Death, Life and Continuity / Morte, la Vita e la Continuità

Over  French press coffee this morning, I continued my reading of Nancy Carol Martin’s 1974 thesis, “Change and Continuity in Civita, an Italian Hilltown,” which was followed by a latte-fueled reading of, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by Jane Jacobs in the afternoon.

I found it fitting that my first foray into Ms. Jacob’s seminal work occurred as I bathed in sunshine on a grand Adirondack chair outside Café Ladro in Lower Queen Anne, the perfect place to watch and to be watched as pedestrians and cars glide past. I settled into the comfy wooden seat, feeling snug with my back to the warm brick building, gently shielded by an small eave and tucked back from traffic and wind.

Equally fitting that there were more people sitting on those café chairs with me than there were at Counterbalance Park, which is perennially vacant. Today, only a homeless man sat with his grocery bags while scores of neighbors walked past. I’ve discussed the design of that park with countless landscape architects who attest to how “wonderful” the design is, however I adamantly disagree.

The park’s palette is off-putting and cold, plagued by too many browns and grays, clad in unforgiving surfaces like gravel and concrete, and housing too few plants and trees—scanty ones, at that. Its design renders visitors naked and unsettlingly exposed. There’s simply no place to be comfortable, to sit or lay in repose; there’s no oasis of greenery or nature that might otherwise modulate the modern feel of the condos on two sides or the rushing traffic on the others.

[Ironic note: after writing this entry, I searched for images of the park, unwittingly discovering that Counterbalance’s tagline is, “An Urban Oasis.”]

As with Ms. Jacobs, I may not hold a technical degree in urban design, architecture or planning, but the cells in my body are exceedingly capable of sensing the lack of prospect/refuge in this place. I don’t feel welcome here, I feel like I’m on display.

Even as a strong supporter of quality streetscapes, open spaces and neighborhood parks, I feel a stab of confirmation each day that I walk past only to find the park deserted, because it proves my point: this is not good design. In abstract terms, it may have a pleasing symmetry, but in real life, it fails.

Good design is functional and well-used. Good design encourages people to visit a place regularly. Good design not only makes people feel safe, it actually keeps them safe—it encourages activity, provides a buffer between people and vehicles, and fosters social connection and community involvement.

Recently, Counterbalance Park was grossly defaced with spray paint despite its openness, which was intended to prevent exactly that result through its “clean, modern” design. Unfortunately, people feel no ownership of this place. Rather than a celebration of the Lower Queen Anne community, it is a shortcut for those of us traveling to catch the bus, grab a latte, or shop for groceries.

On my walk past the park today, I saw Seattle Parks employees and volunteers finishing their cover-up of the stories-high graffiti, which is admirable and appreciated, but only a Band-Aid.

The real challenge for Seattle Parks is to make Counterbalance Park a place where people want to linger—an iconic neighborhood space that evokes a sense of character, pride and ownership—a place with enough social capital that brings taggers up short, knowing that they are about to deface something cherished…and possibly suffer the consequences.

Until then, I guess we’ll ponder the situation over our lattes.

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