Seattle Is Booming—Here’s How Locals Are Keeping the Emerald City Green

Three tastemakers—in fashion, farming, and at an aquarium—share how Seattle’s sustainability credentials are shaping it. Plus, how to explore the city as a local.

Downtown Seattle among trees

Seattle is home to almost 500 parks.

Photo by Erin Hervey/Unsplash

The city of Seattle didn’t just transform a scenic slice of the West Coast landscape, it literally created it. Much of downtown stands on transported soil that filled in wetlands in the early 20th century, and the whole 120-foot Denny Hill was regraded starting in 1897 to build level streets. But as the 21st century revealed the toll of all the growth and industry, the city took on an attitude of preservation and ecological stabilization.

With nature in every sight line—just try to avoid spotting choppy Puget Sound, a Douglas fir tree, or the Olympic Mountains in the distance—it’s easy to make a case for holding on to it. Forget just recycling; municipal composting became commonplace while renewable hydropower from the North Cascades fuels the city. The Emerald City earned its nickname for the evergreen forests surrounding it, sure, but also for a green outlook that prioritizes the environment. That means linking sustainability to Seattle’s art and its play, but also the community itself.

With a booming population and mild climate, the Pacific Northwest had to shift quickly from a frontier growth mindset to one of long-term consideration. Less than two centuries after white settlers first landed on Duwamish land, Seattle’s focus is finally about what it’ll take to preserve what is already here.

We spoke to three local tastemakers—fashion designer Dan McLean, community farmer Roy Williams, and Erin Meyer from the city’s famous aquarium—about how sustainability is woven into the modern city and how travelers can witness some of this pioneering work. Then we reveal insider tips for the best places to stay, shop, play, and eat across the city.

Dan McLean (left); and her fashion line (right)

Dan McLean was named the city’s most influential person in fashion by Seattle magazine in 2024.

Courtesy of Dan McLean

Dan McLean

Fashion designer

When Dan McLean crafts a bootleg fashion item, it’s not a dupe meant to pass for an expensive label piece. Rather she calls her creations fan art, like a jacket made from cut-up Louis Vuitton purses or a Gucci purse clasp reworked into a choker necklace. Her childhood in the nearby city of Tacoma included a Vogue subscription from her grandmother and thrift lessons from her mother. Later, she put herself through fashion school by finding buried treasures in the cheap bins of Seattle’s used clothing shops; once she fished out a Chanel bag for $7 and resold it for $1,200. Today she throws fashion shows using almost entirely repurposed materials, sells her handmade fashion at shops like Doll Parts Collective and Bon Voyage Vintage, and aims to put Seattle on the fashion map.

“I think that we have a reputation of having the Pacific Northwest style, which is fair. I have an Arc’teryx jacket. We are known for that, because it’s so rainy, and everyone goes hiking. . . . I wanted to bring more high fashion to the city.

“I like to say that I’m a fashion designer first and then later have it be ‘Yeah, I just happen to be sustainable.’ My last show, I reworked a bunch of wedding dresses. Because wedding dresses are huge, you wear them one time, they get dirty, they go to Goodwill. Why are we not reusing these and making them into something else?

“I’ve never even thought about throwing my clothes away. But I think maybe that’s because it is something that was built into us here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re more sustainable than other places.

“I go to music shows all the time, at Neumos, both of the Showboxes—Sodo and Showbox Market—the Crocodile and the downstairs Madame Lou’s. There’s so much music talent in this city people don’t tap into, it’s kind of an underground thing. I have a lot of friends that are really good rappers; there’s a lot of metal bands here.

“My main thing when I graduated school was that I wanted to bring more fashion to the city. I feel like when people get really cool here . . . they move away to L.A., they move to New York, because they don’t think that there’s any fashion here. And so I really want to highlight the city.”

