Of all the differences between Seattle and Vancouver, one thing is increasingly apparent: there are not many places to go for a stroll in Seattle.
I mean what the Italians call the passeggiata – the evening stroll, a slow walk, to see, to be seen, to eat ice cream.
We’re in Seattle for a weekend, arriving by train and without a car.  With a day-long transit pass (only $2.50!) and taxi fare, it’s quite possible to get around.  We choose a restaurant in Belltown (the Flying Fish – you won’t be disappointed) and then head out for a walk to work off the wine.  And while there are places nearby, nothing is really connected.  Yes, the Scuplture Park and a bit of seawall.  The Bell Street Pier and the waterfront.  The streets, of course, filled with activity.
But Seattle doesn’t link up.  It doesn’t loop around.  There’s nowhere, really, that says here is the place to stroll, and we place you, the pedestrian, as our highest priority.
The same with the parks: nice, but small.  And nothing in the way of a major commitment to a great regional open space.  No seawall.
That’s very deliberately Seattle.  They’ve voted down that kind of thing for over a century: no to a civic centre, no to the Seattle Commons, no to anything that looks as though downtown might get favoured treatment over the neighbourhoods.  It continues still: there’s yet another initiative for the ballot that would completely hamstring the legislature in the event they might want to raise taxes.  The City cannot get it together to tear down the Alaska Way Viaduct to open up its waterfront.  The same old stories, up for another round.
Seattle is now more clearly paying the price for its penury.  At a time when the design and quality of the public realm is a factor that cities must have to effectively compete, Seattle comes in second.  They lost Boeing to Chicago, the city of Millennium Park.  And while that great public space – a golden link in a chain of green – can hardly be credited as the reason why Boeing made the move, it serves nicely as the symbol.
Well, at least Seattle has its more modest version of Millennium Park, the new Olympic Sculpture Park: largely the consequence of private vision, and certainly private money.  I’ve visited it three times now,  and I’ll go again, probably every time I visit downtown.   The art is good – or at least good enough (particularly the Richard Serra) – the plantings change with the season, and the views are spectacular.  Always something to see in a different light.
Best of all, it’s where the people are.  All different kinds, walking, strolling, enjoying the place, the art and each other.
It’s about the only place Seattle has.
Sculpture Park 1
The park just planted, last December:
Sculpture 2
And now abloom:
Sculpture 4
Richard Serra:
Serra 1  Serra 2
Serra 3
In truth, the park now has a seawall very much in the Vancouver style, with a separated bike path that connects up to the waterfront walkway to the north.  It’s a very good beginning.
Sculpture 6

Comments

  1. Interesting — there’s an article in the Seattle PI about Jim Diers, who by all counts is the champion of “neighbourhoods,” but the article fails to make the kind of connection you’re suggesting. (You wrote: “That’s very deliberately Seattle. They’ve voted down that kind of thing for over a century: no to a civic centre, no to the Seattle Commons, no to anything that looks as though downtown might get favoured treatment over the neighbourhoods. “)
    Perhaps we need an approach that carries both impulses: sense of place through strong neighbourhoods, but recognition that downtown is the heart & engine of the city and therefore deserves careful planning, thought, and lots of *strategic* support (vs. parsimonious and/ or grudging support)…
    For the PI article, see:
    http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/322686_jimdiers06.html
    (“Cities copied ‘Seattle Way’ in planning” by Debera Carlton Harrell, July 6/07)

  2. Gordon, you’ve stabbed me in the heart! But of course you’re right. We’ve got a long way to go until we achieve an urban streetscape that supports long, improvisational strolls. Seattle has a surplus of massive, mid century, too clever-by-half transportation corridors that slice and dice the city into delectable but unsatisfying morsels. I’m skeptical that their purported benefits for “serious” transportation modes outweigh the harm they do to the fabric of the city.
    But I must take issue with the adjective you’ve assigned to us Seattleites: penurious. Our predecessors may have voted down many beneficial public works projects (let’s not talk about Forward Thrust), but the electorate appears to have seen the error of its ways. Seattle voters recently approved a transportation levy that allocates big money to upgrade our bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. We passed a “Complete Streets” ordinance this spring. The tax revolt initiative you mentioned is taking place at the state level — not Seattle. And Sound Transit, our new light rail system, is overwhelmingly supported by Seattle residents.
    When it comes to urbanism, Seattle is a diamond in the rough. I think we’re heading in the right direction.

  3. As opposed to Vancouver, which devotes all its resources to a tiny fraction of the population in the downtown core, and screw the rest of the people who live, by choice or necessity, outside of the core

  4. Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Seattle, and we think that this post is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from blogs like yours (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin@ruba.com.
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