how Times Square inspires the urbanist ‘little engines that could’

Last week, Island Press Field Notes featured a perspective from several Island Press authors on why Times Square should remain a pedestrian plaza.  I was honored to take part, and I wrote the following:

In downtown Seattle last night, I saw the soft glow in the dark of Westlake Park’s evolution from a “little engine that could” to the real deal. The evolution, you may ask? A one-year experiment in private management of a public place, partially inspired by Bryant Park, a New York City example. Yet this particular darkness said, in effect, worry not, for this is just a Friday night off for the Downtown Seattle Association/Metropolitan Improvement District management scheme.

Another New York City example has recently been at least a bit under siege. Like Bryant Park, the conversion of Times Square to a pedestrian plaza has become a model for the American experience. In civic discussions around the country, it is touted as proof of the possible, a domestic shining light of how every city can recreate places for people. Who needs to cite to Mayor Jaime Lerner’s similar accomplishments in Curitiba, Brazil—or to evoke European forbears—when you have an American story for local consumption that easily translates to “why not here”?

Chuck R. Wolfe - Westlake Night

So, whether panhandling, or other tourist-oriented aversions drove (no pun intended) a late summer New York re-examination of the pedestrian concept, a “return to what was” for Times Square risks unintended consequences for the rest of us. As Seattle’s Westlake example shows, we covet the emblems and icons of big cities that lead, and for many Americans, the lessons of New York ring truer than Las Ramblas of Barcelona ever will.

If New York slides backward, so may also a multitude of “engines that could” who need the confidence that feeds the Little Engine’s immortal words, “I think I can”.

Image composed by the author in Seattle. Click on the image for more detail. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

using urban universals to frame city life

The two photographs below say both simple and remarkable things about how urban residents interact with each other, and the streets around them.

Neither photograph is more superior or more insightful. In fact, I see them as the same photograph, across the world.

The images suggest differential costs of building materials, streets, sidewalks and associated features. Yet, in each setting, the idle women stand in similar positions, and inferred, familiar stories emerge from observation of the passers-by.

What are the roles of form, function and design in each photograph? What scenes emerge from journeys from home to work, and the locations between? In the end, what really matters in cities, regardless of place and time?

Answers to these lofty questions lie in wait, for review in the images below.

DualImage_ChuckWolfe

Images composed by the author in Seattle and Arusha, Tanzania. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

how to think about access in evolving Seattle

Questions and answers about accessing cities and neighborhoods once spoke the language of exit ramps, street widening and parking adequacy. Now, different conversations, and varied imagery, create diverse story lines, where urban policy and citizen activism converge. Photographs are one tool to illustrate the diverse meanings and examples of “access” to urban settings today.

Access now means many things—depending on context—including transportation modes; sustainability and the shared economy; public safety and particular approaches to community participation; and aspects of social equity.

The following photographs address a small cross-section of access examples. I have chosen to focus on my home city—Seattle—rather than a showcase of national and international illustrations. Even with only four photographs, a single-city focus shows a sampling of access challenges and solutions within one geographic area.

The Streetcar Mode Makes Neighborhood

The Lake Union Streetcar has evolved from a low-use ambassador for redevelopment of South Lake Union into a bonafide transportation mode between downtown Seattle and a mixed-use neighborhood. The Streetcar provides color, flair, and distinct contrast with new construction and adaptive reuse of pre-existing buildings. These characteristics offer a photographic symbol of transportation access and the virtues of mixed use in a rapidly changing city.

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Shareable Movie Night in Madrona: Urbanism Without Effort

A sustainable city need not depend on governmental programming—or private, shared economy vendors—to rediscover the benefits of a neighborhood accessible to all. In a residential alley in Madrona every summer—premised only on a group email between neighbors, and innovative use of a driveway cut and a retaining wall—people gather for potluck food and a double-feature movie night. In an era of bucket-list, prescribed solutions, we often forget the strength of spontaneous community expression.

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Public Safety Through Proximity on Pine Street

Redeveloping storefronts along Pine Street amplify the walk, and access, from Capitol Hill to Seattle’s downtown core. Here, a literal version of Jane Jacobs’ “eyes on the street” blends the public and private domains and enhances the pedestrian and restaurant experiences. This photograph shows how sidewalk activation becomes both “way” and “way-station”.

