By Meghan Hall
There are a lot of factors that city officials must consider as they plan for growth — and development —of their municipalities, especially in regions such as the Puget Sound, where expansion has been particularly accelerated. For Michael Austin, the new chair of the City of Seattle Planning Commission, this means not only evaluating the traditional impacts of development, such as the size and architecture of the city’s future buildings, but making the entire planning process more equitable and inclusionary, and giving those who have traditionally been far-removed from Seattle’s development a greater voice in the city’s future built environment.
Michael, please tell The Registry a little bit about your background working as an architect and designer in Seattle, your experience working for Perkins + Will, and how that led you to becoming Chair of the City of Seattle’s Planning Commission through 2020. How have your prior experiences culminated to prepare you to serve as Chair?
My official title is senior urban designer and campus planner with Perkins+Will. As a coordinator for the Perkins+Will Equity Change Team, this means I am able to approach the projects I work on as opportunities to integrate principles of inclusion, access and cultural competency into the design and planning process. Throughout my career, equitable and inclusive design and architecture principles have shaped the work I do.
Outside of this work, I also focus on the physical impact of emerging technologies centered around mobility. I’m a member of Perkins+Will’s Mobility Lab, where I’ve been able to lead multiple grant-based studies around age-friendly public space design, autonomous mobility, ground-level robotics and freight drones. It’s all very fascinating and relevant as we help design the built environments of the future.
While my projects at Perkins+Will keep me consistently busy, it’s important for me to be involved in shaping the development of the city I call home. I joined the Seattle Planning Commission in 2014, helping to advise the Mayor, City Council and city departments on everything from planning policies and goals to major planning projects and issues around planning, transportation and affordable housing. A few years later, in 2018, I was elected Vice Chair of the Commission, and now…here we are.
Over the course of you career, how have you seen the City’s planning processes evolve? What have been the primary drivers of these changes?
Naturally, as the city has grown tremendously in population – even in the five years since I joined the Commission in 2014 – planning processes have had to adapt to address unmet needs of all of our residents. A major area we’ve noticed evolving is the scaling up of zoning in some of Seattle’s older historic neighborhoods, ones once characterized by single-family housing. The Commission released a report entitled Neighborhoods for All in the fall of 2018 on this work. We have a serious unmet need for affordable housing in Seattle. Reconciling the need to house all of our residents with existing residents’ desires to preserve character of places in the city they love is an ongoing and very iterative process involving many dialogues and conversations.
Are there currently inefficiencies with the City’s current planning structure? If so, what are they?
That’s a tough question. As someone who observes a small portion of the many planning efforts that take place, I would say that much like many other agencies, they are trying to best serve the needs of the community while also working to fulfill projects with limited time and funding. Seattle is a very diverse, very complex city with many different residents, agencies — many voices in general. The effort it takes to make sure that all voices are heard and bring individuals to consensus takes a great deal of work — particularly in our community where we have the ability to engage in conversations around affordable housing and transit-rich communities.
As Planning Commission Chair, what are your primary goals in your new role? How will you work to effect positive change within the Planning Commission itself and the City’s development processes?
I’m most interested in helping the city shift toward new methods of mobility and racially-equitable transportation options as it densifies, addressing affordable housing opportunities for all Seattle residents and implementing racially-inclusive and accessible design into more projects across the city.
How will these initiatives work to create projects that are not just more inclusive, but more culturally competent and accessible?
In order for the initiatives to work, it is important to think about the saying, “we can’t use ‘because we’ve always done it this way.’” This means trying new approaches to how we conduct planning and urban design projects in our work, such as giving communities more power in the process, utilizing storytelling as method of communication rather than the typical PowerPoint and finding ways to come to the community, rather than asking the community to come to us. By reducing the barriers for individuals who traditionally feel like they weren’t invited to the table, or wouldn’t be welcome at the table, we can connect more dots and hear from more voices.
What does it mean for the built environment to be accessible and inclusionary?
For too long, architecture and design have centered on the needs of those who have had a lot of opportunities and resources to ensure their voices were more important than others. I and many others in the industry believe there are ways that this power can be more equitably distributed. The idea of a stakeholder is entrenched in ideals that often leave out those who are most underrepresented but also might have the most valuable input or most at stake in the development of a project. Accessible and inclusive built environments mean everyone is considered when designing and planning projects and spaces, and we elevate the voices of those who have been historically underrepresented and underserved. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this, but rather the approach focuses on how the built environment will interact with and meet the needs of everyone who uses it. How we identify those needs is by including the voices of those communities and individuals who will actually be using the space from the beginning. This starts with the early stages of the planning process and extends all the way through the construction process, even. When we ask who a design project is for and what might they need from a space and center that, that’s the way toward equitable policies and practices that will help address the root cause of inequities instead of just the symptoms of it.
What are some of the Planning Commission’s greater goals for the next couple of years as the City of Seattle continues to navigate increases in development?
Each year we get together and hash out what topic we are interested in exploring and committing resources to look into. Historically, there has been a balance between looking into single-family zones, industrial lands and transportation-related studies. This year marks the third year we are entrenched in studying housing opportunities. It is such a critical topic, and we may choose to continue focusing on this subject into next year. Personally, I wish we could focus attention on all three topics, but the fact that we have the ability to conduct research on one subject alone is incredible.
What are you looking forward to most in your role as Planning Commission Chair?
I’m really hoping to have a chance to have much-needed conversations and create solutions around the city’s needs for racially-equitable development and access to inclusive transportation and mobility choices, and what it means when all stakeholders are included in every step of the planning and design process.
What urban planning and development trends have you identified over the past year that will be important to watch over the course of the next 12 months?
- E-commerce growth: With the continuing rise of online commerce at the expense of brick and mortar stores, cities will have to consider everything from delivery and pickup zones, deteriorating infrastructure of retail malls and the impact and need for delivery spaces that adapt to this change in paradigm. How does everything we buy get to our doorstep, but also what does our “doorstep” need to even become to receive all of this merchandise?
- Mobility hubs: Mobility hubs are places where all kinds of mobility services converge in a public space designed to facilitate convenient, safe and accessible transfer between services. Through digital and virtual tools and new technology, cities might be able to transform today’s transit stations into dynamic hubs of community interaction and opportunities for tomorrow.
- Augmentation of the city: Augmented reality (AR) in the public realm has the ability to offer customized experiences for how individuals navigate their environment. But, it also raises questions in regards to the impact on our overall health and well-being. There’s also an issue around access to this technology and how communities can take a proactive approach to ensuring that policy and design regulations result in outcomes that only work to advance opportunities for all.