Downtown Livability: A Conversation with Peter Steinbrueck

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I recently had the pleasure of talking about our city with former City Council President Peter Steinbrueck. An award-winning architect, Steinbrueck contributed a deep knowledge of civic design and planning issues to local politics as a council member from 1997-2007, and has long been a champion of forward-thinking issues around urban livability. He has championed policies like Seattle's Green Factor that push the agenda for sustainability, and authored a Downtown Livability Plan that called for major residential improvements like parks and schools to accompany Mayor Nickels' increased height and density allowances in downtown Seattle. Though he denies an interest in running, he is still often mentioned as the most likely opponent to Mayor Nickels in next year's election.

Steinbrueck, who draws his inspiration for urban design from success stories like Vancouver, B.C., admits that creating a livable city involves more than just government regulation: it involves public engagement, cultural preservation and other intangibles. In his words, "you have to grow neighborhoods, you can't legislate them." But the fact remains that there is a lot that local government can do to spur the kind of development that makes cities healthy and discourages the kinds of chilly streetscapes that turn pedestrians away.

"If we're going to achieve true livability and a true check on sprawl, more people are going to need to be attracted to the urban center," he says. And that means creating an urban center that accommodates a large and diverse group of people, with allowances for affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents, and amenities that attract families, seniors and students in addition to the often transient residents that commonly populate downtown areas.

As Steinbrueck explains it, when a city has families living downtown, it's evidence that the neighborhood is truly livable … and that the city has become competitive enough to lure residents away from the nearby suburbs.

Currently, however, Seattle has the second-lowest percentage of family households in the United States, next to San Francisco. Affordability is certainly an issue (an article from today's San Francisco Chronicle does an excellent job of addressing middle-class affordability in one of the nation's most expensive cities). But equally important is the issue of infrastructure – providing the kinds of neighborhood amenities that can give urban centers an atmosphere of place and permanence.

For example, when Steinbrueck was on the Council, he approached Seattle Public Schools to ask what it would take to build an elementary school within walking distance of downtown. "They can't afford to build one, but they said 'we can operate one if you help us get the space,'" he says.

This could be an issue to pose to developers interested in building in and around downtown. "In suburban areas where development is occurring without infrastructure, it's typical that large development fees are imposed for streets, utilities, parks," says Steinbrueck. "And in the city, I think there is a mistaken view that we don't need more infrastructure with new development. The fact is, downtown doesn't have those amenities that it needs to support a fuller community, and you don't get community just by increasing height [of buildings downtown]."

These are not outlandish ideas. In addition to schools, the elements of community infrastructure that Steinbrueck and other advocates of livability support include better public transportation, more inviting streetscape design, land use that favors people over automobiles, and neighborhood parks that give residents of multi-family buildings access to open, green space.

It seems like a hard vision to adhere to during a time when investors and businesses won't be eager to add new expenditures to potential projects. But a recent article by Keith Schneider of the Apollo Alliance, published on Yale's Environment 360 site, suggests that combining livable elements like parks with the riches inherent to urban environments – walkability, cultural resources like museums and theaters, etc. – is one part of an overall shift that's turning the tide in favor of cities around the United States.

Photo of a park in downtown Vancouver, B.C., credit flickr/midnightglory, Creative Commons license.

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