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The city encourages what is called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). That is, designing open spaces that have good sightlines and public access as a way to maximize the community's "eyes on the park," the concept, espoused by author and urban activist Jane Jacobs, about what makes a public space filled with strangers work. Key elements include good lighting, see-through fencing, windows of surrounding buildings affording views into the parks and creating a space in which everyone has a presence so that it doesn't get dominated by one element to the excusion of other users.
One compelling aspect of the U District Square concept is, because of the light rail component, everyone will be using the space anyway. Offices, housing and retail are already adjacent with many more on the way. An alleyway with a teriyaki shop could help extend the square's connection to adjacent establishments by encouraging other alley businesses and connecting to restaurants along 43rd and the Ave. The square's location at the light rail station site at 43rd and Brooklyn would likely make it a major U District crossroads and hangout. In other words, there would be plenty of eyes on the square, and lots of reasons for lots of people to "activate" the space on a nearly continuous, 24/7 basis.
There is discussion too of developing smaller pocket parks in the neighborhood, and of converting some of the alleyways to what the city calls “Festival Streets"; that is, road or alleys that can be shut down periodically for other uses and to boost activity and adjacent development. Festival Streets exist in Pioneer Square and near the Beacon Hill light rail station (Nord Alley behind Crosscut’s offices was the first so designated). Some people are concerned that these alley clean-ups will conflict with current uses. Some social service programs have their entrances in U District alleyways. Is a Festival Street compatible with a needle exchange? Will the alleys gentrify?
The issue isn’t that the District’s alleys couldn’t or shouldn't be made more habitable. The issue is that, in the end, the alleys should still serve the broader community.
Lynne Manzo is an associate professor of landscape architecture at the UW and an environmental psychologist. She has studied how people connect with places. “The kids in the District might have a broader idea of home because they are not housed,” she says. The neighborhood is, in effect, their household, and therefore has meaning to them.
She suggests that neighborhood planners flip the conventional, exclusionary thinking and look at the positive. Why not, for example, consider street kids a neighborhood resource — even a “catalyst for neighborhood stewardship.” Looking at homeless youth as a community asset could help engage them and inspire designers to generate new ideas. Instead of focusing on the problem of mental illness, for example, focus instead on what people need to thrive. What can we learn from the creation of street communities? What can they teach us?
From the standpoint of teaching the next generation of landscape designers, Manzo says the environments they shape will have a huge impact on us for years to come, and that the values and awareness that go into those designs are critical. She worries over attitudes about the homeless she sometimes encounters from a few students in her classes, a kind of old-school knee-jerk “get a job” mentality without much empathy or understanding, let alone a sense that people who are different haven’t given up their right to belong somewhere.
Manzo has also observed a bias in planning. This takes the form of an assumpton that if we just expose poor people to good old American middle class values, they will be uplifted by osmosis. That is often the assumed benefit of mixed-income communities like Rainier Vista or New Holly.Manzo commonly hears this reasoning at professional design conferences. She posits that we don’t take account of the positive values already present in low income communities — hard work, family bonds. Is simply inculcating people with suburban, middle class values supposed to cure poverty? “We need to teach and celebrate tolerance before diversity,” says Manzo, and that involves democratizing the design process by getting more people and viewpoints to the table.
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