Todd Vogel – Making Green the New Black
"I try to ride my bike everywhere and not wear lycra,” says Partner Todd Vogel with a smile. “In living a life that’s sustainable, you can’t make it only applicable to the zealots.”
Whether turning a derelict alley into a bustling art exhibit or leading the charge for a more livable Seattle, Todd is creating places where sustainability can thrive as the new normal.
Unlike most alleys in high traffic cities, littered with trash, the alley behind Todd's Nord Building (314 1st Avenue) in Pioneer Square is a clean artistic haven. Rusted dumpsters have been replaced by installations by local artists – like the "Waste Not" piece Chris Ezell made from 1600 discarded plastic bottles – creating a unique and inviting walkway in a bustling part of Seattle. Jones and Jones Architecture and a team of community members are now designing a pegboard system to hang trash, plants, and art in the alley, and in the warmer months, the space comes alive with music, food, and people.
Nord Alley installation by Chris Ezell. Photo from Flickr user: gravitysalad
At first it was just a lark, explains Todd. “I had friend who had a band and we put them back there, invited a bunch of people - and people showed up. And then more people showed up. And then we had a Marimba band from the Yesler terrace Unitarian church and 500 people showed up!”
Nord Alley, once considered a pet project became a community movement (listen to the story on KUOW), and serves a microcosm of Todd's larger vision for Seattle.
Traveling to places like Melbourne and Copenhagen (below), Todd was inspired by the possibilities of “place-making” and the opportunities to change the way people behave through “silent cues” supplied by their surroundings. Serving as executive director of the International Sustainability Institute (ISI), Todd started asking himself: “How could we live more lightly on the planet by arranging our cities and our affairs differently?”
Copenhagen one of the world's most livable cities. Photo from the official website of Denmark
Using downtown Seattle as a living model to address this question, ISI teamed up with the City of Seattle, the Scan|Design Foundation, and the University of Washington's Green Futures Research & Design Lab to hire Copenhagen's Gehl Architects. Gehl conducted the Public Space, Public Life Study (to be released in March), which is the most in depth study of public space in any U.S. city.
Forty graduate students were involved in this project. On the ground they captured information like: How many pedestrians use 2nd avenue on a clear day versus a rainy day? Where are the bike racks in downtown Seattle? Which routes and public spaces are most people friendly? Do they provide interesting sites and places to gather, allow for unhindered pedestrian flow, and promote safety?
All that information was layered on maps using GIS, and from that compilation Gehl was able to analyze how people use space in downtown Seattle, and provide recommendations for a more livable and sustainable city.
The City of Seattle has embraced Gehl's project, and has already incorporated some of the suggestions in its pedestrian master plan and has budgeted to repeat Gehl's study once more recommendations are implemented.
For Todd, these victories are as much about social equity as they are about the environment. When 30% of a low income family's disposable income is spent on transportation, and another 19% goes to energy, there is not much left for other necessities. Dense, livable, and affordable cities will help to alleviate that burden, while simultaneously reducing our footprint.
Todd's passion for social equity is rooted in a collection of experiences from his college years, including a position with the Department of Labor, which took him to poverty centers all over the Southwest.
These experiences were woven into Todd's academic career. He holds a PhD in Cultural Studies and served as director of the American Studies program at Trinity College. Todd also published two books:The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays and Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century America.
While historically the environmental movement has been criticized for pitting people against nature – loggers versus spotted owls – Todd sees environmentalism and social equity as inseparable. His sustainability work inhabits this intersection where he is able to combine his values with what he does every day.
So, as a place-maker, how does Todd define a great space? “People,” he says without hesitation. “When a space is activated by people, it is transformed.”
Todd Vogel and SVP
Todd joined SVP in 2004. He recently chaired SVP Seattle's Portfolio Grant Committee and is currently the chair of the Environment Advocacy and Policy Committee. Check out the clip below to learn how SVP is connected to his work.
For more information about the Public Space, Public Life Study or the Nord Alley project and parties, please contact: .
Also, if you are interested in digging deeper into sustainability, check out:
- SVP's Sustainable Business Group (email Sofia Michelakis at )
- The 9th Annual New Partners for Smart Growth Conference (February 4-6, 2010)