A tale of two crosswalks

Street crossings in Seattle and Barcelona highlight dramatic differences in the way we experience public rights of way

The actor and director Orson Welles once said: "I don't believe in learning from other people’s pictures. I think you should learn from your own interior vision of things and discover, as I say, Innocently, as though there had never been anybody."

I agree, and apply Welles’ point of view to portrayal and comprehension of the urban environment. I learn about cities by shuffling my own photographs—not others’—and comparing similar human activities in different places.

I gave this a try with the images below. Four contrasting photos of the American crosswalk (the two images on the left) and Barcelona’s Las Ramblas (the photos on the right) show direct differences between people and public rights of way. Determined, mechanistic crossings on the left — at 3rd and University, and Broadway and Republican — contrast with the ambiance of street life on the right. Photos like these freeze the activity in view, allowing novel dissection of everyday transactions which we otherwise take for granted.

In the American crosswalks, I see pedestrians in separate spaces, on their way to a distant elsewhere, and not part of the street they traverse. Their perpendicular disconnect with the right of way is particularly clear from my camera’s vantage point.

In Barcelona, the vantage point on a walking street merges with the activity around it. There is a unity between people and their surroundings; stares are not empty, but engaged with the adjacent place.

From thoughtful composition of one’s own, simple urban photographs, stories unfold, which both define problems and suggest solutions. But in their own experience, regardless of the imagery, some readers may prefer a crosswalk’s anonymity to the proximity (and pickpockets) of walking streets and tourist lore.

Those individual preferences make my very point. Here, rather than dictate walkability to others with my pictures, I show and tell.

However, like Orson Welles, I urge readers to think for themselves about what they see, and draw conclusions from their own vision, photos not required. Allowing for multiple perspectives about what is best in the city is a practice that I highly recommend.

 

This story first appeared in The AtlanticCities.

Charles R. (Chuck) Wolfe, is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use, environmental law and permitting. He is also an Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land use law at the graduate level. He serves on the Board of Directors of Futurewise and Seattle Great City, the Management Committee of the Urban Land Institute's (ULI) Northwest District Council and has held leadership positions for the American Planning Association and the Washington State Bar Association. Chuck is an avid traveler, photographer and writer, and contributes regularly on urban development topics for The Atlantic, The Atlantic Cities, Grist, The Huffington Post, seattlepi.com and others. His book, Urbanism Without Effort (Island Press, 2013), was released in May. He blogs regularly at myurbanist.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

i'll bet none of the streets in barcelona have names like "235th St. SW", either. i'll take the mediterranean any day, thanks.

nludd

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

This article compares apples and grapefruit. A pedestrian-oriented street that is just for walking and has no cars, is in no way similar to a street that transports pedestrians, cars and bikers. Unless the sidewalks on both sides of the shared street are wide enough to accommodate trees, benches, outoor cafes and meandering walkers, there IS no comparison. Streets with vehicular traffic AND pedestrians need crosswalks and signal lights so both vehicles and pedestrians can alternate the right of way in an orderly fashion. What a false dichotomy!

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 11:01 a.m. Inappropriate

I just checked some of my pix of Barcelona.

Las Ramblas and many other streets in Barcelona serve as pedestrian-centered corridors that connect parks ranging from grande to pocket-sized. with lots of landscaping and public art, a diversity of architecturally significant buildings ancient to starkly modern, outdoor cafes, bike lanes with bike-designated crosswalks, racks of Bicis--somewhat clunky, but cheaply rentable bikes--plazas where people gather to dance, listen to street musicians,or protest (e.g., against bullfighting, Spain's harsh austerity measures, etc.), street cafes, and numerous benches where people can sit. Are there cars in Las Ramlas? No, except at street crossings. Dogs running free? Yes, here and there as can be seen in urban parks throughout Spain.

Another curious feature of Barcelona's street layout is that at the corners of many if not most inner city blocks the buildings have diagnonal indentations that allow light penetration and space for some landscaping, perhaps a statue, a few street benches, or a small outdoor cafe. All of these things make Barcelona wonderfully walkable and break up the monotony of what could otherwise be a grindingly oppressive large city.

