A Short Talk On The Bus

The bus was full. It had a relaxed atmosphere. It was dark outside, but it was warm and cozy on the bus. Some people were chatting with their friends. Some were looking at their smart phones. Some were doing nothing.

Stand up and sit down real quickly. I did that for a couple of times before deciding to carry out the mission when the bus got on the freeway. Then, the freeway was too noisy. Finally, I had enough of my own procrastination. I stood up once more.

“Excuse me, may I please have a minute?” My voice sounded strange and thin. “It will be quick,” I waved my hand quickly to emphasize my point.  Some people took their eyes off their smart phones or friends and looked at me.

I went on, “Are we all aware that bus services will be cut or reduced if King County Metro does not fill its funding gap?”

A few heads nodded.

 “Do we know that there is a list of specific bus services to be cut or reduced?”

“Yeah” came along with some head nodding.

“Do we know that this bus, 271, is on the list?”

“Yes, between Issaquah and Bellevue Transit Center,” A lady said. She was in the know. I certainly did not have that kind of details. That did not dampen my passion for keeping going, “I call for your action. If you want to keep having reliable bus services, please vote yes on Proposition 1 in April.”

A man nodded his head, “Yes, April 23.”

I said thank you before sitting down. A couple of people thanked me.

People went back to what they were doing. I wondered for a second if someone would take action just because of my short talk.

A fresh Look at Humans and Nature

If the City of Seattle desires to ensure a “healthy, vibrant city,” its Comprehensive Plan update, Seattle 2035, would benefit from reframing the relationship between the built and natural environments.

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2035.seattle.gov

Reducing human impacts on the natural environment, as the plan states, is no longer the fundamental basis of comprehensive planning. This view perpetuates an increasingly obsolete framework where human and natural systems operate as distinct entities and where prosperity depends on lessened human damage to the natural environment.

It is time for a new perspective where humans act in, rather than on, the natural world. Planning for a prosperous future demands a framework where human and natural systems are integrated and function in ways that can be sustained over time.

Nature provides numerous social, physical, and economic benefits to urban communities. It is well known that properties in close proximity to or with views of natural spaces command higher prices. But urban nature does more than make city living comfortable and desirable. Contact with nature has demonstrated physical and psychological health benefits. Natural areas can increase physical activity, strengthen social capital, and may help reduce crime. Exercising in natural areas has greater mental health benefits than exercising indoors. Exposure to nature has been shown to improve physical recovery and reduce stress.

By acknowledging the health implications from contact with nature, our planning priorities can shift toward development where integrated built and natural environments are essential elements of healthy, sustainable communities.

Great Neighborhoods and a Sense of Community: Where do Renters Fit In?

I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it comes to homeownership versus renting.  I’m a 38-year-old who has never owned a home, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.  I don’t want the responsibility of owning a physical structure; I’ve never been good at maintenance.  And what if job opportunities or other reasons cause me to want to move?  Plus I don’t have children, so there’s no need to lay down roots next to the right school.

I’m fine with being a renter, but it feels like society constantly telling me I need to buy a home.  Not only is homeownership the “American Dream,” but you even get a big tax break (the mortgage interest tax deduction).  Why does it feel like renters are second-class citizens?  After all, according to a 2013 report by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, 35% of all U.S. households in 2012 were renters.  And while renters tend to be younger (40% are under age 35), more than a third are “middle-aged” (between 35 and 54).  We’re a big part of the nation, its communities, and its neighborhoods.

And yet, are we?  Do renters have a sense of community in their neighborhoods?  Do they (we) attend neighborhood meetings?  Probably not very much, compared to homeowners.  We may have other communities we’re part of:  at work, on sports teams, in social groups, or with housemates.  But what about relationships where we live, in our neighborhood?   The Sightline article “Coloring Inside the Lanes” made me feel warm and fuzzy about the community that developed in Portland neighborhoods after intersections were painted.  But I got the feeling the “intersection repairs” were mostly in single family neighborhoods and I pictured the people as homeowners with families, rather than singles living in apartments.  Has this type of project (or something similar) been done in intersections surrounded by apartment buildings?  Or would that even make sense?

If renters are less involved in their neighborhoods, my guess is mobility is a big part of the reason.  Census data from 2013 found that 25% of renters moved between 2012 and 2013, compared to only 5% of homeowners.  For myself, frequent moves are part of the reason that, although I’m very involved in city-wide causes and organizations, I’m not involved in my neighborhood.  I’ve moved three times since coming back to Seattle eight years ago.  Ironically, after living in Uptown (aka Lower Queen Anne) for a couple of years, I finally got involved with the local neighborhood association, but then ended up moving a few months later.

Perhaps the sense of community for renters is our coffee shop, workplace, or favorite bar – which may or may not be in our neighborhood.  Could “parklets” create a sense of community for everyone, including renters, in their favorite commercial districts?  I don’t know, but I can more easily imagine renters hanging out in one in a business district than being involved with a neighborhood intersection mural.

