Tag Archive for 'public space'

Walking in Europe

I recently spent three weeks in the British Isles and Paris with an eye on the pedestrian experience. Now back in Seattle, I’m here to share what we have to learn from Europe (and what they could learn from us).

While Seattle is thought of as a pedestrian-friendly city in America, the experience walking in Seattle is very different than walking in the walkable European cities of Dublin, London, and Paris.

Seattle pedestrians are known for our almost robotic patience in waiting for the walk signal. On my visit to Europe, it took a while to get used to the fact that nobody, other than tourists, waits for the signal.

Walking is often called a mode of active transportation but it definitely felt more active in Europe than in Seattle. Watching for traffic, sidestepping slow moving locals and lost tourists, and hopping between narrow sidewalks and narrow roadways meant walking in Europe took more effort. It feels pretty passive by comparison to ignore cars and thoughtlessly obey crosswalk signals while walking here in Seattle.

Abbey Road cover, photo taken in London

Crosswalks like this (and albums like this) are not the norm in London

While urbanists often consider America as having poor pedestrian infrastructure, the experience is different between the continents. Crosswalks as shown on the cover of Abbey Road are the exception in England. Crossing is often done at your own risk, as pedestrians aren’t given the right of way like they are here and road markings for pedestrians are fewer and less clearly marked.

Marked pedestrian crossings can be far apart, and crosswalk signals often have a long wait for a short time to cross. Jaywalking in the British Isles was made easier by helpful labels on the pavement telling you which way to look.

Helpful street markings for jaywalkers

Helpful street markings for jaywalkers

Some areas had few crossings of major streets, like parts of downtown Dublin, giving pedestrians limited options for walking. In contrast, Edinburgh had plenty of narrow pedestrian alleys, called closes. While walking down small dark alleys wouldn’t be a comfortable experience in most parts of America, feeling safe, was never an issue in the northwestern part of Europe. In the many pedestrian areas that I walked through, there were very few beggars, homeless, or mentally unstable individuals. Not being asked for money or otherwise interrupted by someone on the street seemed to make for a much more comfortable pedestrian experience. We don’t often consider homelessness in the context of the pedestrian streetscape, but there is a relationship there that is worth consideration.

Trafalgar Square in London

This is far from Westlake Park

As far as the built environment goes, there were some pedestrian only areas like Grafton Street in Dublin, the Shambles in York, and parts of the Latin Quarter in Paris that were highlights of their respective cities, but I felt the well-used public living rooms were an even better pedestrian amenity. From busy squares in York and the crowded but comfortable Trafalgar Square in London to the River Seine with hundreds of Parisians enjoying their wine and cheese at sunset, there are no public spaces in Seattle that compare, and certainly not our busiest public parks like Victor Steinbrueck Park and Westlake Park.

Those great public spaces and pedestrian streets make the biggest difference in making walking in Europe more pleasant than walking in Seattle, but their success isn’t due as much to the architects that designed them as it is where they’re located. In the next post, I’ll share some lessons I learned from the European transportation infrastructure and how our focus is wrong if we want a similar experience here.


Public spaces downtown

Downtown is short on city parks, but there are quite a few public spaces that are privately owned. If you’re looking for a place downtown to stop and read a book, eat lunch, or just hang out, check out this handy-dandy map:

View Seattle’s Privately Owned Public Spaces in a larger map


McGraw Square re-opens

Westlake Streetcar Plaza (aka McGraw Square) was reopened in a ceremony yesterday. The SDOT blog has coverage of the ceremony. From the Times:

Mayor Mike McGinn, who presided over the dedication, said the plaza will create a pedestrian-friendly island in the heart of downtown Seattle. He said it’s one of three transportation hubs serving downtown.

The new plaza, at the end of the South Lake Union streetcar line, between Olive Way and Stewart Street, was built with a $900,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation.

Officials envision it filled with trees and tables, even food vendors.

Its location will make it easier to travel around downtown, with connections from the streetcar to the Monorail, light rail and the downtown bus tunnel, said those at the dedication.

There is a lot of potential for this plaza. At a minimum, the area has instantly become more pedestrian-friendly, but its success as a public space will be determined based on how well it is used.

As the trees that dot the area sprout leaves in spring and grow larger over the years, the space will likely feel more inviting and less exposed. People will spend time in the space to wait for the streetcar, but the plaza likely won’t become a lunchtime gathering spot until the city changes its restrictive food cart policies.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see what happens. Anyone else have any thoughts?


City selects lead waterfront designer

In a project that will impact our city’s waterfront and the pedestrian experience for generations to come, the city has selected its lead waterfront designer. There is some good coverage of this announcement at Publicola and Seattle Transit Blog.

Public reaction to the selection seems to be somewhat mixed. It sounds like there will be limited private development allowed, if any. Councilmember Sally Bagshaw says “I’ve heard many people ask, ‘Are you going to allow giant condominiums and hotels along the waterfront?’ The answer is, no.” There is some concern that this lack of development may result in a linear park that isn’t well used.

