Ethnography of the City: Creativity, Sustainability, and Social Justice in Seattle, Washington

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Jennifer Hyndman


reativity, Ethnography, Narrative, Performativity, Social Justice, Sustainability

Subject Categories



This ethnography of the city analyzes institutional narratives of creativity, sustainability, and social justice in Seattle, Washington. Through an in-depth examination of the iterative processes of naming and enacting place, I argue that institutional narratives of place in Seattle at once accentuate the politically progressive ideals of city government and disguise exclusions in the city. In other words, Seattle city government strives to actualize progressive objectives through narratives of place. Yet, the process of performing place along such themes also reproduces and extends racialized and classed inequities.

I advance this argument through a sustained engagement with narratives of creativity, sustainability, and social justice circulating within Seattle municipal government and implemented throughout the urban landscape. Specifically, I contend that designing economic development plans based on the creative class template put forth by Richard Florida (2002a) commodifies diversity, compels gentrification, and overlooks place particularities. I then examine how presumptions of choice underpin sustainability efforts in Seattle and, therefore, diminish the extent of programmatic impact and secure sustainability within class, and often racialized, privilege. I draw upon scale to reveal that while the Race and Social Justice Initiative catalyzes transformation at the individual and micro-scales, this very transformation contributes to widespread consent for the overarching power structure of city government at the broader scale, thus enabling neoliberal entrepreneurialism to continue shaping the city. Throughout this ethnography, I resist the temptation to reify the city and instead delve into the contradictions, paradoxes, and tangled threads of three narratives of place. My analysis, therefore, emphasizes the performative and constitutive processes of the city.

Moving beyond idealized portrayals of place requires involvement with more than just the `official' story. Thus, I mobilize a research design - comprised of participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and archival research - that enables me to identify and understand the confluence of processes that coalesce into institutional narratives of place and to analyze the ramifications of these narratives. Ethnographic research conducted in 2009 in Seattle city government, King County government, local organizations and not-for-profits, and neighborhood contexts provides the foundation and impetus for this research.

Ethnography offers a useful way to both gather data and consider varied aspects of institutional narratives of place. For instance, institutional narratives convey knowledge and assumptions of place. They also help produce knowledge and assumptions about place. Ethnography provides an avenue for directly encountering this relationship of producing and being produced, for sorting through contradictions, and for complicating quick appraisals of place. Accordingly, the heterogeneity of the city persistently comes to the fore.

Highlighting institutional narratives of sustainability, creativity, and social justice through ethnography represents a novel way of prying open and unpacking the urban within and beyond Seattle. The questions I raise about the messiness of governance, inclusion and exclusion, and the meaning and performing of the city matter in Seattle and pertain to other urban settings. Locating this ethnography within a city that enjoys esteem in the geographic imagination as a forerunner of progressive social change sheds light on the particularities of Seattle. This ethnography of the city also elucidates more generally the many challenges bound up with efforts to revitalize neighborhoods, achieve environmental, social, and economic sustainability, and create inclusive and socially just urban spaces.


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