Roy Williams

Managing director, Black Farmers Collective

Born in South Seattle to a Black father and white mother, Roy Williams grew up starkly aware of the city’s history of real estate redlining and Black exclusion, a practice so impactful in Seattle that Harvard Law School’s Systematic Justic Project devoted its first journal volume to it. After teaching chemistry, biology, physics, and environmental science, he returned to his hometown, a city he always considered accepting of his multiracial family, and taught nutrition at Seattle Art Institute. It led him to consider that helping people cultivate their own food could also grow the community. When the city asked for ideas for an awkward, sloping piece of freeway-adjacent land in Yesler Terrace, he led a coalition to create the 1.5-acre Yes Farm, an urban oasis of tomato plants and beds of leafy greens whose bounty goes to local organizations and mutual aid groups, sometimes just giving produce away at the garden. Williams admires Beacon Hill Food Forest’s community gardens, open to the public daily. And the longtime Seattleite still goes downhill to wander downtown’s Pike Place Market stalls.

“Growing a little food might be one of the best things you can do for your health. [There are] all the health aspects around community building and connection to folks. Feeling that you have some agency in nature, connecting to nature, empathy toward other living things like plants and animals. But also, I think as the news gets worse and worse about climate change in the future, giving people an opportunity to be physically doing something that’s going to improve themselves and their community gives you a little hope.

“In a real, broad sense, it’s looking at life as not just extracting things, but trying to put things back. In terms of farming, this idea is about regenerative farming, it’s sustainable land you actually make better and better.

“The Northwest does have a big demand and lots of people are moving here. So you really have to make it more dense. But what is lost is connection to nature. [The public is] welcome to come down and hang out at Yes Farm. You can get a nice view of the city—and can really see how Seattle’s changed. We’re on Native land. And from that spot, you can see the change that has happened because the forest was logged. The logs were skidded down Yesler Way, down Skid Row to a sawmill that built the original town.

“One thing I think about farming, a growing space, is that it can be a place that people can come and get to know each other and share practices. Even across language barriers. . . . That’s a big piece of community for me.”

Erin Mayer, left, and a display at the Seattle Aquarium, right.

Erin Meyer was appointed Seattle Aquarium’s Chief Conservation Officer in 2023. The venue is opening a $160 Ocean Pavilion in summer 2024.

Courtesy of Indo-Pacific Films (left); courtesy of Seattle Aquarium (right)

Erin Meyer

Chief conservation officer, Seattle Aquarium

Erin Meyer knows what the Seattle Aquarium is famous for: the giant Pacific octopus, the harbor seals that wiggle their way to daily public feedings, and the long-lived rockfish swimming behind the giant windows of a 120,000-gallon tank. But when the Seattle-born marine biologist returned to her hometown after a career studying marine snails and eelgrass beds across the world, she realized the aquarium is just as global; it performs research, runs educational programs, and builds cutting-edge infrastructure. Opening in 2024, a new Ocean Pavilion will showcase the variety of coral found in the Pacific Ocean and the ecosystem around it—plus the 100 percent fossil fuel–free building will form a physical link to Pike Place Market. But Meyer doesn’t forget about the human element; she describes her job as “working to build empathy for animals that live in the ocean so that people will care, be inspired to care and take action.”

“We’re [in the middle of] this incredible transformative time in Seattle . . . the predictions are something like 15 million people a year coming down to our waterfront. As the development continues, we’ll have a 25-block park, right from the ferry terminal all the way up to the Seattle Art Museum and the sculpture park at the other end.

“When the Ocean Pavilion opens later this year, that space will be 100 percent focused on the Coral Triangle [in the western Pacific] because the threats facing our ocean are global in scale. If we talk about, say, ocean acidification, we can talk about how that’s impacting our local oyster farmers.

“The waterfront of Seattle, where the Ocean Pavilion sits, used to be wetlands. This used to be an ecosystem for the peoples of this place, the Coast Salish peoples, to come and harvest clams and berries. We needed to create systems to filter the water that’s running off of these hills on our waterfront because the natural systems aren’t there anymore. We’ve lost about 80 percent of the kelp forests in our waterways in large part because of climate change.

“Sustainability means do no harm. Regeneration is a vision of giving back more than you’re taking. So doing better than doing no harm. We’ve been carbon neutral since 2014, so we set the goal of being climate positive. We’re going to offset more energy than we use; 96 percent of the seawater that’s going into the Ocean Pavilion will be recirculated.

“Kids come in (and adults who are kids at heart) and touch a sea cucumber for the first time. They look spiny so everybody expects them to be spiny. And then they touch them and get that surprise of like, ‘Oh, they’re soft and squishy!’ And that I love.

