A Conversation With Richard Conlin, Seattle City Council Leader

Conlin-Post.jpg Ten years after he was elected to the Seattle City Council in 1997, Richard Conlin was named the president for the first of two two-year terms. Before working with the council to make Seattle a more sustainable city by strengthening neighborhoods, reducing waste, and improving transportation infrastructure, Conlin worked as the director of the YMCA's Earth Service Corps and founding publisher of Yes!. Here, Conlin discusses how he uses "general rah-rah" to get people excited about Seattle's comprehensive plan for becoming a sustainable city; why becoming a sustainable city means more than just building and transportation efficiency; and why the obsession with cars as the embodiment of unsustainability could turn off potential allies.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I work to realize the values of Seattle's comprehensive plan, "Towards a Sustainable Seattle" -- economic opportunity, environmental sustainability, social justice, and community. Our goal is to achieve long-term cultural, environmental, economic, and social health and vitality. As to what I do to actually achieve that, I develop new ideas, write newsletters and legislation, collaborate with staff and community members to figure out how to make things work and turn problems into opportunities, and exhort and encourage through writing, speaking, and general rah-rah.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

That making a sustainable city includes having a great school system and thriving businesses and an effective public safety approach -- that it is not just land use and transportation and building efficiency, but community that truly achieves sustainability. You can lead people to a sustainable city, but you can't make them enthusiastic unless they really enjoy it.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

I think a lot of people still imagine sustainability as having to do only with environmental issues. It's way beyond that.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

A lot of my work has involved food systems over the last several years. Food is such a great unifying concept that has impacts in so many places where we must work to become more sustainable. I expect that it will become an increasing focus as we understand how it brings together all of the key goals I cited above -- and is something that people can unite around, whether they consider themselves environmentalists or progressives or not.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

The obsession with automobiles as the embodiment of unsustainability. Automobiles are a huge issue, and we must reduce their use, put them in their place, make them more efficient and sustainable, and get people using alternatives as much as possible. But personal transport is part of what humans do, and having a narrow lens focused on the automobile issue alone avoids dealing with other issues -- and turns off potential allies when it becomes perceived as directed at them.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

I used to read a lot of the apocalyptic literature -- you know, books that start with "The End of.." or something like that, and use frightening statistics to try to get people active. But a few years ago, I realized how disheartening that kind of approach can be, and that hope is the best motivator. One great recent book I read that really puts this together is My Green Manifesto by David Gessner.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

Gro Bruntland, as the international leader who put sustainability on the agenda. Ken Boulding, the economist who got the analysis rolling on how sustainability can work. And Frances Moore Lappe, who really knows what democracy is about -- and food, too.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Astronomy, but I couldn't hack the math.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Yes! magazine. Confession, I am on the board and was the founding publisher.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"Lost in My Mind," by the Head and the Heart, "Down by the Water," by the Decemberists. And I've been learning marimba this year, so also the songs we play in Tumbuka, the band I am in.

Presented by

Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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