In contrast, Seattle has almost no parks downtown. Once upon a time Seattle briefly closed a single block of Pine Street to car traffic until Nordstrom and other businesses erupted in rage and demanded that it be reopened to cars. Westlake "Park" is a tiny triangle of what used to be a much larger chunk of publicly owned land that was sold to developers to make Westlake Center mall, which, like Pacific Place, was designed with a cookie cutter, and is a far cry from one of its Barcelona counterparts, Las Arenas, an old bullfighting arena converted into an astonishingly beautiful mall across the street from the relatively new and spacious Joan Miró Park.

We do have Occidental Park, which is a treasure, and Seattle Center, which has its weirdness, but keeps getting better, and our beloved Public Market. However, in general, downtown Seattle suffers from an inhuman scale, an astonishing array of schlock buildings that emerge from the edge of the sidewalk and tower over the street. Downtown offers relatively smooth-sailing for cars, but danger for cyclists and a not all that pleasant experience for pedestrians. This is the architectural and land use legacy that comes from a century of making poor design decisions, and we'll be stuck with it for a very long time. Right now Seattle is facing a choice over whether to keep being goody bag for developers in what's left of Westlake after Paul Allen had is way with much of the neighborhood. Will we allow Vulcan to build light and view-blocking towers there and turn the entire neighborhood into a hulking version of the souless knockoff of Portland's Pearl District? If so, we'll probably regret doing that and keep wondering why Seattle can't be as nice a place as Barcelona or Vancouver.

Mud Baby

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 11:03 a.m. Inappropriate

Kathryn posted a great critique - which I also got back when I circulated this to friends separately. Too bad that the Barcelona ramblas system of mixed vehicle and pedestrian traffic wasn't discussed instead. It's much more innovative and supportive of urban life than just talking about cross walks - sometimes mixing traffic, walking zones, and even streetcar lines.

Steady

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 12:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Walk northeast on Las Ramblas you connect with streets that look exactly like the Seattle streets pictured above. While I love Barcelona, you can't say that Las Ramblas is the norm there. Most of the city streets will look like home, with different architecture along the sides.

jd8686

Posted Tue, Feb 12, 4:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Many of the downtown streets in Barcelona are as MudBaby describes them--many blocks and cut corners have pedestrian friendly protected space between the cars and cafes. The climate doesn't hurt, but more important is that the scale is more mid-range (buildings over 10 stories are the exception and over 20, rare), nor are many of the buildings towering glass-sheathed ugly boxes. (Barcelona also has the advantage of a transit system that puts Seattle's to shame, but it is a much larger city--over 4,000,000.)

louploup

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 2:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for all of these comments...which honor Orson Welles' quotation at the beginning of the piece.

I always note how provocative headlines are good to compel these types of discussions. The Planetizen summary of the original posting is, to my mind, a good orientation for what the article is about--an inquiry into how we perceive the city, with an outright caution against adopting others' photos and an enthusiastic endorsement for determining your own reaction to visible provocation.

In the Atlantic Cites comment chain, a Polish reader said it better than I did. See:

http://www.planetizen.com/node/60646 (Using Pictures to Think About Cities)

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 4:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Claims as to the purpose, accuracy, or authorship of either headline remain clear as mud.

Anna from Poland phrased it thus:" Guys, I really understand and believe that Chuck hasn't been manipulating us by grey and colourful pictures...I'm sure that Chuck would show us such pictures if he really wanted to prove that Seattle is the greyest place on Earth. Is it?:)"

See also Gregory Bateson, 1979: "It is worthwhile to attempt a tentative recognition of certain basic presuppositions which all minds must share or, conversely, to define mind by listing a number of basic communicational characteristics. ... 3. There Is No Objective Experience. All experience is subjective. ...our brains make the images we think we 'perceive.' "

afreeman

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Though I never thought of it in quite these terms until I read Mr. Wolfe's provocative analysis -- more on his photos in a moment -- Seattle and its sister-city Tacoma are the most anti-pedestrian (and therefore anti-urban) municipalities I've ever encountered anywhere.

Indeed, after reading Mr. Wolfe's text and viewing his (telling) pictures, I now recognize Seattle/Tacoma's characteristic auto-centric selfishness -- an ethos in which each individual demands total, self-absorbed isolation in his or her worshipfully cherished automobile -- as a logical extension of the so-called Seattle Freeze, which is in fact a regional phenomenon that would be more aptly named the Pugetopolis Freeze.

I also suddenly get a glimpse of its probable source: a desperate effort by people infinitely more small-minded than the most benighted Southerners to maintain the mindset of aggressive isolation characteristic of whites invading First Nations territory. The psychodynamic equation seems to be that by maintaining such a mindset, one is able to maintain variants of the Old West/Manifest Destiny/pioneer fantasies.

