Discussions For a Walkable Seattle

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How do we produce livable streets and cities? Can Seattle look forward to a position as an international icon of pedestrian-friendly, people-centric urban development?

Recently, I've been listening to quite a bit of talk on this topic, and it's a conversation that's bursting with hope for a more exciting, attractive, sustainable – and ultimately more efficient -- Seattle. While we fared pretty well in the national rankings compiled by local non-profit Walk Score, there is a lot more to true walkability than simple density (as Alex discussed in his essay last week).

According to Helle Søholt, founding partner of the internationally famed Danish firm Gehl Architects, Seattle has a wealth of inherent potential. Our lush, evergreen landscape and the city's unique natural setting, she says, already reward residents who spend time outside of their homes and their cars. And our strong neighborhoods, which are already bustling with classic pedestrian attractors like weekly markets and good coffee, are already offering pedestrian havens in various pockets of Seattle. But overall, we still don't have an urban environment that truly facilitates travel by foot, bicycle and even public transit as regular, everyday activities.

For starters, notes Søholt, Seattle lacks a strong residential downtown. While our downtown may be home to wonderful amenities like the SAM, Benaroya Hall, the shopping corridor surrounding Pacific Place, free daytime buses, the ferry docks and Pike Place Market, these attractions alone aren't enough to draw the kind of regular, local, friendly crowd that makes walking a community experience. More practically, these daylight-focused activities don't keep the area populated after the workers and tourists go home. When a mix of people – students, elderly residents, even families -- call downtown home, the streets at night become livelier and much safer.

Photo credit: flickr/javacolleen

Better cyclist and pedestrian infrastructure, more inviting public spaces, and better access to the waterfront are other items on Søholt's list of ideas for improving Seattle's walkability. These are some of the strategies Gehl has used when working to create more pedestrian-friendly environments in Copenhagen and Melbourne, now two of the world's most walkable cities.

Luckily for us, Søholt is sharing her expertise in a very practical way. Gehl has partnered with several Seattle institutions, including the University of Washington and the non-profit International Sustainability Institute to conduct an extensive study of Seattle's current pedestrian situation and make recommendations for the Pedestrian Master Plan, and for our built environment as a whole. Since students from UW are working with Gehl to collect and analyze pedestrian counts, the study has a dual purpose in training the next generation of urban planners. The students will travel to Copenhagen in the fall to work more extensively with Gehl on the recommendations, which they will present to SDOT in January 2009. Gehl will be focusing more broadly on the entire central business district, but the students are zeroing in now in three general spaces: the area around Mercer/Aurora; the area around King Street Station; and 1st Avenue from Pioneer Square to the Sculpture Park.

Photo credit: flickr/rob ireton

Groups closer to home also have a lot to say on the topic of walkable Seattle. On June 25, I spent the evening at a discussion hosted by Allied Arts in South Lake Union. Panelists Mark Hinshaw of LMN Architects, Gary Johnson of the City of Seattle, and Peg Staeheli of SvR Design Company, engaged the crowd in a lively discussion about what it will take to improve our city's streets and public spaces. Hinshaw gave a full presentation that touched on a few topics that I thought were particularly exciting, because they seem like relatively easy ways to bring about a big change:

Sidewalk Food Vendors: Street-side carts serving hot food can make a huge difference in the local landscape. For starters, who can argue that they're part of the reason that Manhattan and other world cities are so exciting? On a more practical scale, Hinshaw pointed out that these carts provide affordable lunches for lower-income workers who can't afford to spend $12 or more daily in a downtown restaurant. And these carts are often start-up businesses run by recent immigrants, so they offer a way for new residents to establish themselves. Currently, however, Seattle's zealous health regulations make it extremely difficult for would-be vendors to obtain a license (read more in this article from The Stranger).

Retail Spill What makes the streets of the I.D. so interesting? For starters, many of the independent grocers display their wares on the sidewalks in front of their stores, creating a colorful, exciting environment that also generates extra business. Retailers in other neighborhoods, Hinshaw suggests, should be able to overflow beyond their front doors – and sidewalk cafes should be encouraged when weather permits.

Photo credit: flickr/Elena777

We are seeing steps in the right direction coming out of City Hall. For example, Mayor Nickels is already advocating to make the permitting process easier and quicker for restaurants that want to open sidewalk cafes. And other programs, including Car-Free Sundays and this summer's push for neighborhood Car-Free Block Parties, will help give Seattleites a taste of what pedestrian-oriented regulations, combined with community action, can do to make a place more of a walker's destination.

These kinds of mandates, and other zoning regulations (like minimum parking-space requirements for new developments) have a big impact on whether a neighborhood will be a space to linger and socialize, versus a place you just pass through. As Worldchanging ally Jay Walljasper wrote in a recent post for On The Commons:

All great neighborhoods the world over function as villages, which means a place where many of our basic needs—a grocery, a school, a café, a hardware store, a park, a childcare center, a transit stop and perhaps an ice cream shop, library or video store—are within a short stroll of home. Look around your own town, and you’ll find that neighborhoods with these qualities are usually the most desirable places to live …
…There are many archaic laws that prohibit the kitchen expansion necessary to turn an old delicatessen into a new bakery, or that demand a bookstore provide a parking lot even though the vast majority of its customers walk there. These kind of out-of-date laws can be a huge deterrent to the revitalization of urban neighborhoods, and it’s important for neighbors to pull together to fight them.

As the Pedestrian Master Plan approaches completion, it's worth asking yourself what kind of a city you'd like to live in. Here in Seattle we have a lot going for us already, but Gehl, Allied Arts and many others are helping to raise the profile of public discussion for a more walkable Seattle.

Read more on dense, walkable cities around the world in the Worldchanging archives. Want to tell SDOT how to build the best Pedestrian Master Plan? Take their quick, online walking survey.

Top photo credit: flickr/iwona_kellie. All images licensed by Creative Commons.


pedestrians are great, but the mayor of Seattle is planning to freeze 750,000 dollars of pedestrian safety funding from the next city budget. Pedestrian safety isn't just a walking issue, it's a transit issue and de-funding it really imperils public transit of all kinds (since you rarely get to step outside your door and onto a bus).

Posted by: aj on August 21, 2008 7:28 AM