Next, what are Cascadia’s weakest links when it comes to being the most sustainable place it can be? Where do we get our water from? Energy? What can we do to make both of those more sustainable now? How do we use our land and other natural resources? What condition are they in? Where and when are we making decisions today that foreclose future generations from inhabiting this place in their own time as we have been able to do today?

More to the point, what have we missed by largely dismissing the lessons learned by 14,000 years of indigenous inhabitation in this landscape? What aren’t we doing that we should be doing? While we’re on that topic, what will this vision do, specifically, to lift up the Indian nations in our midst? How will we embrace our history here, all of it, in a more sustainable version of what we’ve created? Whose voices need to be central in any “vision” for a sustainable Cascadia?

And speaking of the landscape, the rural parts of Cascadia are conspicuously absent in the Partnership’s vision. What, in fact, are the right boundaries for Cascadia? Is I-5 even a relevant unit for understanding the geography of our livability here? The fact that this partnership’s vision is defined by a freeway corridor speaks volumes all by itself. Interestingly, the Partnership has a subcommittee on “sustainable agriculture”. Where is their voice in this work?

Will moving significant population closer to the farms and forests make farms and forests more sustainable in the future? Perhaps if you own a lot of forest land that you hope to one day convert to ranchettes. But probably not if the thin margins for primary producers need to compete for land, the basic infrastructure for farming and forestry, with the tech wizards to be served by this plan.

Rather than building a region for the next 5 million, why not build it for the folks already here? If the vision really is sustainable, the next 5 million will be able to do just fine. Keep in mind that people are amazingly adaptive. How are folks already adapting to the presumed inadequacies of our transportation systems and our housing supply? What can we do to support what they’re doing to live a good life now? What can we do to increase and improve the stores of human capital that every Cascadian has and deserves? Where is education and training in the Partnership’s vision? What would Cascadia be doing if it had, as its primary goal, to ensure that all residents can find a satisfying place in the economy growing here and globally? What can and should the visionaries of today learn from the people and communities around them?

One of the central tenets of sustainable planning is that those with the least choices out to have more and better ones. Getting well-off households to work more quickly isn’t our biggest problem. It’s getting those with the least a better shot at thriving along with the rest of us. Consider a metaphor: the Oregon Beach Bill has declared that every inch of the Oregon Coast ought to be accessible to all of us. What would the equivalent be for Cascadia? What have we, to date, made inaccessible to too many that we need to advance today?

Sustainability has to be about more than technology and shorter faster commutes

Sadly, the default in exercises like this one seems to be a vision for faster commutes. What would a 21st century education and training system look like? What do we need to do to make sure that it spans all the borders within Cascadia? What if people sought to come to Cascadia not to get rich but to get smarter throughout their working lives?

Sustainability is not just a vision for urban form and function. Similarly, Cascadia is not just a setting for meeting the needs of ascendant corporate sectors. The Partnership wants to teach the world a lesson about sustainability. We can do that if we focus on creating a place where we can all be human in the best ways possible. That would be innovative. That would attract the attention of the world. That should attract the interest of us all.