As to Mr. Wolfe's pictures, I am (or rather was, before geriatric disability made it too painful to regularly carry even a single M Leica), more professional photographer (photojournalist, picture editor, social documentarian) than writer or editor. Viewing Mr. Wolfe's photos, I was instantly reminded of why I had abandoned any effort at street photography here even before a tragi-comedic disaster cost me a wonderful Chelsea apartment – the finest dwelling I will ever have – and stranded me in Bellingham in 1970. Apropos street-life in Pugetopolis, there is no "here" here. Just as Mr. Wolfe implies, local pedestrians behave as if they are isolated in automobiles and therefore insulated from anything that might be happening around them.

Worse, to attempt even the most benign sorts of street photography here is to risk assault – a condition I never encountered anywhere else, the Deep South included. Elsewhere people in public are indifferent to – or amused by – photographers and the little dance we so often do in the name of making telling pictures. Here the response is always antagonistic, usually accompanied by paranoid accusations of invasion of privacy and too often by violence, exactly as if one had provoked a psychopath. Perhaps it is that precise mental state – a kind of collective autism – which fuels the 44-year war against adequate public transport that defines the mindset of Pugetopolis.

Though I have never been in Barcelona – apart from spending quality time in Montreal during the 1960s, my overseas tourism was all in Asia courtesy of Uncle Sam – I recognize in Mr. Wolfe's pictures the same community-of-the-streets one experiences in New York City, my birthplace and, despite my many years in the Pacific Northwest, my intellectual home.

Moreover, even given my background in photography, Mr. Wolfe's pictures are uniquely compelling. Though they lack the visual geometry that transforms a snapshot into a choreography of light and shadow and thus defines it as art, I don't think I have ever seen a more definitive representation of the psychological difference between two populations: Seattle instinctively closed-minded, hostile, xenophobic, often bigoted and – yes – Ayn Rand selfish; Barcelona like Manhattan instinctively open-minded (or at least intensely curious), and beyond its normal urban reticence, definitively friendly and generous.

Not surprisingly, it is a difference described as much by policy as by behavior. I don't know anything about mass transit in Barcelona, but I would bet that, like its counterpart in New York City, it is (A) regarded as a civil right and (B) simply unimaginable to attack it as a too-expensive form of welfare. Nor can I imagine a Barcelonan arguing – as Pugetopolans now argue – that transit benefits only humans whose poverty marks them as failures and who should therefore be fatally abandoned.

Damn fine work, Mr. Wolfe. Well done. It ain't exactly art, but it sure as hell belongs on Page One.

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 7:09 p.m. Inappropriate

"I don't know anything about mass transit in Barcelona.."

Obviously. Also, this article has nothing to do with mass transit.

How can you say a region has "collective autism" when you haven't even lived here in years? I find your characterization deeply offensive.

jeffro

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 9:50 p.m. Inappropriate

For the record, I have resided in the Puget Sound area a total of 39 years and have been legally a resident and licensed driver in Washington state for nearly 43 years. From 1970 through 1982, I resided in Bellingham, Olympia, Seattle and Tacoma. I returned home to New York City in March 1983, assuming the move was forever.

But that September a mysterious fire destroyed the house near Bellingham where I had stored all my life's work preparatory to regaining a permanent address in Manhattan. Part of what was lost in the fire were the thousands of photographs and hundreds of pages of research notes for a project that began as a sociology paper in 1959 and 24 years later had evolved into a book that was attracting significant notice in Manhattan publishing circles.

Interestingly, the fire happened on the very date (1 September 1983) and indeed at the exact instant (4:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, which is the same as 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time) I was meeting with an editor and a literary agent to finalize the agreements that would have presumably led to the book's publication.

The flames also destroyed much more: a second book that existed only as notes and photos; all the reference files – a four-drawer filing cabinet full – I had assembled during my 27 years as a working journalist and/or photographer; personal journals dating to my 16th year; photos dating to my 12th year.

But the most devastating loss inflicted by the fire was that of identity and personhood: one cannot claim to be a photographer or a writer when all one has to show for one's entire life is a cloud of windblown ash. Within three years, I was clinically depressed.

Thus -- because the Manhattan that had been mine is only for those with something to offer – in 1986 I returned to Western Washington, brought back here by my ownership of a tiny bit of rural real estate.

