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Seattle's Waterfront and Urban Ecologies
Alex Steffen, 11 Mar 04

Like most other port cities around the world, Seattle destroyed its waterfront -- only in Seattle, the destruction was on a slightly larger scale than usual: dams and locks were built, channels dredged, the natural courses of rivers reversed, entire hills and ridges sluiced into Elliott Bay, decades of toxic chemicals leaked into the water. Indeed, some people claim that Seattle may be one of the most engineered cities on Earth, right up there with Venice and Singapore.

To compound the ecological damage, Seattle's civic leaders built what is probably the crappiest downtown waterfront in North America, dominated by a two-tiered freeway "viaduct," a major road and a bunch of piers used mostly by tourists.

Now the urban design group Allied Arts is changing all that. Their "Waterfront for All" campaign would see the viaduct torn down, and the waterfront restored as a public park and ecological habitat. They recently held a design collaborative to envision the possibilities, and posted the results online. Very cool stuff.

This raises the question, What is the role of urban ecologies? Most of the people on Earth now live in cities, and cities increasingly sprawl across vast swathes of land, so the ecological health of urban land is not a moot point. Still, when we're thinking in terms of triage, creating urban habitat clearly ranks nowhere near preserving pockets of undisturbed biodiversity. But to see urban ecologies and wild habitat in the same light is, I think, to miss the point.

Cities, seen in the right light, are nothing but a confluence of powerful flows of resources and wastes in and out of nature (as Bill Cronin's Nature's Metropolis so wonderfully illustrates). In the future, if we are to have one, those flows will be miniscule, with our cities floating on systems which require next to no inputs and yield next to no waste, leaving nature to go about the business of healthful stability. But, I think, in order to become the kind of people capable of designing and adopting such systems, we need to think of ourselves as living within nature (as we are), rather than removed from it.

This is ultimately the role of natural places within cities: to become places where we can frequently and joyously be reminded of our connections to the natural world, and where we can renew our understanding of what it means to be apprenticed to nature.

That's precisely what's at stake in Seattle.

(PS: I would pick one nit: how can a city be planning a fifty-year waterfront and not have climate change and sea-level rise be a primary concern?)

(PPS: Ben reminds me of this piece I wrote in the mid-nineties. Heh. Didn't know it was still bouncing around out there.)

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Comments

If you admit climate change is a problem, the terrorists have won!

* * *

An interesting set of proposals.

An article in this week's The Onion prompts me to ask: Is there a "learn from past mistakes" tradition in urban planning?


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 11 Mar 04

this article?

http://www.theonion.com/news/index.php?i=1&n=2

reminds me of this one :D

http://web.archive.org/web/20000916113849/http://members.global2000.net/~dporush/HTML+FIles/Literature+&+Chaos.html

also i kinda like the incongruity of traveling through industrial s. seattle to 'pristine' alki beach :D

but that's just me!

oh and btw the waterfront redevelopment reminds me of this article!

http://www.boingboing.net/2003/02/17/the_story_of_two_urb.html

and the 'superior' planning of portland! (whose waterfront redevelopment, urban boundary, view corridors and metro planning council have been pretty influential for other cities :)

http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/92nov/portland.htm
http://www.wweek.com/html/25-hwy.html
http://www.metro-region.org/article.cfm?ArticleID=141

more on transims :D

http://www.metro-region.org/article.cfm?ArticleID=225
http://www.transims.net/
http://transims.tsasa.lanl.gov/

that is all!


Posted by: reflexorset on 11 Mar 04

thanks for this - it's very interesting. I too live in seattle - and I continue to find that there is so much to know about the city I live in, I can't possibly know it all.


Posted by: meade on 13 Mar 04



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