Shaun Scott at Gas Works Park. (Photo credit: Alex Garland)
Shaun Scott at Gas Works Park. (Photo credit: Alex Garland)

“I want readers of The Urbanist to know I’m someone who considered himself an urbanist before I decided to run for city council, and certainly before I knew what an urbanist was,” Scott said.

As a candidate, Shaun Scott is not afraid to speak his mind on difficult subjects such as the current debate on single-family zoning in Seattle.

“At this point if somebody doesn’t believe in the hard data around the negative impacts of single-family zoning, it’s tantamount to denying that racism exists and it’s tantamount to being a climate denier,” said Scott, who is running as a Democratic Socialist for the District 4 seat vacated by retiring Councilmember Rob Johnson.

For Scott, the issue of zoning sits at the heart of many pressing issues faced by Seattle. Problems such as the housing affordability crisis, homelessness, displacement of minority groups, and the City’s failure to meet its climate goals have all been worsened by the fact that over two-thirds of Seattle’s developable land is zoned for single-family homes.

To emphasize the importance of taking not just a “hard look, but also meaningful action” toward increasing housing density in Seattle, Scott’s campaign just released it’s official statement in support of the Seattle Planning Commission’s recently published report, Neighborhoods for All, which has recommended ending single-family home zoning.

Finally, we see the city’s own independently-reviewed research and data back up what urbanists and housing activists have been saying for years: namely, that until Seattle tackles the roots of racism in our restrictive land-use policies, Seattle’s pretensions towards progressivity will remain just that.

Shaun Scott, Statement on the Seattle Planning Commission’s Zoning Report

Land use policy is an area to which Scott brings both a depth and breadth of perspective that is rare among Seattle City Council candidates. In his 2009 Stranger Genius award nominated documentarySeat of Empire, Scott took a long, hard look Seattle’s history: in particular how prejudice against Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, and other minority groups shaped development through discriminatory practices such as restrictive racial covenants and redlining.

It’s clear from Scott’s work as a filmmaker, writer, community organizer, campaign staffer, and most recently, interim editor of Real Change, he is passionate about Seattle’s past, present, and future. Additionally, Scott’s work demonstrates how he has also spent a lot of time considering what qualities and attributes make a city succeed–or fail–its residents.

Although Scott has lived most of his life in the Seattle metro area, he spent his early years in New York, an experience that shaped his perspective on what cities can be. 

“My earliest and fondest memories of New York City are of riding the subway,” said Scott. “Living here in Seattle I’ve always had a sense of longing and a real sense of nostalgia, not for the arts or for the culture or the cosmopolitanism we associate with New York, but for the transit options.”

But his years in Seattle have made him an outspoken advocate for the city, in particular the neighborhood of Eastlake, where Scott currently lives and which he would represent as part of District 4, along with the University District, Wallingford, Ravenna, Roosevelt, Laurelhurst, and Sand Point. 

All seven district-based council seats are up in 2019, although the at-large seats held by Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena González are not up until 2021. (City of Seattle)

“Eastlake is unique in that we are the only neighborhood progressively zoned as a rule,” Scott said. “We have all kinds of housing–apartments, duplexes, triplexes, and single family homes. The result is a dense neighborhood with a lot of activity. It’s also a safe neighborhood that is invested in welfare of the community and its small businesses. Eastlake shows you can have all those things in a historic neighborhood that has retained its character.”

In addition to including a range of different housing types, Eastlake also offers a mix of small businesses and major employers. Photo by author. 

Housing and Transit Solutions Require Real Public Investment

Like Councilmember Kshama Sawant, Scott supports the idea of increasing the City’s bonding capacity to invest in affordable housing. 

He also supports the idea of a land bank, or the acquisition of land by the City for future use, such as development of affordable housing. 

When the topic of austerity in the city budget comes up, Scott’s remarks are pointed. “Yes, we don’t know what the economic horizon will look like, and it might be somewhat doubtful over the next five to 10 years, but we also don’t know if we will have a city or planet that we have now.”

For Scott, reducing carbon emissions and addressing the climate crisis is a matter of urgency. Scott emphasizes that we do not have time to waste when it comes to address climate change, and science supports his assertions. According to an article published today in the New York Times, in 2018 greenhouse gas emissions accelerated like a “speeding freight train.” Thus making significant investments right now in housing density and transit is critical.

“If we are going to be serious about reducing carbon emissions, then we have to be serious about allowing people who work in Seattle to live here,” Scott said.

To help finance investment in housing and transit, Scott supports the idea of an “eco-tax” on major polluters in the city. “It’s a truism that one of the most powerful tools to discourage bad behavior and encourage good behavior is taxation,” Scott said.

The revenue from the tax could be used to fund investments, such as free citywide public transit, a measure that is currently being explored in Paris, and that was recently implemented in Estonia. Advocates for taxation funded public transit believe it can increase ridership while making the funding model less regressive.

“It’s ridiculous that with fare enforcement we essentially criminalize people for trying to ride transit,” Scott said. “We should instead be instilling an ethic that transit is part of the public trust and should be accessible to everybody.”

When it comes to large scale public investments, Scott’s background as a historian has influenced his outlook. 

“We have done things like this in the past. Big capitol improvement projects in the late 60’s and early 70’s through the Forward Thrust initiatives were a huge inspiration for me. It was a situation where the electorate was able to forecast its needs… and actually took action in the present on a number of issues, including using civic debt to create big institutions we still enjoy today. We don’t have the same timeline they had in the late 1960’s when the Forward Thrust initiatives were being passed. Our timeline for addressing the concerns we have is considerably shorter.”

Big Ideas for District 4

Scott’s connection to District 4 dates back to his time as a history student at the University of Washington. 

“Living through the transition in District 4 and going to the University of Washington at a time when it didn’t have a light rail station, I feel profoundly envious of all the undergrads and grad students who are at UW now who have the benefit of it,” Scott said.

While building more housing near transit continues to be a priority for Scott, he also has other idea for how to improve District 4, including building the City’s second navigation center on the site of a defunct American Apparel store on University Way, aka, The Ave. Scott also supports efforts to pedestrianize the Ave. 

“There are so many small businesses that run through the Ave,” Scott said. “I look at the street activity on Occidental Avenue [a pedestrian street in Pioneer Square] and it’s just beautiful.”

Occidental Park in Pioneer Square is a rare example of a pedestrianized street in Seattle. Photo credit: Ken Lund

Bike lanes, particularly the planned bike lane for 35th Avenue, have been a hot topic in District 4 for a while. Scott supports increasing multi-modal transportation options, including bike lanes, and believes there is more public support for such projects than has been recognized.

One obstacle for activists is they tend to remain in their specific communities and focus on their individual projects, Scott said. If advocates for interest areas such as housing, transit, biking, racial equity, and climate justice were to recognize the intersectionality of their interests and unite as one voice, they would become more powerful.

“We need to have a themed outreach process that is designed to get these folks out and as active and as vocal as people on the other side,” Scott said.

To that end, Scott plans during his campaign to embark on a community listening tour that will be focused on the people who have the most to gain from his campaign. 

“A core component of my leadership style is going around and getting buy-in from different groups,” Scott said. “I’m going to be a representative for everyone in District 4. Working people, renters, people of color, students– those are the people who comprise the majority of District 4. I’m interested in using my candidacy to elevate their anxieties and get them out to the polls.”

Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, Shaun Scott authored a four-part series on Forward Thrust ballot initiative package for The Urbanist. The series marked the 50th anniversary of Forward Thrust and was accompanied by a speaking tour with Town Hall Seattle. 

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Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.