Seattle’s self-reliance and dedication to taking care of its own has been fostered over 150 years of city-building on the far-flung northwest coast of the nation, setting the stage for its current “it” status.
Despite its top-left-coast isolation, Emerald City isn’t exactly a secret, as its half-decade atop various “fastest-growing cities” lists would indicate. (It scored behind only Boise, Idaho, in Forbes’ most recent list.)
In many ways, Seatown reverse-engineered its success. With a focus on education and an optimized workforce, the very environment that launched and held on to Boeing (still the biggest local employer despite the relocation of its headquarters to Chicago) as well as Microsoft and Weyerhaeuser has also attracted more recent captains of industry, like Amazon, Costco and Starbucks.
“When it comes to attracting talent, companies and investors, people have always mattered a whole lot more than machines here,” says Rebecca Lovell, former director at the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development, who today is nurturing entrepreneurs at a new Seattle start-up incubator.
Keeping the talent pipeline well-filled has always been Seattle’s secret—and it has paid off, big time. Today, with the top spot in our Educational Attainment subcategory (based on the percentage of the population with tertiary education, at level 5 ISCED or above), Seattle is America’s smartest city.
The city’s enviable perch isn’t that surprising when you consider that local philanthropy always prioritized education and local return on investment, supported by a profound sense of stewardship by the city’s leaders of industry. Case in point: the late Paul Allen, the elder statesman of American tech and Microsoft co-founder, launching and bankrolling local arts festivals, reviving a downtown cinema that’s now the envy of the West Coast, and super-charging the University of Washington, already one of the nation’s top public universities, with tens of millions of dollars to ensure its computer science and engineering school remained among the best in the nation.
But while UW (“U-Dub”) and its 40,000-plus under- and post-grads fill football stadiums and make headlines, Seattle boasts a dozen other universities and colleges within city limits. Research and education form the backbone of the city: from the globally renowned Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (itself the recipient of more than $50 million from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates over the years) to the Presidio Graduate School, one of the world’s leading master’s programs dedicated to sustainable innovation and entrepreneurship, the city is an incubator of ideas.
Today, this ingrained devotion to ambition and learning is able to scale like never before. In late 2017, the Urban Land Institute’s annual Emerging Trends Report named Seattle “the city with the most promising real estate investment prospects” in the U.S. for 2018. The educated workforce was front and center: Seattle has “twice the U.S. percentage (12%) of employees in STEM [science, technology, engineering, mathematics] occupations, with 4.5% of the workforce employed in computer programming–related occupations.” Although the city has fallen off of the perch for 2019, it still leads the West Coast for real estate prospects and is ahead of L.A. and San Francisco, according to ULI.
It’s why the city has the most construction cranes in the U.S., as it has for four consecutive years now, according to consultancy Rider Levett Bucknall North America, at 65. (Chicago is second, at 40.)
A dozen new hotels have opened in the past 18 months, each erected within one of those ubiquitous towers or by refreshing the city’s impressive and fiercely protected historic stock. Even the Space Needle got a $100-million space lift in recent months, improving sightlines onto one of the country’s most stealthily stunning urban centers.
The city’s love affair with sports is only heating up, too, with a new National Hockey League franchise starting in 2021 in the renovated former home of the NBA’s departed Sonics (who themselves are rumored to be returning any season now). And the city’s high salaries didn’t overlook NFL Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who, at $35 million per season, just became the league’s highest-paid player. The city trails only Silicon Valley and San Francisco for Household Income in the nation.
Within all this froth, vanguards of the new economy—from Amazon to Zillow—are at once hiring hordes of new employees and leaving legacies in the city that launched them: museums, hospital wings and foundations. And, amazingly, affordable housing.
As the population continues to swell, attracted by not only the money but also the livability of Top 10 Parks & Outdoors, Nightlife and Shopping, and all those companies looking to tap into it, rents are actually declining. According to local numbers, the city is adding more apartments this decade than in the prior 50 years combined. In Seattle, the boom is making room.