Posts Tagged ‘land use’

In late May I went on a European vacation, visiting four cities in two weeks: Prague, Vienna, Paris and Barcelona.  All four cities provide reams of insight into building the city, four interpretations based on different histories, cultures and climates.  It is impossible to exhaustively describe a city’s architecture, history, urban form, main sights and culture in a blog post.  So what follows are brief impressions of the cities, and comparisons one to another and to my hometown of Seattle.

First, a general note on history: European cities are widely perceived as ancient; artifacts of medieval urbanism and architecture.  True, to an extent, but the vast majority of neighborhoods I visited on this trip were built out in the nineteenth century as a result of Europe’s industrial revolution, which turned rural peasants into urban factory workers.  The cities’ building stock is not particularly older than Boston, New York or even San Francisco.  Paris was rebuilt during the Hausmann renovations of the late 1800’s.  Medieval Paris was almost entirely swept away, covered over with boulevards lined with buildings representing a high point of wealth, grandeur and gracious urban design.  The other cities visited have historic districts in their centers, dating back to the fourteenth century, yet most of what is considered “the city” was built in the 1800’s.  In some cases the winding, narrow medieval streets survive, yet the poorly-built, one-to-three story medieval building were all replaced with the nineteenth century with grand, solidly-built six-story edifices.  European cities were purposefully built, around 150 years ago, and built grandly.  It is within our means to build new cities along the same guidelines today.

Paris versus Barcelona:  These two large Western European cities vie with each other to be the busiest and most stylish.  Both are very densely populated throughout the municipality (while having a wide range of suburban suburbs)and provide immense transit networks.  There is never a break in central paris:  no matter where you attempt to stop and take a photo, you will be in someone’s way.  The streets appear as canyons cut through a pre-existing mass of six-story buildings.

Now Barcelona, my favorite city of the trip, is in a whole different category.  The level of density and intensity went beyond the typical European city into an Asian realm.  People, people everywhere.  Shops, shops everywhere.  Bicycle and motorcycle are the only practical personal transportation devices.  Many streets were wide enough to accommodate a vehicle (such as an ambulance), but cars just aren’t practical in such as environment.  The question isn’t “is there a grocery store within walking distance?”; but “which of the half-dozen produce shops, bakeries, meat markets and supermarkets within two blocks should I go to?”  Streets are still crowded with pedestrians at midnight.  Our room faced onto a 10-foot “lightwell” fronted with windows into kitchens and bedrooms from other apartments.  The street-side windows faced towards the balconies across the street, a mere 20 feet away.  Basically, no privacy, no quiet.  But urban energy everywhere.  I loved it. 

Typical Barcelona street

Prague versus Vienna:  These two central European capitals have similarly sized metro areas, in the same range as Portland and Vancouver.   Despite having top-notch transit systems, street-level activity paled in comparison to the larger Paris or Barcelona.  Yet, life was convenient, and many needs could be met within a few blocks.  Prague and Vienna are generally built on a grid of superblocks, with streets lined with continuous 6-story buildings holding large interior courtyards. 

An intersection in Prague New Town

The streets have moderate width, similar to narrower Seattle streets, typically with at least one row of parked cars.  On busier streets, the ground floors house retail businesses.  On quieter streets retail is more rare.  The interior courtyards provide everyone access to ample greenery, as a view out the interior-facing windows or as a gardening or recreational area. Building coverage area is low as a result, as is the population density, which results in a lighter smattering of shops and quieter streets than Paris.  Vienna, in particular, appeared to be equally optimized for automobile as well as bicycle and public transit.  Car parks were common, as was separated bicycle  infrastructure.  The example of Vienna is the most applicable to Seattle: moderate density, eminently livability, lots of green space and transportation options.

Vienna is still under construction


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The Seattle neighborhoods defined as urban centers and urban villages received most of the City’s population growth during the past 10 years.  The U.S. Census Bureau recently released initial 2010 census data for Washington state.   I will have a series of posts about the new census data, and in this first post I look at Seattle’s neighborhoods.  I analyzed the new data at the census tract level, and compared it to 2000 census data.  I am learning to use GIS, so I hope to have colorful maps posted within a few weeks.

First, the top level info, shown in the table below: the City of Seattle grew by 45,000 people during the 2000’s (8%).  The central portion of Seattle (between the Ship Canal and I-90) grew the fastest, at 11%.  The city as a whole has a population density over 7,000 people per square, similar to the City of Detroit, while the central portion is nearing 10,000.  For comparison, a typical neighborhood of single-family homes has a density of 5,000 people/mi2, and Manhattan has an average density of 71,000 people/mi2.

The table below provides the population growth and density for each Seattle neighborhood.  I used the neighborhood names and boundaries according to the City’s Community Reporting Areas, shown on the map linked at the bottom of this post.  The 13 neighborhoods that each added over 1,000 residents represent two-thirds of the City’s population growth.  The remaining 40 neighborhoods added only one-third of the new residents.  The top 13 neighborhoods are most of the city’s urban centers, particularly South Lake Union and areas surrounding downtown.  Belltown surpassed Capitol Hill as the city’s densest.  The population of the greater downtown area (downtown plus Pioneer Square, Chinatown, Belltown and SLU) increased by 50% this decade, from 20,000 people to 30,000.  The largest population gainers north of the Ship Canal were the University District, Ravenna (i.e. University Village area) and Ballard.  The largest population gainers in the South end were the Seattle Housing Authority redevelopment projects: NewHolly and High Point, plus the West Seattle Junction.  “Gentrifying” areas such as Columbia City and Georgetown did not exhibit muh population growth; maybe that happens later.  Slowly but surely, Seattle is building the city.


