Alumni Profile • Peter Lagerwey '75
Helping build livable cities

Bicycling magazine calls Seattle, Wash., “the most bike-friendly city of its size.” For cities of more than 500,000 people, Seattle also has the lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities. And it has earned a reputation as one of America’s most livable cities.

Though he won’t, Peter Lagerwey ’75 could take a good deal of credit for all that.

Since 1984, Lagerwey has been Seattle’s pedestrian and bicycle program coordinator. Under his direction, the city has developed 32 miles of paths designated for pedestrian and nonmotorized traffic, 28 miles of dedicated bike trails and 24 miles of striped lanes for bikes on existing roadways—with more of all these on the way. All 600-plus crosswalks in the city have been evaluated and improved for pedestrian safety. In addition, any disabled citizen can ask for a sidewalk ramp, and any business can request a free bike rack.

But it’s really not about biking and walking, Lagerwey says of his job. At the heart of it is his desire to help create livable communities.

“There’s a very basic human desire for community,” he said. “The suburbia we built doesn’t fulfill that desire. So now we’re asking if there are different ways we can organize the places where we live and work.”

That means different land-use ordinances. As Seattle’s chief advocate for nonmotorized transportation, Lagerwey has a role in drafting those ordinances. He has encouraged mixed-use development—development that interweaves small businesses and residences so that people live and work and shop in the same neighborhood, which means they’re more apt to bike or walk between places. No city has more mixed-use development than Seattle. As a result, Entrepreneur magazine calls it a “repatriated city,” with energy, investment and people moving back to areas once abandoned.

When he moved from Detroit, Mich., 23 years ago, Lagerwey knew Seattle was a place that would support his ideas for livable community. But even then he didn’t want those ideas to stay in Seattle.

“I’ve always wanted to create models that worked,” he said, “to figure out what could be transferred to other communities, then to give that away.”

That’s just what he’s been doing for the past 10 years, as a consultant to cities searching for renewal. He’s been to more than 200—not just core downtowns, but dying first- and second-ring suburbs as well. He helps communities put commercial, public and political support behind development that benefits everyone.

Another way he’s been giving away what he’s learned in Seattle is by serving on nearly every national committee appointed to write design rules for pedestrian and bicycle routes, rules that municipalities and states must abide by to obtain federal funds for those routes.

His interviews with national media, such as NBC News, National Public Radio and The Washington Post, have also helped Lagerwey spread Seattle’s good news about how cities can once again become real communities.

Success, though, is double edged. With a national reputation as a livable community, more people are moving to Seattle; in the next 20 years the city expects 22,000 new housing units and 50,000 new jobs—and lots more work for the pedestrian and bicycle coordinator.

But Peter Lagerwey is undaunted. “We’ve reached a tipping point,” he said. Now people expect the kind of living spaces we’ve created. There’s public support—and therefore the political will—to create more of them.”

To contact Peter Lagerwey about his consulting services, e-mail raney3@msn.com.