Cities don't spring up by accident. Each owes its existence of to some unique set of geographic features, and in spite of the revolutions in communications and transportation technologies, geography still has a profound impact on the growth of metropolitan areas. The development trajectory of Seattle and the Puget Sound region starts with, and continues to be influenced by, two distinct geographic positions.
The first is Seattle's location way out in the upper left hand corner of the U.S. map. According to conventional location theory, the only reason for a city to take root in such a remote place would be to exploit natural resources. And that, of course, is the story of Seattle's origin, serving as the commercial center for wood products, fishing and agricultural industries, first around Puget Sound and later across the Northwest. This is the "colonial" economy referred to in an earlier post.
The region's second important geographic position is its location on the Pacific Rim. San Francisco boomed as a result of the 1849 gold rush and was the largest city on the West Coast until Los Angeles overtook it in the 1920s. But Seattle had a very big advantage as a port. In the mid-19th century, cargo still moved on sailing ships that preferred the lower latitudes and, therefore, would head to San Francisco. But with the advent of steamships, the northern great circle routes became viable, and Seattle's position, 600 miles closer to Japan than San Francisco, allowed for a more profitable voyage: less coal and more cargo. With its multiple northern tier rail lines, Seattle quickly became the largest West Coast port.
These geographic features allowed the region to grow rapidly, but that growth slowed by the middle of the 20th century. Seattle cracked the top-twenty of U.S. metro areas in 1920, but fell off the list in 1950. Even with wartime production, the Puget Sound region had reached the limits of what its geographic position could support: it was simply too far away from the dominant national markets to be a logical location for most manufacturing. The great post-war expansion in manufacturing that brought the American dream to millions was happening elsewhere.
If the Puget Sound region were to pull out of its mid-century slump, it would need new industries for which transportation of finished products was not a factor. And it got them. First came Boeing, with products that, magically, deliver themselves. Then came software, which has almost no delivery costs at all.
What happened--and this is the critical point--is that the Puget Sound region largely leapfrogged the industrial evolution that most of the country experienced. By jumping directly from natural resources to high tech, the region bypassed the phase of heavy industry that had defined the Northeast and Midwest. This meant that few industries of the Puget Sound region ever had to deal with obsolescence and the devastating international competition that crippled much of the nation's industrial base in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, the region had the luxury of being able to wholeheartedly embrace globalization in ways that other regions could not. So in the end, isolation paid off, having left the region as fertile ground for a new kind of economy.
Century 21 City makes the case that geography still matters and that the "death of distance" has been exaggerated. And as will be discussed in a future post, "place" is central to the all-important process of recruiting and retaining talent.