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The AI Interview: Jenny Durkan, Mayor of Seattle

Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses how Seattle overcame challenges in 2020

AI:Congratulations on being our Municipality of the Year? What do you attribute the success of this year to?

Mayor Jenny Durkan: I think it is a testament to innovation of the City of Seattle and its commitment to its fundamentals. Moving into COVID-19 we were one of the first in the country to experience the COVID-19 pandemic, and we had unfortunately no federal leadership. As a result, we kind of had to make our own path. Fortunately, we had a very strong working relationship with labor and business. We have a population, the people of Seattle, are very willing to take actions that they think are for the better good. Coming into COVID-19, we focused both on how to reorient that city to address that issue, and then what we needed to make sure that we continued with our fundamental obligations to provide city services and maintain our infrastructure. I think we were pretty innovative about how we viewed infrastructure, how we used infrastructure as the backbone of the city and kept people safe by action.

AI:Are there any specific infrastructure/public works projects or programs that you would like to highlight that happened this year?

MJD: One of the most significant things was, despite the COVID-19 crisis, we maintained our process of inspecting our bridges and roadways. And as a result of that, we were able to discover that when one of our most significant bridges, the West Seattle Bridge, was in danger of failing. We had to do an emergency shutdown of that bridge, and then try to figure out a path forward, either repairing or replacing that bridge.

Like many employers, a lot of our workers could not return to work because of COVID-19 restrictions, including a lot of our road crews. So we’ve had to figure out how to move forward at the same time that we were battling the COVID-19 crisis.

I’m really proud of the work that public transportation did, in both detecting and working through the emergency closure of the bridge. But at the same time, we looked at how we can use our roadways to help us through this. Very early on, we learned that the virus is much more likely to spread indoors than outdoors. And that, it has devastating impacts I think on people’s mental health, with the feelings of isolation and fear. Sometimes knowing people who are sick or dying, it can be really difficult. And so very early on, we decided to close many of our streets to traffic so that people could get out and enjoy the outdoors in their neighborhood and have better walking and biking paths to do that, at the same time, making sure that we kept our parks open. Using those two really important pieces of infrastructure — parks and roadways — to work together was really important to how we navigated the COVID-19 crisis.

I think it also really positions us well as we come out of COVID-19, to rethink how we use our streets, and how we may turn Seattle into the next 15-Minute City. 

AI: What is the City of Seattle doing in the future to make the city more sustainable or more livable as a place?

MJD: The natural beauty of our city, its proximity to the mountains in the water, they are a daily reminder that we need to do all we can to make life more sustainable. So, for example, we have a thing called the Growth Management Act, where the state requires every city to plan for a certain amount of years into the future, and what their growth will look like. One of the things that we just admitted was legislation to start a study that looks into how can Seattle move closer to being a 15-Minute City.

AI:  As the mayor of Seattle, what is one of the takeaways that you’re going to take away from this year?  

MJD: I think I’ll give you a couple of ideas. One, it was one of the most difficult and challenging years we ever faced. We faced three crises, simultaneously. First, there was the global pandemic. Then there were the following economic crises, and then on the heels of that Civil Rights reckoning that we’re undergoing in our city and across America. I think it is important for policy to have a sense of resilience. For infrastructure, it means if you take out a bridge, how do people get from one place to another? So planning for the future, I think we have to put a big focus on what “resiliency” means for the city, both in the way people live and in the infrastructure that supports them.

We have some really exciting infrastructure projects underway. Our waterfront is being redeveloped into a capital park that will reconnect our city with the waterfront and its waterfront heritage.