Walking the Walk

By Guest Editorial February 23, 2010

Today's PubliCola Op-Ed from the Downtown Seattle Association is the latest installment as we begin regularly publishing opinion pieces by prominent local leaders. We debuted our guest Op-Ed series with a piece by Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna.]

By Helle Søhlt, Kate Joncas and Todd Vogel

One of the most effective things a city can do to be safer and more competitive is to become a magnet for people by investing in its public spaces. Cities around the world are learning that eyes on the street—people going about their everyday lives—are critical to creating an inviting pedestrian experience. A vibrant city,  a safe city, and a sustainable city all come from the same thing: We must make Seattle a great place to walk.

It’s a fortunate fix, because it creates great opportunity for downtown Seattle, which today stands at a crossroads of sorts when it comes to safety, competitiveness and quality public space. A recent Pew Research survey found that college grads prefer Seattle second only to Denver as the place they’d most like to live. Seattle has a vibrant downtown and is surrounded by breathtaking mountains and water, yet we can’t rely forever on the Mount Rainier effect and natural beauty alone.

The number of people walking on our downtown streets is lower than many other international cities of our size.

Also many of downtown’s sidewalks and other public spaces lack the necessary amenities and features that invite people to linger as opposed to just pass through. Downtown has long stretches of sidewalks void of any greenery and undefined connections between the waterfront and 1rst Avenue and other major pedestrian attractions.  Seattle needs to enhance its public spaces and integrate them better with private development in order to stay competitive and make downtown more inviting.

This goal, to improve Downtown’s public spaces, led to the most exhaustive Public Space and Public Life Study of any city in America.  Gehl Architects, the City of Seattle, the International Sustainability Institute and the University of Washington’s Green Futures Lab teamed up to better understand how Seattleites—and visitors to downtown—spend their time in the city.

The data will help Seattle better understand its own patterns so it can make walking, biking and hanging out in the city more attractive still.  Making a truly pedestrian-friendly city will take years and a serious long-term commitment. Gehl recommends that Seattle think of itself as “the blue-green city”—a blue city in the way it connects the entire downtown to the water, and a green city in the way that its green roofs, alley-ways and roads use sustainability practices.

What are the keys to successful public life?  Drawing lots of people who want to linger in the spaces because they are safe, comfortable and enjoyable. We need a few other things: A variety of places that tempt passers-by to stay in downtown for a while, a balance of road users that invites bikes and walkers as well as cars, and a strong walking network between attractive destinations. While these are long-term goals, the city can achieve some important things right away. It can create park boulevards and pocket parks by installing green elements on all the east-west streets, building off the Bell Street Park Boulevard project already underway. Bus stops, for example, are an opportunity to create a green oasis of seating. The city can encourage parking lots and garages to create active facades that offer food or services to passers-by. And the city can create green corridors to take advantage of under-used space by turning alleys into walkable, green pathways through the city.

Seattle  can lead the country by making this people-focused planning process the bedrock of how it conducts business.  Only by planning in a way that encourages people to live sustainably—by making it convenient and comfortable and fun—will the city persuade citizens to embrace these changes.  In a world environment struggling to stay healthy, those changes cannot come soon enough

We have an enormous opportunity to create a great walking city if we place a higher value on the quality and features of the public spaces that knit together downtown and create places people want to be. Putting people first in our city’s planning can make Seattle still more livable and more prosperous. Let’s keep our vision bold and expansive, but begin with small changes so we can all enjoy downtown more now, and never stop trying to create the sustainable, people-magnet city that we all want Seattle to be.

Helle Søholt is a Founding Partner of Gehl Architects in Copenhagen, Denmark. Kate Joncas is President of the Downtown Seattle Association and Todd Vogel is Executive Director of the International Sustainability Institute.

Helle Søholt will speak about the results of Gehl’s Public Space and Public Life Study on Tuesday February 23, 6pm, Seattle Art Museum. (Visitors need to enter on the Hammering Man side of the Museum.)

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