Seattle Spaces, Gray or Great: They don't just fall from the sky

It was a Twitter post from Project for Public Spaces (@ PPS_Placemaking) that caught my eye. "Inquiry into Seattle's many failed attempts at Placemaking", it read, and linked to this Crosscut article, "Why does Seattle have so many bleak public spaces?" by Lawrence W. Cheek, former Seattle P-I architecture critic. The substitute for the P-I no longer supports such things as architecture critics, but they still exist.

If interested you should read that article, it drew a lot of fairly reasoned commentary. What jumped out at me, though, was the difference between the examples Mr. Cheek listed as successful as opposed to the failed (meaning dead and bleak and without public life) ones. The Federal Courthouse plaza was marked as a success. It has a beautiful and lively design, but the success is not just because of that. It's because there are security guards at the top of the steps, federally funded, who make sure no bad behavior takes place.

Our truly public spaces, the ones that belong to the city and are maintained through city funds are bleak because there are no funds for operations and maintenance. If there is a lovely living landscape, someone has to maintain it. Water features have to be cleaned of trash, leaks repaired and pumps maintained. If the design is interesting and variable, it creates spaces where bad behavior can occur and will, unless you have either authoritative presence to prevent it, or enough varied and lively activities to draw lots of people throughout the day that provide safety in numbers.

It's a vicious cycle. Normally it's fairly easy to get funding for capital improvements, the initial big expenditures, such as acquiring and building new parks and urban spaces. What's much more difficult is funding the ongoing operations and maintenance costs. Because the people who will be responsible (i.e. Parks) know this in advance, it's very difficult to get "high maintenance" park plans approved unless there are outside guarantors, business and community groups, who will agree to take on responsibility for O&M. This in now happening with the Bell Street Park, for example. It happened with little McGraw Square; the design was to include water runnels but was built without them, because they would have to be cleaned and maintained. There's precious little living landscaping, for the same reason.

Bryant Park in NYC is often mentioned as a successful public space. It's successful because the city hired a vendor to intensively manage programming, actively recruiting and organizing public events to keep the space active and lively, to keep the unchained and movable tables and chairs from disappearing. Seattle does this, to some extent, for Westlake Park but for few other spaces. This is an expensive but apparently necessary proposition. When we ask the city for parks and open spaces, are we willing to pay the true ongoing costs?


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