April 22, 2004

Shared streets can provide open space, too

  • A redesign can make Terry Avenue North more than just a transportation corridor by creating space for residents and workers to sit in the sun or meet for lunch.
    The Berger Partnership


    In recent years, some neighborhoods in Seattle's urban core have undergone a transformation, from gritty, neglected zones into thriving places to live and work.

    One only has to visit Belltown, with its profusion of housing, a healthy commercial scene and vibrant cultural life, to see how the potential for urban living is being realized in Seattle.

    But as we revitalize our urban center, and as commercial and residential densities increase, the need for open space becomes more acute. The residents and users of downtown neighborhoods repeatedly have asked for open space for relaxation, recreation and relief from the congested city.

    Unfortunately, the combination of high real estate costs and cash-strapped city governments makes acquiring land for parks difficult, and the result has been a shortage of open space where it is most needed.

    We must be creative about finding ways to provide new open space in the city. And with Seattle streets and alleys making up almost 40 percent of the city's total land area, the solution could be right under our noses.

    Terry Avenue

    Terry Avenue North streetscape
    Rendering courtesy of The Berger Partnership
    A design proposed for the Terry Avenue North streetscape borrows on the winkelerf concept, which is a shared commercial street that handles both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

    Terry Avenue North in the South Lake Union neighborhood provides the perfect site for an experiment. South Lake Union has been singled out by Mayor Greg Nickels as a prime location for new urban infill development, both commercial and residential. But if the neighborhood is to attract residents, visitors, businesses and workers, open space will be critical.

    The six-block stretch of Terry Avenue North, between Valley Street and Denny Way, runs through the heart of the neighborhood. It has an unusually wide right of way — about 75 feet — that dates back to its original use as an industrial rail corridor. The street is quiet and peaceful, and its unique patchy brick paving and abandoned sections of rail tracks give it a colorful character.

    Terry Avenue can be a significant asset to the South Lake Union neighborhood as a pedestrian link between the neighborhood and the lake. Rather than simply serve as a transportation corridor, Terry can offer residents and workers a destination for leisure or lunch.

    Shared streets

    As a design solution for the Terry Avenue streetscape, we chose an approach that has been used with great success in European cities: the concept of shared streets. Shared streets are not viewed as having distinct zones that are strictly defined by use, i.e. for pedestrians or for cars. Instead, the street and sidewalk is seen as a place that can be used by the local community as a whole, with pedestrians and cars safely sharing the right of way.

    How does it work? We modeled our design after a type of shared street known by its Dutch name: winkelerf. A winkelerf is a shared commercial street, and has a number of unique design features to handle both pedestrian and vehicular traffic:

    • Curbs are eliminated to merge street and sidewalk seamlessly together.

    • Bollards, texture tiles and landscaped areas separate the street and sidewalk.

    • Special paving materials and patterns designate traffic lanes and pedestrian areas.

    Pedestrian safety

    Winkelerfs can have a liberating effect on pedestrians, allowing them to move freely through the full width of the right of way while drivers must yield. But since this expansion of the pedestrian environment also accommodates auto traffic, it is not an anti-car solution. Pedestrians, bicyclists, streetcars, moving cars and parked cars all share the same street space. Even though it may seem that these uses conflict with one another, the physical design of shared streets keeps auto traffic at moderate speeds, a situation that is actually safer for the pedestrian than the typical street design.

    Sharing streets is not a new idea. Since the 1970s, the approach has been adopted by cities in England, The Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Japan and Israel, and studies have documented a superior safety record.

    Working with the city

    Terry Avenue winkelerf design involves some novel concepts for city authorities. The Berger Partnership, in collaboration with City Design, held a series of meetings with each of the regulatory agencies — the Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle City Light and Seattle Public Utilities — to bridge the gap between the existing regulations and the proposed winkelerf concept.

    This was an unusual but productive process and gives us a chance to explore the concept of shared streets in Seattle: what works and what does not.

    Giving priority to auto traffic in all of our public rights of way, regardless of neighborhood, adjacent development or demographic make-up, may not be the most efficient use of our public resources. Many areas in downtown Seattle, particularly residential enclaves where park space is sorely needed, would benefit greatly from an alternative street design solution that places more emphasis on pedestrian use.

    The Seattle Department of Transportation is drafting the final streetscape guidelines for Terry Avenue North. We hope these will be the genesis of new Seattle streetscapes. It is time to use our streets to provide much-needed open space in the heart of the city.

    Elizabeta Stacishin-Moura is an urban designer at The Berger Partnership.

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