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Fast Cities 2009

Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Malmö, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, Taipei, Tucson, Vancouver

In a year like this, we need a city upon a hill. Seattle, Fast Company's City of the Year, not only sprawls across seven hills but also boasts the ingredients that we believe will bring our communities -- and country -- back to prosperity: smarts, foresight, social consciousness, creative ferment. This year, singular bright ideas have earned 12 other cities -- Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Malmö, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Taipei, Tucson, and Vancouver -- places on our honor roll. Their exemplary initiatives are improving neighborhoods, transforming lives, and helping build better, faster cities for the future.

When Fast Company named Seattle its 2009 City of the Year -- based on the city's creativity, the editors said -- surely, I thought, the weather and the winters must have had something to do with it. Our winters are dark: At 47 degrees latitude, the winter solstice brings sundown at 4:21 p.m. and sunrise at 7:54 a.m. Our winters are gray: While we get only 38 inches of rain per year -- less than New York or Boston, Houston or Atlanta -- we average 154 days of precipitation. Our winters are long: Cloudy season begins in October and lasts into June; we boast an average of 226 cloudy days a year.

But consider the bounty those long, dark, damp winters have provided the world. There's Starbucks, Microsoft, Amazon and its Kindling, Boeing jets, Frango mints, Pearl Jam, Costco, Jones Soda, Jimi Hendrix, salmon jerky. That's an impressive list for a city of just 600,000 people tucked in a remote corner of America, wedged tightly between two mountain ranges, and pushed up against the cold, deep Puget Sound.

Now, in our nation's economic winter, Seattle's multifaceted economy and forward-thinking business climate have given the city a little extra insulation; the jobless rate in January was 6.8%, more than a percentage point better than the national average. This is the kind of city that will thrive and lead us into recovery.

Since Microsoft put down roots here in 1979 -- Allen and Gates started the firm in New Mexico, but had the good sense to move home -- Seattle has become a nexus of computerized creativity, with myriad startups and VC firms funded by some of the 10,000-plus millionaires minted here over the past three decades. "The weather lends itself completely to the lifestyle of a programmer," says John Cordell, one of the original architects of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. He compares the intricate craftsmanship of a top programmer with that of a master clocksmith: "You go into a hole and work 80 hours a week for eight months, then come out of the hole and take a break to recharge your batteries. Seattle has eight months of bad weather and four months of absolutely beautiful weather. It's the perfect place for software engineers."

Seattleites' creativity goes beyond the computer. This is home to some of the world's top medical brain trusts: the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, the University of Washington Medical Center, and the Bastyr University Research Institute, a global pioneer in science-based natural medicine. Seattle, the rare city that boosted its municipal arts budget as the economy stalled in 2008, radiates cultural inspiration. There's the Intiman Theatre, directed by the genius Bartlett Sher, and the art-glass scene, led by Dale Chihuly. This is the birthplace of grunge and Sub Pop Records. And for three of the past five years, we have been ranked America's most literate city, based on criteria including education level and the number of bookstores. (We placed a dismal second in the other two.) We are home to a plethora of fine writers, from National Book Award winners Timothy Egan and Sherman Alexie to best sellers such as Tom Robbins and...Garth Stein.

This city is also an eco-leader. In 2005, Mayor Greg Nickels adopted the Kyoto Protocol for the city after the Bush administration declined to do so for the country, and led the charge with the Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement. "The same creativity that led Seattle to be the home of Boeing, Starbucks, and Microsoft -- and made our municipal utility City Light the first carbon-neutral utility in the nation -- will help us restore our planet and boost our economy," Mayor Nickels tells me. He cites McKinstry, a firm that President Obama has hailed as exemplary. "Recently, I personally handed over new construction permits to McKinstry, a company that installs systems to make buildings more energy efficient, that will enable it to hire more than 500 new workers."

But we Seattleites don't flaunt our success. "The drive to succeed is there, make no mistake," says Joe Fugere, a Starbucks exec turned restaurateur who owns Tutta Bella, a local family of popular Neapolitan pizza joints. "[But] the Seattle style of innovation is humble innovation." Humility also means that we don't begrudge others their success. "You know one of the cool things about Seattle?" asks Jenn Risko, the energetic publisher of "Shelf Awareness," the book-publishing industry's leading daily-news source. "The person standing next to you doesn't hate your guts because of how successful you are."

Risko, a New Jersey transplant, came to Seattle, saved money, found a business partner, and launched an e-newsletter that has gained solid circulation and high industrywide regard in just four years. "The creative people who have transplanted to Seattle have sought out this place for a reason," she tells me. "Wherever they came from, they left because that place was stuck in tradition. And these people, these innovators, are not happy with that. They want to turn that idea of tradition on its head."

The question, of course, is why that happens here, not elsewhere. I ask Risko if it could possibly be the weather. (Not that we Seattleites are insecure about it.) She looks at me very seriously and then says: "I think it's the Mountain." The Mountain. The affectionate term Seattleites use for Mount Rainier, which reaches its zenith 60 miles southeast of the city and is the tallest peak in the Cascades. On clear days, the snow-capped giant seems to sit up tall and watch over its kingdom, which includes our fair city...


2008 Fast Cities

2007 Fast Cities

2005 Fast Cities

There's nothing we need more right now than brilliant initiatives that can help our communities go greener, be safer, live smarter, and invest for the future. Here are a dozen cities that are hatching plans we love.