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Originally published April 10, 2011 at 7:00 PM | Page modified April 10, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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'Seattle Geographies' aims to decode the city's many contradictions

"Seattle Geographies," the brainchild of University of Washington professors, aims to decode what makes Seattle seem so simple and transparent on the surface, but so complex and contradictory when viewed over time and across political and social divides.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

"Seattle Geographies"

Available on Amazon.com for about $30.

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Anyone who has lived in Seattle long enough knows it is a city of contradictions. Or, as the authors of "Seattle Geographies" put it, the city "is at once an extremely easy and rather difficult place to understand."

These writers should know. The book was written by the geography department of the University of Washington, a place where professors and graduate students spend their time studying the social and political landscape of the city, the region and the world.

The book is being published in celebration of the department's 75th anniversary and to mark the Association of American Geographers' national convention this week in Seattle. It aims to decode what makes Seattle seem so simple and transparent on the surface, but so complex and contradictory when viewed over time and across political and social divides.

Geography professor Michael Brown and Professor Emeritus Richard Morrill came up with the idea of doing a book during their weekly meetings over beers at the Roanoke Tavern on North Capitol Hill. They persuaded nearly all the department's 17 professors and dozens of undergraduate and graduate students to contribute to the 209-page, full-color book.

The professors wanted to write "a popular, accessible, relatively jargon-free" book that would, in part, help explain the city and region to its residents, Brown said. Funding to publish the book was raised through contributions, and the authors will not receive any royalties.

Among the paradoxes of our region:

• Seattle may have a reputation as liberal and tolerant, "but it can also be quite controlling," Brown says. For example, it has adopted stringent rules about social behavior that give police the authority to exclude people from parks if they violate rules or laws.

• The area has a long-standing fear of big government, but voters seem willing to tax themselves significantly, Morrill says.

• Though Seattle has a reputation as a high-tech mecca, one-third of the local economy is still fueled by manufacturing, notes professor William Beyers.

Topics range from the very large, such as voting patterns in presidential elections across the region, to relatively small, such as the politics of locating and building a skateboard park, and what that issue says about social and generational tensions.

The book calls the city "a little brash and youthful," a place that has enjoyed volatile growth "punctuated by loss and recession."

Its demographics are unusual, with people who moved here from someplace else making up half or more of its population. Seattle has a high percentage of people holding bachelor's degrees, and is dependent on foreign trade, which represents about 25 percent of the regional economy.

Brown said the study of geography is undergoing something of a renaissance, helped along by Geographic Information System (GIS) software — powerful software that can create sophisticated, layered maps out of reams of data and help people gain a better understanding of changes going on in the world.

Many UW undergraduates are first exposed to geography by taking the introductory class "Introduction to Globalization" and later come to realize geography is more than just maps — it can also be a pretty good path to a job, Brown said. Graduates often work for government agencies, high-tech firms, the tourism industry and nonprofits, and in real estate and global health

Morrill, 77, has been active in the department since 1955, when he arrived as a graduate student, and he is still an active researcher. About 200 current UW students are majoring in geography.

Morrill and Brown said it's only fitting that the idea for the book came about over beers in the backroom of a popular Seattle bar. After all, geographers like to be out in the community.

"At many major universities, including here, geographers don't stay in the ivory tower," Morrill said. "They get more involved in local issues."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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