What makes a public space a success? At LNWM’s 2015 Thought Forum, October 7 at Benaroya Hall, we heard from two visionaries on this topic: Robert Hammond and James Corner. Their insights and realpolitik are important now because the Alaskan Way Viaduct is coming down, making way for a dramatically different Seattle waterfront that will run for 26 blocks, from Pioneer Square through Belltown.
LNWM CEO Bob Moser, welcoming the Thought Forum attendees, pointed out that the new Seattle waterfront is a once-in-a-century opportunity to redefine how we live, work and play in Seattle. “This will be one of the biggest legacies we leave for future generations.”
Robert Hammond (on the left) — outgoing and ready with a joke — is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Friends of the NYC High Line, which now gets 7 million visitors a year.
James Corner (on the right) — more serious and analytical — is the landscape architect for the NYC High Line and now the new Seattle waterfront. (In the middle is Heidi Hughes, Executive Director of Friends of Waterfront Seattle).
Corner and Hammond inspired us with their insights into what it will take to remake the Seattle Waterfront into a vibrant gathering place for all.
New types of public spaces are about being “in the city,” said Hammond. And they tend to be hybrids – a combination of park, urban public space and cultural hub.
The High Line “juxtaposes man-made and natural, hard and soft,” said Hammond, inviting people to sit, talk, eat, exercise, dance, or whatever. This creates a good kind of tension and a heightened sense of place that attracts all sorts of people throughout the year and makes it possible for them to behave in new ways.
“Good projects don’t follow a specific formula,” Hammond added. What they have in common is that they remain true to their place and time. That is critical.
A New “Front Porch” for Seattle
What kind of design is true to Seattle? James Corner said the design he and his firm created for Seattle’s waterfront highlights Seattle’s down-to-earth attitude and dramatic natural setting. The design is open, simple, minimal, allowing nature to take center stage. Think of it as a “new front porch for Seattle” Corner said.
What will Seattle’s new waterfront, aka “front porch,” look like? Here’s a peak into some interesting features of the plan as of now (exclamation points added by me for emphasis):
***A beach at Pioneer Square!
***Pier 62/63 connected seamlessly with Pike Market!
*** An elevated section with magnificent views of the Sound!
***Buildings that face the waterfront instead of the street!
***An eco-friendly seawall, allowing for salmon runs and purification of runoff!
***Bike lanes next to the promenade!
***Vendor kiosks on the promenade!
***500 new trees and many other types of plantings!
People will have a chance to rest, take long walks, bicycle, shop. Why not picnic at Pioneer Square beach and then a dance class at the new Pike Market activities center? All sorts of possibilities will open up.
No Looking Back
“Dark, negative, cynical.” These are the three adjectives James Corner used to describe the Seattle Waterfront as we know it, with the Alaskan Way Viaduct’s mammoth concrete structure blocking light and access. In other words, a failed public space.
It doesn’t make sense to turn the current viaduct into a Seattle version of the NYC High Line, said Corner. In addition to being structurally unsound, it is too high — 50 to 60 feet above street level vs. 30 feet for the High Line. So a completely new structure would have to be built at great expense and it would not be organic or native to the place.
Just because a public space is designed well doesn’t mean it will be well-used by the community. There have to be events that get people out to the space. The High Line, for example, sponsors some 450 different programs a year. The more used a public space is, the safer it is, noted Hammond.
Time and Money
Another key to successful public spaces is adequate funding. “These are all pretty pictures,” Corner said of the Seattle Waterfront plans. But they are hard to pull off, and you can’t take execution for granted. “We need to talk about finding resources to maintain what is built.”
“The real legacy now is in the public realm,” opined Corner. Historically, philanthropists have focused on supporting museums, orchestras, and other cultural icons. But we are now seeing people also wanting to be connected with what is changing in their city. And often the change is happening through new types of public spaces.
People assume there’s government funding for parks and public spaces, Corner said. But that’s often not the case. Both he and Hammond urged everyone in the audience – and in the Seattle area — to get involved now by contributing time, money or both to the new Seattle Waterfront.
Friends of Waterfront Seattle, LNWM’s partner for the 2015 Thought Forum, will be thrilled to hear from you.