It is apparent early on in conversation with District 7 City Council candidate Michael George that he loves cities, but the dedicated urbanite and co-founder of Parents for a Better Downtown Seattle (PBDS), also professes to be fond of wild spaces too.
“I’m an ‘up not out’ environmentalist,” George said. “Living in cities is one of the best ways we can save nature.”
George and his wife Emily, who co-founded PBDS, have not only dedicated themselves to being downtown parents in a city that ranks second in the nation for households without children, they have also taken on the challenge of making downtown Seattle more welcoming to families with children.
For George the stakes are high. More people living outside of cities means greater sprawl and higher carbon emissions. Thus, in his perspective we need more people to live in cities, and in order to do so, we need to make cities comfortable and affordable to people from many walks of life.
As a Seattle City Councilmember, representing not only Downtown, but also quainter residential neighborhoods like Queen Anne and Magnolia, George wants to take an intersectional approach to making a Seattle a city that can offer a high quality of life to people from different backgrounds and income levels.
“I’m a systems thinker. We have the opportunity to bring complex issues together to define important city priorities like increasing equity,” said George. “Equity is something that should be defined across different topics.”
In George’s perspective, the current council has not succeeded in convincing the Seattleites that they understand how the holistic nature of the challenges that face the City. “We need to create a holistic vision and then we need to communicate that vision,” George said.
Pairing Systems Thinking with an Eye for Detail
Throughout our conversation, George reminds himself not to “go into the weeds.” While George may have a big picture, holistic vision of how to make Seattle a more welcoming place for more people, it is evident that he also relishes the opportunity to delve into the smaller details on a range of topics.
Take for instance “urban greening.” After voicing the need for Seattle to create more public green space, particularly downtown, George offers up a small, but telling insight on the type of detail-oriented leadership he would offer to City Council.
Victor Steinbrueck Park near Pike Place Market is a rare oasis of green in Seattle’s downtown core. It is park that has attracted George’s attention because it serves the surrounding neighborhood really well. On sunny days the park’s pocket sized lawn fills up quickly with people. “When you live in an urban environment, you really appreciate every blade of grass,” noted George.
However, according to George, what makes the park truly succeed is that it is not constantly packed with people. Most days people steer clear of the grass for one simple reason. A small step separates the grass from the remainder of the park; thus the grass is available for when people want to use it, but it does serve not a thoroughfare for people to constantly trample through.
George said he understands bigger city policies, such as the Seattle Green Factor, which impacts the landscaping of new development, but he also pays attention to specific cases and muddles over why certain elements of the city, like Victor Steinbrueck Park, perform well, while others do not.
This has helped George accomplish some of PBDS’s achievements, including the implementation of new playgrounds downtown, including in the future Waterfront Park. Originally the plan was for an outdoor sculpture site to serve as a play area in a nod to the Waterfront Park’s flexible design. However, in George’s opinion, there are times when being broad misses the mark.
“Sometimes sites have to serve a single use and that’s okay,” George said, in reference to the future playground. He believes it will serve the entire community better by truly fulfilling a particular need.
Another major topic of interest for George is the lack of a downtown public school. PBDS have been advocates for the creation of a downtown school for some time. George was able to list several ways in which a downtown school actually serve the entire city.
Firstly, a downtown siting would reduce school commutes for downtown residents, who now have no choice but to commute outside of their neighborhood for school. However, in addition to filling in a much needed geographic gap, it would also create the social opportunity for better integrated mixed-income schools. “All students benefit from attending a school that has a mix of different incomes,” he said.
‘A Consensus Builder with a Clear Agenda’
It is easy to peg George as a candidate with a few identifiable attributes: Downtown resident, parent, family-friendly city advocate, transportation and housing policy wonk. Years of experience working as senior project manager on transit oriented developments at Kidder Matthews have prepared him to understand the nuts and bolts of housing and transportation projects. “I know how to read pro-forma,” he joked.
However, George also realizes that representing District 7 means more than articulating the wishes of urban policy wonks who live Downtown. As a councilmember he will need to communicate the desires of two prominent single-family home neighborhoods: Magnolia and Queen Anne. Recognizing different constituencies within his district have different priorities, he aims to present himself a consensus builder as well.
For instance, while George is a staunch advocate for citywide Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) and increased urban density in general, he nevertheless wants to engage in healthy debate with people who oppose increases in residential growth.
George believes it is not worth it to ignore or alienate groups with opposing points of view because such an approach only results in “lawsuits that appear on the backend.” Both MHA implementation and Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) reform have been slowed down by law suits.
“I want to bring everyone into the conversation, but not to the point that it stops the conversation,” said George, who believes that if we don’t bring in people from all sides “we might miss out on some genuinely good ideas.”
“We have a need on the council for one or two people who really understand housing and transportation and are willing to work across different groups, ” said George.
With his depth of knowledge in the transportation and housing sectors, and overtures toward consensus building, it is clear that George is promoting himself as a future councilmember who could fill that role.
Although George “has never really considered himself a politician,” he began to rethink that stance after people began to approach him and ask him to run. The encouragement George received made him realize that politics could be another way in which he could contribute toward preserving and improving the urban and wild spaces that he cares about.