July 26, 2007

Our region faces six urban design challenges

Makers Architecture + Urban Design

What are the urban development challenges the Puget Sound region will face in the next 15 years? Where are the opportunities for shaping the substantial projected growth in a way that builds more livable communities, supports transportation systems, improves the ecology and enhances the region’s identity?

A volunteer Regional Design Team working with the Puget Sound Regional Council has been exploring these questions as part of the Vision 2040 Regional Growth Strategy update. Their work is compiled into the Regional Design Strategy for Puget Sound, available at .

The team noted that the 1995 Vision 2020 strategy proposed directing development to designated urban centers, and that local communities have done an impressive job in concentrating growth into those centers; witness the development in our metropolitan downtowns and emerging centers such as downtown Redmond, Kent, Bremerton and Sumner.

But, 12 years after the Vision 2020 plan there are new issues that must be addressed to take advantage of the development opportunities new growth will bring. Through a series of work sessions, more than 100 architects, planners, students and other experts identified six development and urban design challenges that require new ideas, additional resources and concerted interjurisdictional efforts.

The challenges include:

1. Continue developing a hierarchy of urban centers and focal points.

The region has made impressive progress implementing a vision of intense pedestrian and transit-oriented mixed-use urban centers, but the opportunities presented by many smaller development nodes and focal points to accommodate growth and provide a larger spectrum of neighborhood types has not been sufficiently explored. Whether it is converted shopping centers, neighborhood nodes along commercial strips, or revitalized village centers, new models need to be explored. During the last decade, local communities have learned much about public/private partnerships and there should be more sharing of this information.

Another opportunity exists through better coordinating of adjacent urban centers. Several groupings of regional centers — such as Tukwila, Renton, Burien and SeaTac — are emerging that, if coordinated, could create some exciting metropolitan complexes. Consider, for example, what the downtown Bellevue/Overlake/high-tech campus and downtown Redmond complex would be like with quick transit, integrated development and coordinated amenities.

2. Create a green infrastructure and open space network.

A network of open spaces is critical for the region’s environmental sustainability, recreation, visual identity and community livability. Those spaces include marine and fresh waters, agricultural and forestlands, critical areas, green streets, parks, trails and greenbelts. They can be wild, rural or urban.

Governments and interest groups are working on individual elements of this system. The Regional Design Strategy calls for a collaborative regional open space plan that identifies priority actions, implementation tools and funding mechanisms. Development will be a critical aspect of this program through the transfer of development rights, open space development in conjunction with private development, open space used as development incentives and other mechanisms. Such emerging tools should be further developed so they are in every local government’s tool kit.

3. Recycle linear development patterns.

Our region’s development pattern is largely built along linear corridors, with most along highway or arterial strips. While planners and developers have done a great job of developing centers, we have had much less success with the linear strips. The Regional Design Strategy calls for more attention and collaborative efforts on these areas, particularly on restructuring or upgrading land use and transportation systems where development and multi-modal transportation improvements should be better integrated. Ideally, all major transportation corridor projects should be considered as community redevelopment projects as well, with resources allocated for restructuring development and creating more viable communities.

4. Transform industrialized estuaries and floodplains.

The region’s industrialized estuaries and floodplains — such as the Duwamish, Green, Cedar, Snohomish and Puyallup rivers — are critical to both the regional economy and ecology and offer opportunities for redevelopment and environmental restoration. They are also generally located on geologically hazardous and flood-prone areas.

The long-term use of industrial lands is an open question because there has been no comprehensive regional study of future industrial activities and their needs. Therefore, we should begin by identifying short- and long-term industrial land-use needs and develop better design solutions and other measures to integrate ecological restoration, economic development, recreational facilities, and gray field redevelopment of urbanized estuaries and floodplains. Resources dedicated to ecological restoration, economic development and transportation can be combined to transform these areas into more sustainable, efficient resources.

5. Protect threatened rural areas and resource lands.

Retaining the rural and resource-based land uses outside the urban growth area has long been a challenge and some edges of the urban growth area are more susceptible to urban encroachment than others. Identifying those areas in greater detail and focusing efforts on protecting them should be a high priority of the environmental and agricultural communities. A variety of tools — including land-use controls, transfer of development rights, purchase of development rights and rural design guidelines — will be needed if the region is to retain its ring of rural land.

6. Restructure portions of automobile-oriented suburban areas.

The large area encompassing the arc of suburban development around the Puget Sound includes portions of many of the elements listed above, such as linear land use and transportation systems. Vast portions of this area remain in low-intensity, auto-oriented land uses and residential areas without walkable access or local services. The Regional Design Strategy recommends a variety of techniques to diversify and intensify portions of automobile-oriented suburban areas to create more livable communities. Because restructuring much of the suburban single-family areas will be difficult, efforts should be focused on special opportunities, such as near high-capacity transit stations and transition areas next to commercial strips.

Development implementing these directions will continue to happen at the local level, primarily by private developers in partnership with local governments. The emphasis of the Regional Design Team’s efforts is to engender greater collaboration between local governments, agencies, interest groups and the development community.

The Regional Design Strategy recommends several actions the Puget Sound Regional Council and others could take to pursue such objectives. The strategy also includes a discussion of the region’s identity and suggests some measures we might take to ensure that our region remains one of the most beautiful and unique parts of the nation. Perhaps most important is it encourages us to think where the emerging challenges and opportunities will be and how we might direct our activities toward our region’s envisioned future.

John Owen is an architect and partner with Makers Architecture + Urban Design. He is a member of the Regional Design Team and he participated in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 issue papers and environmental impact statement.

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