The “Soul of the Community” project by Gallup and the Knight Foundation interviewed people to find out what draws them to a community.  From interviews with 43,000 people in 26 communities, they found three top qualities draw people to a place:  places for social opportunities such as entertainment venues and places to meet, openness to newcomers, and physical beauty.  I’m curious if their survey drew different responses from renters and homeowners.  Perhaps the welcoming part is where we can all do better – to welcome new renters and homeowners to neighborhoods and communities.

Seattle City Club thinks Seattleites can do better at being neighborly.  The Club recently released a “Civic Health Index” measuring a number of ways local residents engage (or don’t) with their communities.  The report found that Seattleites score high relative to other cities in measures like voting in local elections, volunteering, and involvement with schools.  But we scored low on measures of “social cohesion” such as talking with neighbors frequently.  Unsurprisingly, the engagement with neighbors was lowest among the 18-29 year-old category.  In a Seattle Times Op-Ed last week, Seattle CityClub Executive Director Diane Douglas pointed to the large number of newcomers to the area as part of the reason Seattleites don’t know their neighbors.  That and the “Seattle Freeze.”  She believes Seattleites can become more connected through physical places like public transit and parks, groups such as neighborhood associations or alumni organizations, and events like block parties and festivals.

Should renters be more involved in their neighborhoods?  Perhaps I am creating a goal that is not widely shared; perhaps renters don’t want or need more involvement with their neighborhood.  But it seems to me that public agencies, community groups, and interested people (like me) have a responsibility to make it easier for renters to get involved.  If they know what the options are, they can make the choice.  Furthermore, while renters may not have as strong a stake in a particular neighborhood and its development projects, the high demand for rental housing in certain neighborhoods shows that renters have preferences in the types of places they choose.  Therefore, renters have an interest, and perhaps an obligation, to pay attention to how these neighborhoods are created.

 

Nature in Cities

Four cities, Hong Kong, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Chicago I’ve visited over the last several years have stood out to me in the ways they incorporate nature into the built environment in a variety of different ways. Below are some examples of different ways nature is incorporated in each of these cities.

Hong Kong – The mountains shaped the development of the city and serve as a backdrop for the dramatic Hong Kong skyline while also offering a great place to easily get away from the crowds.

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Rio de Janeiro – Like Hong Kong, Rio is shaped by its strange mountains, basically huge granite rocks. The city also has enormous street trees shading the entire street and sidewalk so as a pedestrian, you can walk around the city without ever being in the sun.

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Japan – Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Yokohama – I was in Japan while the cherry trees were blooming and so there were many cherry blossom festivities and it was definitely different to be a city where natural cycles were still such an ingrained part of the culture.

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Chicago – I was in Chicago twice this past October and each time I was particularly struck by the vibrant street flowers. Each area of the city had different colors and types of flowers and it helped define each area while also making the city seem more relaxed and welcoming.

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Traffic, Counts

For the past couple months, I have been working with a team of graduate students to prepare a development proposal for this year’s NAIOP Real Estate Challenge. The site (1900 N Northlake Way) is situated at the south edge of Wallingford on the Burke-Gilman Trail across the street from Gas Works Park. It is currently home to a collection of maritime-oriented retail, office and warehouse tenants.

Our team has analyzed a variety of uses for the site (office, retail, multifamily, hotel, etc.) to determine what is most suitable, and one of the resounding comments we have heard is that this site does not have enough vehicular traffic to support “true retail”. In other words, any retail on the site would command below market rents, struggle to survive and merely serve as an amenity to apartment tenants because the site doesn’t have great vehicular access or traffic counts.

Though I don’t doubt that vehicular access and traffic is important for retailers  – especially in more auto-dependent neighborhoods and cities, I found it hard to believe that the vehicular traffic counts were what was holding this site back from “true retail”. So…I did my own research:

Below is a map of the 2012 traffic counts in Seattle with our site in red and other neighborhood commercial districts in yellow:

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In case the graphic is hard to read, here is a list of traffic counts at other successful neighborhood commercial districts in Seattle:

Wallingford (34th): 15,900
Wallingford (45th): 22,300
“Frallingford” (Stone): 15,200
Roosevelt: 10,500
Green Lake: 15,300
Queen Anne: 11,300
Pike-Pine (12th): 13,000

Also, notice that streets with higher traffic counts don’t always amount to successful commercial districts (i.e. Aurora, 23rd Ave E). In fact, I would make an argument that they discourage the synergies that are needed for these districts, but I’ll save that for another blog post.

Another consideration for 1900 N Northlake Way that has been of lower interest in the retail discussion is the impact of the Burke-Gilman Trail (BRT), the “freeway” of bicycle traffic in Seattle. It is hard to find data for the section of trail directly in front of the site, but the Fremont Bridge Bike Counter collected the following numbers for the past year:

Total:              2,578
Weekday:       2,983
Weekend:       1,561

If only half of these cyclists continued on the BRT (or in bike lanes on 34th) by the site, this would be a 10% increase in overall traffic. Add to that the countless walkers and joggers along the trail and it could be far more than 10%. This may seem like a small increase, but these are also “easy stop, easy going” customers – people that move slowly by the site, can conveniently enter the site from the trail, and don’t have to worry about finding a place to park the 18’ x 10’ vehicle that got them there.