Since everything of value had been taken from me by the fire, I assumed I would devote the rest of my life to organic gardening, trout fishing and grouse hunting, earning a living by whatever legal means might obtain. And since any attractiveness that might have been mine as a potential lover or friend had been obliterated by the same conflagration – personhood once lost is never regained – I was no longer troubled by the xenophobic hostility of the indigenous whites. Indeed it relieved me of harboring any moronic expectations of escaping the isolation inflicted by the eternal fall from somebodyness to nobodyness that was the fire's most lasting legacy.

I have been here ever since. I resided with reasonable contentment in the relative solitude of rural Western Washington until 2004. Then the initial tremors of the Bush/Obama capitalist greedquake evicted me from the snug little home I had made for myself, forced me to give up my beloved dogs and gardens and move into dogless, gardenless senior housing in the (alleged) city of Tacoma. I have dwelt in Tacoma since then; yes, I am one of those supposedly “useless” lower-income old people who are being deliberately savaged by the malicious destruction of mass transit, the atrocity dealt us by the outspokenly hateful Ayn Randite voters of Tacoma/Pierce County.

Alas, I cannot leave save via the graveyard. I am nearly 73, crippled, afflicted by a variety of other ailments, bound here by my dependence on Group Health, the best Medicare program available anywhere in the United States and to my knowledge the only genuine single-payer health-care in the entire system. Indeed I think of Group Health as the last remaining vestige of this region's former collectivist promise, a promise so strong another aspect of its story – the advent of rural agricultural communes – brought me out from Manhattan in 1970 to cover it with pictures and text.

Therefore color me "deeply offensive" to whatever extent delights the xenophobic neurons of your alleged mind; the fact remains I speak from firsthand experience of this ever-more-barbaric place.

Posted Sat, Feb 9, 6:53 a.m. Inappropriate

You don't seem to understand what you wrote is offensive:
"invasion of privacy and too often by violence, exactly as if one had provoked a psychopath. Perhaps it is that precise mental state – a kind of collective autism."

You are suggesting that a person with autism is a violent psychopath.
Do you realize how wrong that is?

When I moved here (from New York I might add), I was pleasantly surprised that vehicles commonly stop for pedestrians. In fact, the first time I encountered this was while walking on the B-G trail in North Seattle when a woman sat smoking a cigarette in her convertible waiting for me to cross.
Several times I've gone back to visit NY and almost been hit. Cars don't stop for people unless there is a red light making them do so and they're quick to lay on the horn to let you know how wrong you are.

You can argue the inadequacies of mass transit all you want, but from a pedestrian perspective--NY is not better than Seattle. Sorry.

jeffro

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 11:04 p.m. Inappropriate

"collective autism"? At best, this is a misdirected stereotypical and ignorant comment. At worst, it makes you a grade-a jerkwad and invalidates everything you were blathering on about.

Were one of the four photos selected to represent my autistic son, it would be one of the ones on the right, he is a boisterous, loving, cuddly, engaging child. Not all autistic children exhibit the sort of emotional detachment and preference to a "bubble-like" solitude that you were going for. Before you try to make a comment that would be considered bigoted or phobic or sexist or ageist if you'd made a generalization about some trait other than a mental predisposition, make sure you fully understand the condition before you malign an entire group of people for the sake of a cheap shortcut to support a poorly constructed argument.

Makes me question this "newspaper" that they would select your offensive quote as an editor's pick.

tvjames

Posted Thu, Feb 14, 1:21 p.m. Inappropriate

From the Mayo Clinic website, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/autism/DS00348/DSECTION=symptoms, text by Mayo Clinic staff:

"Children with autism generally have problems in three crucial areas of development — social interaction, language and behavior. But because autism symptoms and severity vary greatly, two children with the same diagnosis may act quite differently and have strikingly different skills. In most cases, though, children with severe autism have marked impairments or a complete inability to communicate or interact with other people" (emphasis added).

The comparable impairments of the indigenous people of Pugetopilis also "vary greatly" – the unintentional yet unavoidable cruelty of clinical and/or sociological generalizations notwithstanding. For example, some locals – as long as it does not inconvenience them – even pretend a certain superficial friendliness to those of us considered "outlanders."

But to experience the ugly truth of this region's archetypal personality – and in this instance it does not matter whether one is an outlander or locally born and raised – try to cross a busy street at any of the innumerable legal crosswalks that chronically miserly voters guarantee will never be regulated by traffic lights.

