I’ve spent the last week or so in Seattle, and have been extremely impressed with the city. Seattle’s Central City is a continuous, walkable urban environment, that is unlike the vast majority of American cities I’ve been to. In Seattle, the “inner-city” is a truly desirable place to be (as it should be). Although it is not completly free of empty storefronts and surface parking lots, when compared to a place like St. Louis these underused spaces are a non-issue.
I am aware that Seattle and St. Louis have more differences than similarities, but I disagree with those who say we have nothing to learn from a city so dissimilar. Seattle’s Metropolitan Area is not significantly larger than St. Louis’ (only having recently surpassed us), but it has the resources to experiment. We need to be paying attention to even our more distant peers if we want to stay competitive.
Seattle has made many of the same mistakes that St. Louis has. They have an interstate highway running through their downtown. They have two major sports stadiums that take up superblocks and are surrounded by underused parking garages in a historic district. At the same time, they value good urban design and the pedestrian experience. For me, Seattle has many new ideas to offer. Good ideas. One big one that struck me is the Downtown Transit Tunnel.
Seattle’s Light Rail runs through Downtown in a tunnel, but the tracks run on a paved, flat surface that is also used by buses. This is brilliant for many reasons (it keeps you out of both traffic and the rain), and is a flexible infrastructure investment. My one complaint is that you aren’t allowed to simply walk across the tracks to the other platform to change directions.
As convenient as being able to walk across the tracks would be for an urban explorer and photographer like myself, walking up and over is a small sacrifice for us to make on behalf of public safety. The City of Seattle actually cares about pedestrians and their safety, and it shows. Little details can make big differences. This year Seattle was recognized as the most “walk-friendly” city in the country by the NRDC, and in the City’s Pedestrian Master Plan, Seattle declares that it wants to truly become the most walkable city in the nation.
Featuring before and after photos of transformed sidewalks that would be sure to make Steve Patterson proud, the Pedestrian Master Plan’s website lays out a detailed plan with ambitious goals that focus on the pedestrian experience. It outlines the benefits of walking and the responsibility of the city to encourage and to facilitate alternatives to personal automobiles.
I think that the City of St. Louis can learn from cities like Seattle. Our problems are not unique to the rust belt, and their solutions might found if the time was spent creating something like a master plan. We have a long way to go before we can even compete in a walkable city competition, but we need to start with a coherent (unlike many of my blog posts – Sorry!) and comprehensive plan. Let’s start Downtown and connect our neighborhoods to one another. Otherwise newer, faster growing cites like Seattle will leave us in the dust. Or in the fumes of our own exhaust.