I don’t know how to quantify this into rent that a retail tenant would pay for space at this site, but it has taught me that retailers need to understand traffic in a more holistic way. Is this good traffic or is it bad? Do the counts include all modes of transportation? These are all questions we will explore as we continue to develop our proposal for the 2014 NAIOP Real Estate Challenge.

Slugs, Crows, Weeds, and Deer

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I am an avid reader of classic nature writers like Sigurd Olson, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and John Muir.  Their works influenced my relationship with and view towards the natural environment.  Even today, I find myself coming back to these writers for the vicarious dose of nature that I sometimes find myself missing living in a City, and to remind myself of why I chose to live where I do.  I have my own listening point, that is probably numerous other people’s listening points. In today’s world, we can hardly all own our own swath of solitude and green. 

I recently read Crow Planet, by Seattle author Lyanda Lynn Haupt.  In her book, she observes the crow in her suburban Seattle neighborhood, and appreciates the bird for what it is; part of the natural world, and part of the urban wilderness.  She writes through the lens of an urban naturalist of sorts, noting how the crows recognize faces, care for one another, even play, and how they, like humans, have found a place in an urban setting.  What is refreshing about Haupt’s book to me is that it made me see all of the elements of the natural environment that are around us in a city, a place that supposedly people go to to escape from nature.  And how they co-exist without being planned, engineered, or incentivized.   There are weeds in the sidewalks, birds on telephone wires, even the occasional deer.  And in cities like Seattle and Bellingham we even have Salmon! running through our cities (although these are the products of day lighting/stream restoration programs…essentially incentivizing un-doing the work of humans).  I suppose that some could argue that the truly “natural nature” that exists in our cities is largely undesirable.  But, since finishing Haupt’s book, I have opened my eyes a little more to the world around me and realized that you don’t necessarily need to get in your car and trek to Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Park, or even Discovery Park, or re-read “Thinking Like a Mountain” to get your daily dose of nature, a fact I sometimes forget.   

Brought to you by your neighborhood watershed

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Concept of a stormwater park in Los Angeles (Photo credit: KCET.org)

Many of us surely have been to a waterpark in our lives, with fond memories of leaping (or being pushed) down a serpentine slide, ultimately splashing into a big pool of cool water. But how many of us have been to a stormwater park? You may have indeed been to one, but you may not have noticed. As urban ecology and sustainable development become the norm in cities like Seattle, neighborhood stormwater parks are sure to inundate the landscape (quite literally).

More often than not, cities spring up near steady, abundant water supplies. Ironically, those same cities have long taken that water for granted thanks to the wonderfully consistent and reliable hydrologic cycle. In urban landscapes where pavement rules, excess water is a nuisance and potentially hazardous. So, the goals of water management in the city are to provide drinking water and to quickly get rid of stormwater. In fact, in the water management sense, stormwater is a subset of wastewater (redefining wastewater is a whole different story).

However, population increases and climate change threaten the sustainability of many urban water supplies, and cities now must reconsider that which has been a given for decades: how will we meet our future water needs?

Consider the life of a water droplet as it enters the city: 

The water droplet makes a long journey as rain or snowmelt and finds its way into the city. Sometimes this droplet ends up infiltration into the groundwater or evaporating right back into the atmosphere, but if it is lucky, the droplet will be used to meet humans’ basic needs, such as an icy glass of water, a hot shower, or as irrigation for a pea patch plot. Regardless if that droplet is used or wasted, it eventually finds its way into the city’s wastewater system, receives proper treatment, and is sent off to the nearest river or ocean outside the city limits. One and done. In and out.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and city’s are beginning to recognize this illogic. Engineers and developers are splashing around a paradigm shift in urban water management: Instead of looking for new outside water sources, why not look inwards and turn the urban landscape into a water source?

Think about it. We have all of this area (rooftops, roads) designed to carry away water as quickly and efficiently as possible. But what if we designed cities to retain the water and save it for use? Just as cities and developers seek creative solutions to sustainability through green infrastructure, they should also look to incorporate this concept of “blue” infrastructure, or at least blend the two.

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Urban stormwater park in Qunli New Town, China. What neighborhood wouldn’t want one of these??
(Photo credit: Turenscape)

Take stormwater parks, for example. Not only do they provide a much-needed green space in urban areas, they also act as a flood control, a carbon sink, and can even get rid of some of those nasty organic chemicals coming out of our tailpipes. And did I mention they are easy on the eyes and probably good for the soul? In Qunli New Town, China, the city revitalized a dying wetland and turned it into a National Urban Wetland (and won the ASLA Award for Excellence in 2012). Some cities, such as Los Angeles, are even looking into ways to reuse treated effluent (affectionately known as sewage) for drinking water (it’s not nearly as bad as it sounds).

It is time to acknowledge stormwater and wastewater as resources, not engineering inconveniences. Closing the urban hydrologic loop requires an intensive investment, but the reward of a local water supply is too good to pass up. Heck, I’ll drink to that!