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The traditional Nordstrom approach to customer service is pretty simple, instructing salespeople to: "Use good judgment in all situations." A well-trained staff can operate widely with such loose guidelines if it is inculcated with the right values. Could designers and architects, builders and developers operate that way? If we trusted them, if we took the shackles off, would our built environment blossom architecturally? Would they treat Seattle right?
You'd like to think so. But I doubt it because while you might be able to trust a few firms with such freedom, in America, the market is more chaotic and more opportunistic and more profit-hungry. If lack of regulation resulted in great design, wouldn't the paragons be in Florida or Arizona or Auburn?
The fact is, the marketplace can be a measure of success, but it also encourages a standard of copycat mediocrity as developers and builders attempt to minimize cost and risk by building projects that are mediocre by intention. They build projects that don't appeal to anyone, but are acceptable to large enough numbers to be commercially viable. The most successful, risk-free design seems to be one where enough buyers say "I don't really like it, but it'll do." This is the hallmark of both the horizontal sprawl of suburbs like Redmond and Issaquah and the vertical sprawl of urban high-rises in Seattle and Vancouver, BC. In many cases, the market produces FutureSchlock.
So while great design does occur and often sells itself, it is not easily imitated nor even the goal of many developers. For them, excellent design, even if affordable, is not always a risk worth taking. If we valued, as a culture, the nurturing of community more greatly than the maximizing of profits, we might be better trusted with a Nordstrom-style flexibility. A key to revising codes is to figure out how to balance creative freedom against the worst excesses and outcomes of a market that is often more destructive than it is creative.
But neither is good design everything, and by that I mean that some goals can be enhanced by good design (say, creating attractive urban villages), but that other elements of shaping the city are too chicken-and-eggish to leave to design alone. For example, if you want people to walk to the new light rail stations from Courtland, Brighton Beach, or Rainier Beach, are you going to police the streets better, so that women walking home alone after dark in December feel safe between home and station? In some of these areas the alleys are closed after dark. Does that bode well for walkability? It should be remembered that one driver of suburban flight, according to Edge City author Joel Garreau, was the fact that women no longer felt safe in urban areas. The suburbs have been carefully shaped with that in mind, and it's one reason malls and gated communities have proven so popular.
And if we are going to increase densities and make Seattle more family friendly, are we going to improve our public schools? Seattle had more people per household in the 1960s; we're now the second most childless major city in America. Another big driver of sprawl here in the 1960s and '70s was forced dismantling of neighborhood schools and mandatory busing. School quality is still a major reason families choose the suburbs, even as race per se has diminished as an issue for many. If we could add one or two people per household, we would likely exceed density goals without a crush of new construction. What can we do to make the city more family friendly? Design and planning will play a role in that, but the overarching issues are not controlled by architects.
It will be interesting to compare the citizen's jury selections with the panels of pros, consisting of architects and planners from Los Angeles, Portland, and Vancouver, BC. I don't know how they feel, but I ended the deliberations feeling as though the group we picked were not, collectively, a blueprint for the future so much as examples of projects that creatively attempted to solve current challenges with the kind of design that will help us pick our way through the minefields of a changing city.NOTE: AIA Seattle has also asked candidates in the region for mayor, city council, county executive, etc. to outline what they think are the most "pressing issues" related to the built environment. You can find their responses here and get a sense of how they would shape policy and the debate.
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