Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize Design Co. gives us a brief history of our streets and suggests how we can design more functional streets for livable cities.
Apparently, transit is popular: In 2013, Americans made almost 10.7 billion public transit trips. Around the country, transit agencies are taking note. In San Francisco, Muni plans to increase service by 10%. Closer to home, Community Transit will increase service by 20% over the next 6 years.
Apparently, driving is not: The USDOT’s travel demand estimates are still abysmally wrong. Traffic on the Alaskan Way Viaduct is collapsing. And the viaduct itself might collapse any day now. In the words of Dominic Holden, “tear down the damn viaduct already!”
Not just for cars: Self-driving buses could change the way we think about transit.
The sharing economy: What could be better than sharing a car trip with a stranger? How about sharing it with two strangers?
Too big to climb: Before there were elevators, there were mid-rise buildings. Over at Planetizen, Robert Freedman argues that “cheek-to-jowl” mid-rise construction is still an excellent way to provide density at a human scale.
A number of local neighborhood groups have banded together to push their agenda of preventing more housing. They are using the misleading name, Coalition for an Affordable and Livable Seattle (CALS). They intend to provide a petition to the mayor at the Seattle Neighborhood Summit and there is a very real risk that they will have a disproportionate voice when it comes to decisions made about housing in Seattle. Erica Barnett at PubliCola does a great job summarizing their petition.
The group is calling for six changes that all sound nice (and in fact some should be discussed) but are a dishonest attempt to prevent more housing. Some of the supporters in these groups are my neighbors and I sympathize with their concerns about changing neighborhoods. There is a serious discussion to be had about the future of Seattle and how to manage change. I would very much like these neighbors to participate in that discussion, but only if they are willing to engage the problems we are facing honestly.
Priorities and Values
CALS’ priorities and values do not match Seattle’s priorities and values. They believe there should be a moratorium on housing if their demands are not met:
Until they are adopted [their list of demands] we call on our newly elected Mayor and City Council to exercise their emergency powers and impose an immediate moratorium on further upzones.
This moratorium should also place a hold on issuance of residential permits (their emphasis)
Their call for a moratorium would only be in some neighborhoods, effectively making it impossible for anyone new to move there or for non-profit developers to build more affordable housing. This makes it clear that preventing “out of scale” development (one of their demands) is a higher priority than ensuring everyone has shelter and is welcome in every neighborhood. As we’ve stated previously, providing enough housing is often considered secondary to other concerns, including the aesthetics of neighborhoods. This reversal is extremely detrimental to important priorities, like lowering housing costs and ending homelessness. It should seem obvious to most people that affordable access to housing should be more important than aesthetics. If you agree, you might be asking, “how does a moratorium affect housing access?” This graph should help answer that question:
Over the past year, there has been a growing faction in Seattle that believes the minimum wage should be higher — much higher. The amount is $15/hour, a 60% increase from Washington State’s current $9.19 (which is already the highest state minimum wage in the nation). The “instigator” is Kshama Sawant, an economics professor at Seattle Central Community College, and a Socialist Alternative politician who is now a member of the Seattle City Council. Once a niche movement, the campaign for $15/hour has taken on a life of its own. Even Mayor Ed Murray has pledged support for phasing in a higher minimum wage.
Whenever you propose to increase the minimum wage, someone will cry foul. Local perennial candidate Goodspaceguy frequently opines about the “job destroying minimum wage”. Closer to Earth, small business owners fear that a higher minimum wage will make it harder for them to stay in business. Do these criticisms have merit? Can we really legislate our way to a living wage? And why should urbanists care one way or the other?
In some ways, life has become cheaper over the past 100 years. In other ways, it has become more expensive. In 1900, the average household spent 57% of their income on food (43%) and clothing (14%), and 23% on housing. In 2003, 17% went to food and clothing, and 33% to housing. A century ago, if a household needed to save money, they would probably figure out a way to consume less food. Today, such a household would be forced to move to a cheaper home.
Compounding the issue, the average household today spends much more money on motorized transportation than the average household did 100 years ago. On a per-mile basis, motorized transportation is cheaper than it has ever been. But over the past century, urban design has significantly increased the number of miles that the average person must travel to go about their life. Commutes, errands, and leisure trips are longer than they have ever been. If a worker must own a car to get to her job, then she has less money still to spend on housing.
At 3rd and Virginia, on my 358: a large African-American man in his fifties gets on. I ask him how he’s doing. He’s doing fine, and he sits down somewhere behind me. A moment later he comes back up.
“Hey, what’s your bus number?”
“Wha-?” I don’t know what the coach number is myself. I glance up at the front wall, saying, “it’s 2618…”
“Oh no, no!”
“Oh! It’s a 358!”
“Tight. Thank you!”
“I was worried for a second there. Thought I was doin’ something wrong!” I had thought he wanted my number so he could file a complaint!
“Oh no man, you cool!” We’re both laughing now.
“I was like, I thought I was doing everything right…”
“It ain’ like that! You doin’ a great job.”
After a moment I ask about his holiday, because what reason is there not to. Together we find new things to say about the weather, the holiday traffic, making it to the end of the week…. Sometimes I wonder if people find it off-putting when I strike up conversation, but I’m surprised at how often—and how willing—people are to open up. You just have to ask.
I wanted to offer a Scott Adams quote which a regular reader was nice enough to share with me:
Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.
“It’s gonna be a good year,” he says, surfing the wave of our interaction, before disappearing into the melee known as Third and Pike, center of the universe.
