New city planning chief Sam Assefa brings international insights to Seattle

Sam Assefa working with Journey School kids on planning for the Boulder Civic Area Parks Plan in Boulder, Colorado in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Sam Assefa)
Sam Assefa working with Journey School kids on planning for the Boulder Civic Area Parks Plan in Boulder, Colorado in 2012. (Photo courtesy of Sam Assefa)

You might not think that Addis Ababa, the capitol of Ethiopia, and Seattle would have much in common. But then you’re not Sam Assefa, the next director of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development.

“What has happened in the last decade is mind-boggling” Assefa says of Addis, which is experiencing a construction and population boom. “They’re dealing with some of the same issues Seattle is dealing with … Needed economic growth improving people’s lives, and the negative impacts of that fast growth.”

Born in Addis, Assefa escaped to Kenya when his father, a high-ranking general for Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, was executed after a military junta came to power in the 1970s. From Nairobi he moved to Rome, then studied architecture in Chicago and earned a master’s degree in city planning from MIT.

Currently senior urban designer for Boulder, Colo., Assefa has traveled to China to explore sustainable development, to Amsterdam to look for transportation solutions and to Mexican cities to draw inspiration on how to create successful public space.

Above all, he says, his international experience has taught him to embrace experimentation.

“In European cities, you’ll have a three- or four-story building that is designed for residential above and commercial on the ground. What if a Vietnamese family lives upstairs and they want to share their food?” asks Assefa, musing about a new kind of in-home restaurant. “What if you can go on to the second floor and have home-cooked Vietnamese food because zoning allows it?”

He acknowledges that there are all sorts of good reasons why this specific example is against code, but says that considering bold new solutions through urban planning is crucial to making sure development benefits everyone.

“We get stuck with these kinds of rules because that’s the way it’s been done for 150 years,” he says.

Sam Assefa, the soon-to-be director of the Office of Planning and Community Development. He was born in Ethiopia, was a refugee in Kenya and using many international influences in his urban planning work.
Sam Assefa, the soon-to-be director of the Office of Planning and Community Development. He was born in Ethiopia, was a refugee in Kenya and using many international influences in his urban planning work.

So, what big ideas might Assefa have for Seattle, a city struggling to reconcile breakneck development, growing global influences and a diverse population?

How about a second public market that specifically highlights immigrant communities and their products?

“The Pike [Place] Market is an icon. People have an expectation of what to expect in that place,” says Assefa. “What if there was a version of that for the diverse people who enrich Seattle?”

According to Assefa, urban-planning ideas like this are good not just for immigrant communities but also for big tech companies and the people who work at them.

“What’s shifted in the past 25 years is that young, educated people … the ‘creative class,’ they look for a place first and then they look for jobs,” says Assefa, who adds that these young people tend to like cities that are progressive, diverse and sustainable. “They choose places like Seattle, Vancouver, Boulder … and now companies follow that talent.”

The irony, of course, is that the newcomers showing up seeking diversity may themselves spur development that pushes low-income communities, people of color and immigrants out of city centers. Assefa says companies should support urban-planning projects that keep diversity in cities, and that diverse communities should be given real opportunities to participate in development.

“Just like anything else, there are good things about it and horrible things about development,” says Assefa, who believes his own background as a member of the creative class and an immigrant gives him an advantage in his new job. “I have seen all sides from my own experience, and I think I’ll have a little more credibility …”

I appreciated Assefa’s enthusiasm. But as a second-generation Seattleite who has lived through a few booms and busts already, I’m skeptical of big talk about how development can benefit all.

“But is it too late for us here?” I asked him in frustration, thinking about the bulldozed family homes, the endless sea of cranes downtown, and the exodus of low-income communities to the city’s outskirts.

“Yeah, some things may be too late, but there is a lot more change that is going to come in the next 20 years,” he said, surprising me with his candor. “And we need to shape that future rather than react to it.”

And that’s a piece of worldly advice Seattle should heed.

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Sarah Stuteville

Sarah Stuteville is a print and multimedia journalist. She’s a cofounder of The Seattle Globalist. Stuteville won the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for magazine writing. She writes a weekly column on our region’s international connections that is shared by the Seattle Globalist and The Seattle Times and funded with a grant from Seattle International Foundation. Reach Sarah at sarah@seattleglobalist.com.
Sarah Stuteville

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