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Cascadia concept (Source: http://www.livecascadia.com)

Two large-scale master planned communities have been proposed in the Puget Sound area over the past decade.  Cascadia would provide 6,500 homes and office parks on 5,000 acres, on a forested greenfield site 21 miles east of Tacoma and 43 miles southeast of Seattle.

The Yesler Terrace project replaces a low-rise public housing project with up to 5,000 homes and 1,500,000 square feet of commercial development, on a 30 acre site directly across I-5 from downtown Seattle.

The Puget Sound region is expected to add over 1 million new residents in the next few decades.  It sounds logical that the metro area must continue to expand at its edges to accommodate all these people.  But 30 acres near downtown can accommodate nearly as many people as were proposed for 5,000 acres on the exurban fringe. There is plenty of capacity within existing urban areas to accommodate everyone, if we choose to build the city.

Post script:
As of September 2010, the proposed Cascadia community is defunct, repossessed by a bank from the bankrupt developer.  For the Yesler Terrace redevelopment the City will issue the project EIS in February and plans to begin construction in 2012.

Yesler Terrace concept (Source: Seattle Housing Authority)

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The Seattle City Council and the Planning Commission hosted a reception earlier this evening to celebrate the release of the long-awaited Seattle Transit Communities report.  The report identifies 41 locations in Seattle that have the potential to become great walkable, livable, urban neighborhoods, each served by high quality transit.  For each location, recommendations are provided for zoning, redevelopment potential, public services and pedestrian and bicycling routes.   The report builds upon the urban village planning designations and the neighborhood plans.  The recommendations could be implemented by City Council through comprehensive plan amendments or zoning ordinances (urban village overlays), or by City staff through departmental capital improvement funds.  Find out what is recommended for your neighborhood by reading the report available here.  I know I will.

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King County now has all the funding needed to replace the South Park Bridge (16th Av. S. in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood).  The 79-year old drawbridge closed June 30th of this year due to poor structural safety, requiring a 2-mile detour across the 1st Av. bridge (Highway 99) to access this neighborhood.

The south half of Seattle has a longstanding east-west transportation deficit.  West Seattle neighborhoods and Southeast Seattle neighborhoods exist in isolation from each other, separated by steep hillsides and the industrial valley, with its Duwamish River, railroads, Interstate 5, and most of all, Boeing Field (King County International Airport).  The general aviation airport’s 10,000 foot long runway prevents any east-west travel for over 2 miles.  This results in a three-mile gap with no exits from I-5.  There were only three crossings of the Duwamish River in Seattle (currently two): The upper and lower Spokane Street crossings, the 1st Av. bridge, and the now closed South Park Bridge.  The result is that West Seattle and Southeast Seattle aren’t socially or economically connected – all connection goes through downtown Seattle or to freeway network.   The south half of Seattle is fragmented and isolated, and not coincidentally, poorer than the north half of Seattle.  The opening of Link light rail , from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac airport via Southeast Seattle, brought home this point to me.  As a West Seattle resident, there are no connecting buses that I can take to the light rail line in Southeast Seattle.  A transit user must travel north to downtown, and then back south on the rail line.  But I don’t blame King County Metro for this predicament.  There are no buses because there are not even roads.   The only roadway paths, south of the Spokane Street Viaduct, are long and circuitous, requiring a great many counter-intuitive turns. 

My proposal: construct the replacement South Park bridge on a S. Cloverdale alignment (east-west) instead of the previous 14th Av S. alignment (north-south).  Then extend the new roadway, South Cloverdale Way, in a tunnel under Boeing Field, a bridge over the mainline rail tracks and I-5, connecting to the existing S. Cloverdale Street, two blocks north of the Rainier Beach Link rail station.  This 1.4 mile roadway would provide a direct seamless travel path from Southeast Seattle (near Rainier Beach) to South Park and White Center at the southern edge of West Seattle.  An interchange could be created at the I-5 overpass, with a freeway bus station.  The alignment and surrounding can be seen on this Google Map application.
View Proposed S. Cloverdale Way in a larger map

South Cloverdale Way would be built as a complete street, with one automobile lane in each direction, a bi-directional cycle track, and concrete curbs and sidewalks. Near intersections and in congested areas, dedicated turn lanes and transit/HOV lanes would be included.  The new route would include all-day 15-minute frequency transit service from White Center to Rainier Beach via South Park.  Metro route 60 would be divided into two, and the White Center-South Park segment would be extended along the new South Cloverdale Way to Rainier Beach, serving the Link rail station and the neighborhood center.  The roadway, transit service, and separated bicycle access would knit together these sections of the city, providing opportunities for exchange and growth, and create the conditions for building great city neighborhoods along the southern edge of Seattle.

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