This editorial praises the city’s selection.

Hopefully the the right choice was made and we will see a waterfront that serves as a good public space and pedestrian environment, with the right balance of public space and private development.


McGraw Streetcar Plaza design

SDOT is in the process of developing the McGraw Square area and a portion of Westlake Avenue into a Westlake Transportation Hub at the downtown terminus of the Seattle Streetcar.

McGraw Square Park is currently the site of a historic bronze statue along with a couple park benches, one of which is often occupied overnight for sleeping.

Plans include another streetcar platform to allow boarding on both sides as well as bike parking, natural landscaping, artistic lighting, and a retail kiosk.

Westlake Transportation Hub design

Westlake Transportation Hub design showing uses of McGraw Streetcar Plaza

This was presented at the last meeting of the Seattle Design Commission, however there were some concerns that the design needs to be refined further to be flexible for future uses.

You can download a draft version of the presentation from the Design Commission website. Construction is expected to start this year.


In support of mobile food vending

Great City has written a letter to the city council in support of mobile food vending:

Great City firmly believes that active, pedestrian-friendly streets are essential to a safe and vital city. To that end, we are excited about the opportunities mobile food vending can bring to Seattle.

A few food vendors scattered in areas that often don’t reach their potential like Westlake Park in the heart of downtown or Occidental Park in Pioneer Square could have a transformative effect on the whole city. Portland’s foot carts have been popular, especially around lunch time in Pioneer Courthouse Square. There may be some health reasons to argue for continuing the strict rules against food stands like these, but they could undoubtedly help the pedestrian experience.


Making Bitter Lake walkable

While there are many neighborhoods that make it easy to get around by foot, the neighborhood of Bitter Lake is not one of them.

A resident examined the limitations of the area and came up with some suggestions of how to make Bitter Lake more walkable.

As you can see it’s a fairly discrete area, bounded on four sides by busy arterials. Inside those arterials, there’s no reason you couldn’t have a thriving community. It already has a decent walkability score. There are a couple of parks; Greenwood boasts several restaurants and cafes; Aurora has an array of big box retailers; there’s a great supermarket just a few blocks north of 145th. There are more people coming in, too, as a series of condos are built along Linden.

But despite all the ingredients … there is no such community. The first and primal cause is that there are no %*#! sidewalks. (You hear me Mayor McGinn? Show me what the new guy can do!) But I think the problems run deeper. Look closely at the map and you’ll note that the development pattern is almost aggressively misanthropic. Everyone is isolated from everyone else!

Consider how the character of the neighborhood might be different if it were more of a grid

There’s some more good stuff there, including some history of the area, and a suggestion for us all.

Here’s the takeaway, for the few hearty souls still reading this logorrheic post: one of the biggest challenges in years ahead, as we attempt to densify and green our communities, will be retrofitting existing neighborhoods to increase walkability, sociability, sustainability, and safety. It’s worth a minute of anyone’s time to ponder how they could make their own surroundings more amenable to spontaneous, non-commercial, human-scale social interaction.


Transforming downtown to make Seattle America’s Most Walkable City

The city of Seattle just finished the most comprehensive study ever done in a US city on improving public spaces. The architecture firm that performed the study presented their preliminary findings this past Tuesday.

You can download a PDF version of the presentation from the International Sustainability Institute.

The presentation starts with some key findings about where pedestrians go downtown, noting that the waterfront is undervisited partially due to poor connections between the waterfront and downtown. It also maps the dull area in the central part of downtown between the retail core and Pioneer Square.

The presentation then moves on to some recommendations:

  • upgrading the waterfront toward making Seattle a waterfront city
  • using the east-west streets as “green connectors”
  • turning alleys into “green lungs”
  • greening building roofs and walls

There are a few motivating graphics that show how adding greenery and other pedestrian amenities could transform downtown, specifically King Street Station and 1st Avenue.

It also shares some lessons from New York City’s conversion of Times Square to reduce vehicle traffic.

The easy suggestions it makes are to:

  1. Better connect Pike Place Market & Westlake
  2. Complete the bicycle network
  3. Prioritize 1st Ave to make it a great street
  4. Green the alleys
  5. Create active facades to replace plain walls

Seattle has a lot of potential to make the downtown area great and this study seems to have identified a lot of good ways to do that. The full results will be out in March.

You can watch the presentation here. The Seattle PI’s In Pioneer Square blog has a good overview as well.


Westlake Plaza design

The city is in the process of developing an outdoor plaza near Westlake Ave & Stewart St.

View Westlake Streetcar Plaza in a larger map

The Seattle Transit Blog covered an open house event last week:

SDOT hosted an open house for the Westlake Streetcar Plaza last Wednesday. (For background, Adam covered the project in great detail last year.) The open house presented the project at the 60% design stage and took public comments. From this point SDOT will move towards finalizing the design and implementing the project. If you want to make a comment, do it as soon as possible. Construction is planned to begin this July and finish this November.

The enlarged plaza area should be friendly to foot traffic and will have connections for a food vendor.