Seattle shops

A trip to Beecher’s Cheese for its famous mac & cheese should kick off any gourmet trip to Seattle.

Photo by Ishaan Kansal/Unsplash

How to experience Seattle like a local

Seattle could feel caught between opposites, sitting between Puget Sound and the towering Cascade Mountains—instead, it thrives on juxtaposition. Groundbreaking tech industries flourish among an outdoors-all-the-time ethos, and West Coast cool permeates its indie clubs even as the scenic city swells with a booming population.

Where to eat

The waters of Elliott Bay hug the Seattle skyline and inspire the city’s dining scene. At RockCreek Seafood and Spirits, chef and amateur fisherman Eric Donnelly celebrates global seafood—not just Hood Canal oysters and Neah Bay rockfish but also South Pacific and Atlantic fish. Sometimes the maritime allusions remain merely metaphorical, as in Vietnamese standout the Boat, serving a single famous chicken entrée in a ship-shaped building. Communion in Seattle’s Central District, a historically Black neighborhood, celebrates the intersection of Northwest cuisine and soul food with crawfish “hood sushi” and New Orleans gumbo.

Even the city’s longstanding classics believe in reinvention. Although elegant Canlis remains in its original midcentury hilltop home, it links its 1950 salad recipe with offbeat Asian-influenced fine dining from Philippines-born chef Aisha Ibrahim. She took the helm from the equally daring Brady Ishiwata Williams, who then opened Tomo in 2021 in West Seattle to showcase an eclectic Japanese American menu with stinging nettle chawanmushi (steamed egg custard) and a signature kakigori shaved ice—but in a space that proudly keeps its former adult video store decor.

Where to shop

The coffee shop deep inside Capitol Hill’s Elliott Bay Book Company conveniently pours the caffeine needed to explore a two-story book haven brimming with indie cred and handwritten staff recommendations. It’s a neighborhood that cares about authenticity, as at the sports attire of Throwbacks Northwest: Seattle may have lost its NBA Supersonics in 2008, but the vintage Sonics tees live on. Ballard’s Filson outpost shows off the local brand’s hunting and fishing apparel that’s tailored enough to register as fashion. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the gag gifts and costume elements of Archie McPhee are all as ridiculous as the rubber chicken museum in the back of the store, quite on purpose.

What to do

The name doesn’t lie; Seattle Center feels like the heart of a city famous for both futuristic tech and counterculture. Here, the kid-friendly Pacific Science Center and its live butterfly garden sit a short walk from the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPop, where a guitar tower and grunge exhibits share space with science fiction artifacts. Chihuly Garden and Glass turns a delicate artform into trippy giant flowers while the Space Needle towers above. Nearby, Pike Place Market sprawls across the city’s sloped waterfront with craft booths, a famous fish counter, and bouquets of freshly cut flowers. The National Nordic Museum explains how immigrants grew the Ballard neighborhood’s fishing industry, while the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (known locally as Ballard Locks) invites visitors to a working boat elevator and underground fish ladder.

The outside of the Fairmont in Seattle

Seattle’s Fairmont is celebrating 100 years in 2024 with a new menu, a Centennial Cocktail at its Founders Club bar, and a program of events.

Photo By CineCam/Shutterstock

Where to stay

The Korean-based chain Lotte Hotels strikes a modern note in its Seattle tower hotel but adds personality to its sleek rooms with colorful art and sky-high views of Puget Sound. The spa, on the other hand, is committed to an all-white decor that can reset tired senses with a cocoon of monochrome.

The Fairmont Olympic Hotel doesn’t rest on its 100-year-old laurels, despite its marble floors, antique chandeliers, and historic roster of presidential guests. Instead, a new 360-degree bar in its palatial lobby reminds you why travel got its glamorous reputation in the first place, and a glassed-in swimming pool anticipates the inevitable drizzly day in Seattle.

Allison Williams is a travel and outdoors journalist living in Seattle, where she splits time between exploring the mountains and serving as deputy editor at Seattle Met magazine. Her work has appeared in Afar, Outside, Popular Science, The Alpinist, Condé Nast Traveler, and others, and she is the author of three travel books.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR