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Homeless youth and public space: Is there a design for that?

The transformation of the U District by Sound Transit poses a challenge for planners.

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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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Comments:

Posted Wed, May 28, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

There should be safe, comfortable, welcoming places for all members of a community to gather, from office workers to students to homeless people. I think that it is important to really think about why there is such resistance to providing space for homeless people to congregate, though. What is it that the employed, the students and the property owners are worried about? Is it homelessness itself, or is it some of the behaviors and activities associated with it?

How do you design a public space where all users feel comfortable using it? How do you make sure that the people coming out for lunch on a sunny day have a place to sit and enjoy the weather? How do you make sure that the environment is clean? How do you keep all of the members of the community, including the homeless, keep from feeling harassed while they are peacefully enjoying the space? An office worker or student should be able to enjoy the park without being asked for money, and a homeless person should be able to enjoy it without being told to move along by security or the police just because they are loitering.

There is room for everyone to enjoy the city's public spaces, but only if we respect each other's ability to peacefully enjoy it.

talisker

Posted Wed, May 28, 8:47 a.m. Inappropriate

The problem I see is that the proposed benefits of changes being made to the U District will benefit only those who live there, because it's already difficult to get there by car and super expensive to park if a spot can be found (unless shopping at U Bookstore, but then a purchase or payment is required). This appears to be the plan throughout the city; if you live in X neighborhood you may or may not reap some benefits, but it's going to be hard to leave the neighborhood to visit another because of traffic on the way (despite all the fabulous transit and trains and bike lanes, which it appears people are fonder of in theory than in practice) and no or absurdly expensive parking on arrival. Kind of Balkanizing the city into enclaves that may or may not be attractive to those who can afford to live there but which figuratively tell everyone else "Stay out."

Also notable is that both parts of this article appear to assume that youth and others will continue to remain homeless. I think that's probably accurate, but what about all the taxes we've paid and are paying to end homelessness by ___you add the year? Perhaps the developers can be forced to pay for or build at no public expense a colony of units for the homeless as part of the requirements for getting permits to build the towers of rat warrens they plan to create. That would conveniently house the homeless and remove them from these fabulous new neighborhoods where everyone will want to live and bike and walk and take trains...

OK, I'm going to reel myself in. The point is that we are breaking Seattle into little islands that are difficult to visit -- and after they're built out, maybe we won't want to, anyway -- without a detectable plan for some kind of overall coherence. That's common in places like NYC and LA, but I've liked Seattle for skipping that piece of things and being someplace where we can enjoy a lot of different kinds of people and places within easy reach and easy travel. That's almost gone. I was in the U District in January and probably won't go back as it was miserable to drive through and unpleasant to be in. And just when I thought I was going to get out relatively easy I ran into the street closure on 43rd between the Ave and Brooklyn. I used to enjoy an afternoon strolling around and poking into unique businesses there; I regret it's no longer possible.

mspat

Posted Wed, May 28, 11:48 a.m. Inappropriate

But those little islands are integral to the idea of reducing SOV traffic in the city. If a neighborhood resident has everything they need in their neighborhood then they don't have much reason to go to another for pretty much the same services. Reducing the ease of going somewhere and finding parking helps to get cars off the road, making more room for buses, bikes and pedestrians. The city's stated goal is to reduce traffic lanes and parking to discourage SOV use. One of the ways that they can do that is to promote development in neighborhoods that reduces the desire to travel to others.

I'm only being a little sarcastic.

talisker

Posted Wed, May 28, 10 p.m. Inappropriate

" I'm only being a little sarcastic."

Assuming that is the case, how about explaining this to me: globally smart NYC is rapidly replacing the neighborhood gems "that reduce the desire to travel to others" with chains and FroYos — a new heartbreaker posted just about any day here: http://vanishingnewyork.blogspot.com/

So, how is it that NYC emulating Seattle thinks any TOD capable of sprouting a single neighborhood gem, let alone a "complete community" of them? Two trains passing in the night?

afreeman

Posted Wed, May 28, 9:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Everyone from homeless youth to gentrifying residents would benefit from improved and proactive policing of the U District. I am sick of walking down the Ave and neighboring streets north of 45th and viewing police officers sitting on their butts in their squad cars doodling on their computers while at the same time in plain view there are good-for-nothings (not homeless youth but twenty-somethings) offering me drugs and taking drugs. The idea that improved Urban design would somehow make up for our inept city government and lack of collective willpower is ridiculous. I avoid the U District not because of its homeless youth but because it is an unpleasant place to be in the day and dangerous at night. Why do we need a Light Rail station or a urban plaza to fix that?

WSDW

Posted Thu, May 29, 9:08 a.m. Inappropriate

And how could a train station or an urban plaza fix it? I can't think of any realistic answer to that, either. The truth is that neither will fix the issues in the U District. As with other areas, at best/worst it will push the homeless youth and others neighbors deem "undesirable" out to another area until the tenements and trains reach them again.

mspat

Posted Thu, May 29, 10:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I say: Look at Harvard Square. Whenever I return to my city-of-origin I invariably find a path to spend some time walking there. It's home to Harvard, and is also teeming with every sort of person. There is every language spoken, there are rich and poor, and always both wealthy and homeless youth mingling together, sharing the public spaces. It's gritty still, and ruled by jaywalkers (which is I think why Boston was rated the safest city for pedestrians in the US this year), and its buildings are old, new and evolving rather than planned, pristine and uniform.

Part of the success is the confluence of transit and pedestrian attractions there; part is the careful attention (generations ago) to providing fantastic public spaces. Part is the maze of old, historic buildings and streets, and I'm guessing there also needs to be a horde of social service workers tending to the homeless and mentally ill. But overall it's a story of gentrification that's remained tolerant of the gritty city underneath. It keeps me coming back in a way the U District doesn't - but could.

Posted Fri, May 30, 7:49 a.m. Inappropriate

As to closing off two long blocks to cars, as proposed, where does it work? Anywhere some except extremely high density areas.
It's a theory which has failed. (The theory is that people are repelled by slow-moving vehicles and attracted to empty spaces.)

Think empirically. Forget theory. Where has it worked?

There are very very few places where closing streets to cars has actually worked.
There are some but few; many attempts have been - no pun - rolled back.

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