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Design for Equity Near MOHAI

Finally, in a new City park next to Seattle’s recently relocated Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), a well-used water feature, accessible to all, drives community. The linear water route provides a “here and there” for participants. Meanwhile, unpredictable water-jet timing provides a spontaneous adventure along the path.

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Images composed by the author in Seattle. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

urban edges, and how to define the spaces beyond

In the city, we blend the familiar with the edge of the unknown.

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I doubt that before today, any urbanist writer has used an old, Latin term that lives on in southern Italy, to explain the particular wonder of certain city street-ends.  The term, finibus terrae, meant one end of the Earth to the Romans—the edge of the known extent of the land.

In Santa Maria di Leuca, at the tip of Italy’s boot-heel, there is a longstanding basilica named for this ancient boundary. When we were there, in 2008 and 2011, and saw the seaward view from the basilica, it was clear why the place is legend. Surveying the expanse over the juncture of the Adriatic and Ionian seas, people once saw—or imagined—a void in their tangible environment that they could not explain, other than to say, the world stops here.

When the world was flat, it was a place to ponder the human confluence with the unknown, a figurative end of the road, with a view towards an undefined beyond.

In modern parlance, we’ve embraced the multifaceted meanings of the “end of the road”, or “dead ends”. These labels can describe failed businesses or careers, or something more ominous. In physical form, they may apply to an unfinished right of way, a route barred by topography, or a highway cut off by a natural disaster.

In the context of evolving cities, such terminal places—often called street-ends—are also opportunities for change or transition. A street-end may feature preservation of viewpoints, improvements such as public gardens, or enhanced safety measures (e.g., landscaping, lighting or fencing from danger).

In fact, some cities celebrate the opportunities for street-ends, where, often, the public path comes to rest. City staffs and nonprofit organizations champion property use, and access in and around such dead-ends (where unimproved right-of-way is sometimes wrongly appropriated by abutting property owners). In Seattle, for instance, Department of Transportation programming especially emphasizes shoreline street-ends and the opportunities for improvements along Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

EndofWorld_ChuckWolfe2

Shoreline street ends are not the only Seattle examples.  As illustrated above, other street-ends display dramatic views over lake and bridge, with neighborhoods beyond.  Old and new ideas meet here, along with examples of city life.  Here we see safety enhancements—signage and a railing—complemented by graffiti, and a custom lost and found for a knit hat left behind.

Today’s urbanist may also see a future gondola station, a walkable destination, or the potential for sustaining natural pockets amid the built environment.  But what compels such vision?

I’ll take a leap of faith here, in order to put a modern gloss on the human imagination that conceived the edge of the earth in Italy, long ago.  As with the finibus terrae, such edges, and views, will always inspire us to create tangible and useful meanings for the spaces beyond.

Images composed by the author in Santa Maria di Leuca, Puglia, Italy and Seattle. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.

from village to city, we are what we throw away

We clothe our discarded items in different forms and colors, but our built environments always have small places and features devoted to what we throw away.

This observation is nothing profoundly new, or empirically established. But this fundamental element of daily life creates a legible catalog of best practices followed by residents, municipalities and private contractors.

WhoWeAreFindhorn_ChuckWolfe

Two photos here tell the story. I have many others from around the world, but these two—above, from Findhorn, Scotland, and below, from a Seattle alley—show variations of access, style and color.

Note, particularly, the Scottish example, punctuating the otherwise mundane with color that suggests, “this is not such a bad thing, after all”.  Note, also, how despite the vegetation of the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle receptacles still somehow control the scene.

WhoWeAreSeattle_ChuckWolfe

My personal take-away is that, in the instances shown here, mandating more fencing or enclosures for garbage and recycling containers would detract from the spontaneous delight of placement and expression.

Others may disagree on aesthetic or environmental grounds.  However, any such naysayers risk denying the wonders of the photogenic in favor of an unduly imposed regularity, better saved for another day.

Images composed by the author in Findhorn, Scotland, and Seattle. © 2009-2015 myurbanist. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy.

For more information on the role of personal experience in understanding the changing city, see Urbanism Without Effort, an e-book from Island Press.