Maybe nine out of 10 motorists defiantly refuse to stop, even for those of us who are elderly or obviously crippled (I am both). A few motorists, maybe one in 30, will deliberately aim their cars at us, blowing their horns and revving their engines to drive us back onto the sidewalks.

Trying to cross Sixth Avenue in Tacoma yesterday, my odds were somewhat worse than usual. I counted 17 cars that refused to stop, most of them big shiny gas-hog SUVs with single occupants. The 18th vehicle was a pickup truck driven by a young woman, who not only stopped and motioned me across but elegantly lifted a middle finger at the raging horn-blower in the luxury sedan just behind her. I thanked her with a smile and a tip of my hat; without her courtesy and daring, I'd have missed my bus.

But the most telling difference between here and elsewhere is the way we pedestrians are cursed as parasites: "hurry up and die" or "get a car" or even "get a job you fucking bum" – in other words, the selfsame auto-centric Ayn Rand hatefulness expressed by the 2011 and 2012 anti-transit-user votes, the most recent atrocities in the region's 45-year war against adequate transit and those of us who might be dependent on it.

In which context, I'll grant you “collective autism” was probably a poor choice of metaphors. What's necessary is something much stronger: how about “collective moral imbecility” instead?

Posted Fri, Feb 8, 6:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Rather than consider based on the hard facts of the use of the compared streetscapes, I prefer to ponder that maybe many more all way red lights for cars so pedestrians can cross any which way they want might be a nice thing. It would certainly reduce the right turn/left turn danger and frustration, and might let people on foot step outside of that aisle nudged by cars.

Posted Sat, Feb 9, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

The character of use of ny pedestrian space depends on physical and cultural context. Las Ramblas in Barcelona is a singular linear open space that cuts through a high [residential] density quarter that reflects its origins in the Middle Ages. Because the openness of Las Ramblas is unique in this quarter, it draws pedestrians from the adjacent high-density areas. Looked at the other way around, the high density areas feed pedestrians into this singular linear open space. In contrast, the pedestrian crossings in Seattle reflect the downtown street grid of comparatively equal streets in an American central business district developed in the twentieth century.

A fairer comparison would be to look at crosswalk conditions in outlying neighborhoods in Barcelona and crosswalk conditions in outlying neighborhoods in Seattle.

Mr. Wolfe says the images make his point. What that point is, exactly, is not very clear. What is clear is that the contexts that shape his images are not at all comparable and, therefore, one should expect the activities one sees in the public realm to be different, reflecting the distinct context of each.

Seattle is not Barcelona. Barcelona is not Seattle. QED.

Posted Sat, Feb 9, 11:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Jeffrey, I always enjoy your pointed comments and their melodic tone. Context is indeed everything as noted in your first paragraph, and perhaps this piece should better characterized for what it clearly says: Don't rely on others' photos and learn the city for yourself, something that you have shown us how to do in your many publications. To the degree this is a comparison, it is a qualitative comparison of street life, not a reductionist suggestion that Broadway or Third and Union are the likes of Las Ramblas.

Posted Sat, Feb 9, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Las Ramblas and other European boulevards and plazas are part of a lifestyle where people get out in the evening to stroll and socialize casually. I'd love to have more pedestrian areas in Seattle where one could enjoy community without having to attend a performance or visit a pub. Sometimes, I go to the University Village just to enjoy the activity and walk outside at night.

Posted Mon, Feb 11, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

As other commenters have pointed out, this article misleads in several ways. The title, for example, suggests that the article has crosswalks in 2 different cities as its subject. Yet the "crosswalk" in Barcelona turns out to be Las Ramblas, which is no crosswalk at all but a pedestrian boulevard. So, of course, one might find dancing and protesting and the hawking of wares in such a car-free zone, whereas in a proper 'crosswalk' such activities could hardly take place except intermittently or while a special permit is in force keeping the perpendicular auto traffic to a minimum. Given that Las Ramblas is like a long island surrounded by streets along both sides, it too has proper crosswalks allowing pedestrians to cross said streets to the sidewalks fronting stores and restaurants that face Las Ramblas on 2 sides. To avoid the 'apples and oranges' criticism, the author should have photographed pedestrians crossing at some of these crosswalks. But then the visual contrasts--and, I guess, the point he's is trying to make--would not be so apparent.

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