May 29, 2008

How stewardship benefits Seattle’s streets

  • By treating our streets as our greatest amenity we can reduce crime, improve mobility for alternative transportation and create inviting storefronts.


    If all future development of downtown Seattle assumed an ethic of stewardship toward the streetscape and pedestrian experience, the urban fabric of our city would be greatly enhanced. We would see a more vibrant downtown with inviting storefronts, reduced crime, and improved mobility for pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders.

    The city is committed to enhancing our downtown streetscape and intends to build on the success of several recent projects, including the Seattle Streetcar, and Queen Anne Avenue and Third Avenue streetscape master plans.

    In order to maximize the effectiveness of future development, the following ideas and strategies should be considered:

    Streets are the greatest amenity

    Images courtesy of ZGF
    Seattle Streetcar platforms and landscape strips help rainwater runoff return to the ground.

    Great streets are an important part of what makes Seattle a great city. Instead of being an afterthought during project planning, the streetscape should be considered as an early and integral component of every project. The way we view and respond to the street should remain a high priority in order to create a clean and engaging streetscape that encourages pedestrian activity and social interaction.

    Green the street with landscape

    Attractive, pedestrian-friendly landscape contributes to the functional and aesthetic appeal of the streetscape. As part of a phased master plan to beautify Queen Anne Avenue, pedestrian light poles will support hanging plants as a way to enhance the avenue without cluttering the sidewalks. Likewise, landscaped beds will be added at curb bulbs to increase pedestrian safety by reducing crossing distance and adding greenery without reducing sidewalk space.

    Sustainable strategies

    Bus canopies and seating are integrated into the Fourth & Madison Tower, making for a more active and pedestrian-friendly sidewalk.

    The natural environment should always be a key consideration when developing our urban streets. The recently launched Seattle Streetcar encourages the use of public transportation instead of private cars to reduce gasoline consumption and improve air quality. Design of the streetcar platforms aids the return of rainwater runoff to the ground through subtle grading which is used to irrigate street trees and plantings — a new strategy which other Seattle streetscape projects are now adopting. Efficient street lighting at the streetcar platforms reduces light pollution and energy consumption. Additionally, the recently completed maintenance facility for the streetcar fleet has a green roof and pervious concrete pavers to help mitigate storm water runoff.

    Integrate transit into the streetscape

    Including amenities for transit riders in a building’s design rather than the traditional use of curbside bus shelters makes for a safer and more active street. The recently completed Third Avenue Streetscape Plan outlines improvements for the blocks between Blanchard and University, which includes elimination of curbside bus shelters in retail areas that visually obstruct storefronts and provide cover for criminal activity. Instead, building designs integrate glass canopies, leaning rails and benches to accommodate transit riders and nurture stewardship of property owners and businesses. Property owners have already reported a significant decrease in criminal activity within this area.

    Efficient public transit

    Freestanding bus canopies in busy pedestrian areas can divide walkways and provide cover for undesirable activities.

    Seattle transportation infrastructure is being modernized to create more appealing and usable forms of transit. As part of improvements to Third Avenue, careful route planning and the use of skip-stops increases transit efficiency and reduces the need for buses to stop on every block. Transit signage is also being updated with new graphics and information systems to provide real-time transit information. Numerous studies have shown that one of the biggest deterrents to public transit ridership is the lack of reliable schedule information. As the Third Avenue Streetscape Plan is further implemented, transit signage will be easier to read and provide accurate schedule information.

    Exclusive transit affects stewardship

    Third Avenue between Yesler and Stewart is being considered as a 24/7 transit-only street. If a transit-only scenario is adopted, Seattle faces the danger of creating a street that is viewed as one continuous bus stop. A classic example is State Street in Chicago where a transit-only policy had a tremendously adverse affect on the public realm. Many merchants actually closed their doors facing State Street because they felt a lack of ownership, and the street was labeled as a “transit mall” on tourist maps. Ultimately, the transit mall was torn out and the street was restored with a mix of transit and traffic, thereby enhancing the pedestrian experience. The way Third Avenue currently operates is working well, with restricted traffic during commuting hours to support increased transit, bicycle and pedestrian use, while accommodating a mix of activities at other times to enable businesses to thrive.

    Public/private participation

    Proposed designs for Queen Anne Avenue include hanging baskets, street plantings and corner bulbs to “green” the street.

    Creating lively urban streets is more complicated than people realize. Involving a number of stakeholders — including public agencies, businesses, property owners and private civic groups — throughout the planning process will ensure the success of revitalization efforts. A conceptual design plan is being developed to enhance the physical character of Pike and Pine between First and Fourth avenues. A series of charrettes are being led by the city in partnership with the Downtown Seattle Association to involve stakeholders in early planning, create collaborative design solutions, and build consensus. Likewise, fostering partnerships for streetscape maintenance and management programs can prove to be effective and cost-efficient long-term solutions.

    Don Miles, FAIA, is a principal and director of urban design at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects in Seattle. He is also a founding board member of Projects for Public Spaces in New York. With more than 35 years of professional experience, he has served as a design consultant on urban projects across the country noted for improving the urban environment.

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