Specific. Delightful. Peculiar. That is the future of the waterfront, according to lead project designer James Corner. Updated waterfront redevelopment plans were unveiled last Wednesday to a packed house at Fischer Pavilion. The format for the evening was a mix of open house, presentation, and Q&A.
During the presentation, the public was introduced to a new and important figure of the waterfront project, Jared Smith. Mayor Murray tapped Smith three weeks ago to head the newly formed Office of the Waterfront. Smith isn’t new to the waterfront project; he was previously involved in planning the new SR 99 tunnel design. He will now play a significant role in the effort to bring the Alaskan Way Viaduct down, complete the seawall, and roll out the revitalised waterfront.
But the main subject of the evening was James Corner’s whimsical, colourful, and people-focused Waterfront 2020 presentation. Corner laid out his rationale for his expansive, water-oriented designs. He noted that Elliott Bay plays into the psyche of Seattle. Spatially, the city’s downtown streets are laid out in an east-west orientation. And naturally, those same streets terminate at the water’s edge to create strong view corridors. But more than that, the water is a primary driver of Seattle’s economy, recreation, culture, and transportation. When you think of Seattle’s neighbourhoods, they’re almost always associated with water somehow. Water is indeed the psyche of Seattle—it’s inseparable—with Elliott Bay its central focus.
Corner explained that the waterfront must be organised in three ways:
Corner envisions a waterfront that is well programmed. Most public spaces, large or small, require some level of active programming if they are to be actively used throughout the year. The waterfront is no different. Programming can come in many different forms, such as art exhibits, farmers’ markets, concerts, pools and playful activities, and street vendors. To accommodate these, Corner has intentionally designed spaces so that they are multidimensional, flexible, and easy to repurpose as needed. Friends of Waterfront Seattle, a group consisting of many waterfront businesses and others, will be a major institution ensuring that the waterfront is diversely programmed year-round.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, moving to an area with more green space might have a lasting positive impact on people’s mental health. This finding is the latest data point in the ongoing controversy about urban parks.
Wait—controversy? What could be controversial about parks? Parks let us connect with nature; give children a place to play; clean the air. They’re a refuge from noxious noises and fumes and crowds. They’re the ultimate urban amenity. Right?
Well, maybe not. Here’s what Jane Jacobs, patron saint of the modern urbanist movement, has to say about parks:
“Parks are volatile places. They can be delightful features of city districts, and economic assets to their surroundings as well, but pitifully few are. They can grow more beloved and valuable with the years, but pitifully few show this staying power. For every Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, or Rockefeller Plaza or Washington Square in New York, or Boston Common, or their loved equivalents in other cities, there are dozens of dispirited city vacuums called parks, eaten around with decay, little used, unloved.” — (Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 89)
No one has ever accused Jane Jacobs of burying the lede.
Of course, Jacobs would not write a 22-page chapter just to say that parks are bad. But her opening polemic is a blunt reminder that good design is just as important for open spaces as it is for structure. A well-designed park or playground can be the highlight of a neighborhood; a poorly-designed one can drive away visitors and destroy street life.
Bryant Park, in New York City, is a textbook example of the effect that park design can have on a neighborhood. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bryant Park was patronized primarily by drug dealers and other criminals. In 1988, the park was closed for a four-year renovation project. When the park reopened in 1992, it bore little resemblance to the “Skid Row park” that had been there before. The old park was elevated and separated from the street with tall hedges; the redesign brought the park down to street level and opened up the borders. In place of graffiti and broken facilities, there was high-quality lighting, public bathrooms, and movable chairs (to give patrons a sense of control and ownership). The park’s private managers created a busy schedule of events, ensuring a constant flow of visitors.
It’s the dog days of a Seattle winter, and tempers are growing short. The initial enthusiasm for a $15 an hour minimum wage remains strong, but it has been joined by a more contentious hashing out of the details of how we get there—and who is included. 68% of Seattle voters have indicated they support a $15/hr wage floor. More specifically, they support getting there as soon as possible, and covering as many workers as possible without exclusions or loopholes.
Raising the wage is clearly popular. But it’s not easy. As the prospect of a $15/hr wage looms, concerns are being voiced by small businesses such as Elliott Bay Books, afraid it will force them to close their doors. Those concerns are causing some supporters of a higher wage, sympathetic to these local retailers, to call for compromise even if it means excluding large swaths of working Seattle. After all, good urbanism includes a strong base of locally owned businesses.
It’s an understandable reaction. Yet it is still wrong. Fighting for a higher wage is about more than battling large corporations and hesitant elected leaders. It’s also about taking on nearly 40 years of right-wing economic dogma that is largely responsible for stagnating wages in the first place. The notion that workers’ wages must suffer for business to thrive is a false one, but after four decades of it being pounded into American minds by relentless right-wing messaging, even progressive Democrats have come to believe it is true.
It’s also about taking on flawed notions of how we make policy in America. Seattle in particular has a strange fetish for technocracy, driven by the long-term weakness of the extreme right statewide, a strong tradition of liberal Democrats in Western Washington, and a city government that is largely honest and free of corruption. Those factors notwithstanding, policy is made here the same way it is everywhere else – through negotiations, mobilizing your supporters, and running campaigns to get as close as you can to your desired goal, even if you have to make a few deals along the way.
Together, the hoary notion that higher wages undermine small business, and the idea that policy-making requires compromise up front, make raising everyone’s wage more difficult than it needs to be. I want to suggest some ways out of this dilemma that can help Seattle assert national leadership in building a more equal economy for everyone.