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December 12, 2013

40-year-old plan could amp up downtown livability

  • Drawing from the Denny Regrade Development Plan, city leaders could encourage property and business owners to improve their sidewalks with amenities such as trees, planters, benches, tables, chairs and awnings.
    SRG Partnership

    Photo by Dennis Haskell [enlarge]
    La Rambla in Barcelona is a cafe- and tree-lined pedestrian mall stretching 20 blocks from the heart of the city to the waterfront.

    It was a long time coming, but today Seattle can credibly lay claim to a sizable downtown residential community.

    But is it as vital and as livable as it could be? How do you plan for that? Can you successfully plan for that?

    Back in 1974 the Department of Community Development produced the Denny Regrade Development Plan. It presented a vision for a rundown neighborhood that eventually evolved into what is now urban Belltown.

    In part, the plan called for: “an in-city residential community integrated with places of employment and commercial services. The attractiveness of this area to residents will be dependent upon the provision of quality housing and a community environment providing interest and cohesion. Residents, workers and visitors should find the area an attractive and safe place to walk, shop and visit, and a pleasant place in which to spend leisure, cultural and recreational time. A successful residential community will include a compatible juxtaposition of all of the activities of life.”


    The report was authored by the architecture and urban design firm of Joyce Copeland Vaughan & Nordfors.

    That 1974 plan can be seen as a handbook on how to create a sustainable urban mixed-use neighborhood. It dedicated much of its content to defining and improving the public realm. That is the streets, sidewalks and public open space of our city and their relationship to the buildings that define them. It provided an urban design framework plan for stitching the community together.

    Some 40 years later, the Department of Planning and Development is considering the creation of that type of framework plan for the downtown public realm.

    Why is the public realm important? Between 25 percent and 30 percent of the downtown land area is streets, sidewalks and public space. It provides for critical movement and connections between destinations as well as a potential system of open spaces. In many ways, those “connectors” stitch the community together.

    Why is a plan important? An urban design framework plan will create opportunities that may not normally exist by identifying a collection of common, unifying goals, objectives and projects regarding physical improvements and benefits to the downtown. It thereby will provide focus and direction for many individual public and private actions toward achieving those goals and objectives. A synergy results where the resultant whole can far exceed the sum of the individual acts.

    Such a visionary plan would assure that our public realm be safe and comfortable to travel with rain protection, adequate pedestrian lighting, landscaping and beautiful paving. By providing amenities for pedestrians, it will encourage more activity and increased interaction of people. Such activity will result in eyes on the street, a potential reduction in crime and improved security.

    The plan would encourage private property and business owners to engage and improve their adjacent sidewalk with amenities such as trees, planters, benches, tables, chairs and awnings by providing incentives and discouraging barriers such as lengthy processes and prohibitive fees.

    Seattle Department of Transportation, through its Public Space Management Program, is working to improve incentives and minimize these barriers as well as make sure that our public realm be the beneficiary of high-quality design.

    But there is a larger implication here.

    We talk a lot today about “sustainability,” but sustainability is much more than just energy efficiency and water conservation in buildings. It’s about livability across a wide spectrum of considerations. If places are not livable, i.e. people do not want to live there or their lives are not sustained there, then the places cannot be truly considered “sustainable.”

    Sustainability in our built environment can only result if there is comprehension of (and response to) the multilayered context of our individual buildings. It’s more about people and their values, shared activities and interactions and the spaces where they happen, and less about the buildings themselves. Creating environments where buildings and public spaces mutually support and activate one another can create the synergy that will result in more livable and thus sustainable places.

    We need to create holistic environments that embrace the pattern and form of their urban surroundings, that have abundant amenities and conveniences, that enhance pedestrian environments and circulation networks that are safe and comfortable, that offer opportunities for making connections and interacting socially with friends and neighbors, and that contribute to the life and vitality of their community.

    Now that more people want to live downtown (including Belltown), we should make sure the places we create are both livable and truly sustainable.

    Of course, none of this is new. But it is timely in terms of amping up the discussion as we look to achieve more density in our in-city neighborhoods.

    Here’s to the proven power of a visionary urban framework plan.

    Dennis Haskell, FAIA, is an architect and urban designer with a unique perspective that has benefited development of local urban centers and transportation systems. His interdisciplinary approach allows him to navigate complex urban projects of all types and scales. He provides key insights into issues of context, connectivity and circulation that are essential to successful urban development.

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