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.
Crosscut archive image.

Activist Corey Crocker wants parklets included in the U District makeover. Credit: Allyce Andrew

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

The coming boom spurred by a new Sound Transit light rail station and a possible rezone of the University District for transit-oriented development poses some interesting challenges. Here's one: With density and possible gentrification in the offing, can inclusive public spaces such as parks and plazas be part of the plans? Or will efforts to include public space be derailed by the mad desire for density and worries about abetting the District’s homeless youth population?

One much-discussed concept to add open space is the U District Square proposal. A group of architects and university residents wants to close off Brooklyn Ave. at the new light rail station and turn it into a public plaza. Their concept drawings show a two-block stretch alongside University Tower (and between 45th NE and 43rd NE) that would be closed to most traffic and host a variety of community-building activities, including the neighborhood's farmer's market. The space would feature trees, benches and an area for outdoor concerts or films. Some of the plaza would be taken up by the large entrances to the underground station, but the plan's proponents say these surface eyesores could be incorporated into their concept.

Brooklyn has already been declared a city Green Street. As it is, the street sees a lot of bike commuters. Cory Crocker, president of U District Advocates, sees the U District Square as a potential catalyst for community. Crocker is a web designer who got his master's degree in arhcitecture from the UW. Advocates like him are all for density, but the coming tidal wave of growth adds urgency, they say, to the need for a centrally located, active civic open space in the heart of the District. A "heart" is what the late Philip Thiel, longtime UW architecture professor and advocate of the square, always said the U District needed.

Crocker's group is also involved with a proposed a parklet for 43rd Street between the Ave and Brooklyn. That segment has been closed-off for station construction. The parklet would fulfill two important urban functions: It would boost business to the adjacent restaurants and shops by drawing people to an attractive open spot on the street, and it would serve as a kind of test for the more ambitious square idea. The parklet is part of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s parklet pilot program. According to Crocker, there has already been pushback from locals who fear the small park will become "overrun"  by the homeless.

The U District has wrestled with its public streets and walkways for decades. The Ave. underwent a major re-do in the late 1990s which widened its sidewalks and greened the street, and proposals for improving and urbanizing the neighborhood go way back. The advent of University Village in the 1950s alarmed the District's business community, which feared that the new retail hub would siphon the life out of it. UW architect and urban activist Victor Steinbruek proposed turning the Ave. into a semi-covered pedestrian mall and putting a neighborhood farmer’s market there — in 1955. U Village, which has undergone dramatic expansion in recent years, offers an upscale, car-centric shopping experience, in counterpoint to the District’s more urban Ave. Some believe that the success of U Village has only exacerbated the commercial district’s economic and social challenges.

Crosscut archive image.

The late Victor Steinbrueck imagined University Ave. as a bustling pedestrian mall. Credit: Victor Steinbrueck

From the standpoint of designing any urban open space, the stance toward the homeless population tends to be defensive, to say the least. Many park designs are downright hostile: unsittable seats, fences, hard surfaces, security cameras. Recently, a colleague sketched for me a new downtown development which will include a corner park or plaza next to new high-rises. Another man who lives near the proposed development looked at the napkin doodle and said: "Great. How do you keep the homeless out?"

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.

In the face of impending change, Shilo Murphy, a formerly homeless "Ave. Rat" who runs the District’s needle exchange, echoes those sentiments. “The biggest problem is not to acknowledge that homeless people are residents of the neighborhood and have the world to give this place," he says. "If you shut the door on people like me, you shut the door on people who want to better lives in this neighborhood.”

Kristine Cunningham, executive director of the youth shelter ROOTS, finds incredible optimism and resourcefulness among many of the young people her organization shelters and feeds. Life on the streets forces homeless youth to create their own opportunities. Many see themselves as entrepreneurs who run, or want to run their own businesses. But this younger generation also thinks communally, says Cunningham. They know they need others to get ahead.

Murphy sums it up by explaining that street youth tend to fall into one of two political camps: They are either “socialist” — wanting the government to do more — or “libertarian,” self-reliant sorts who want the freedom to make their own way. In either case, most are motivated by a desire to improve their lives.

Jim Nicholls is a senior lecturer at the UW’s Department of Built Environments. He has worked on public and private projects here and in Canada. He worries about the impact of District development on the homeless, which he believes will pressure them eventually to move along. Nicholls predicts that coming gentrification will also be hard on the tier of cash-strapped young people — students and non-students — who rely on cheap basement or attic rents. “It’s going to be really tough,” he says. “Where are they going to go?”

Nicholls sites three criteria for good planning and design. One is “inclusivity," he says, "and the U District is a place to do that.” Another criterion is “resilience,” meaning design that demonstrates best practices over the long term, a kind of sustainable sustainability, if you will. Instead of striving simply for “livable” communities, he advocates raising the bar to make communities “lovable.”

Crosscut archive image.Nicholls points to Chapel on the Ave, a Christian ministry run by Trinity Lutheran Church. It features a deep, recessed front porch facing the Ave. between NE 42nd  and 41st. A food vendor rents the space by day and sells soft drinks and $2 hotdogs. At night, from 11pm to 8 am, the porch is a sleeping space for up to a dozen or so homeless. A list of rules for overnighters is posted in the window (e.g., no drugs or alcohol).

“It’s the most civic space in the city in some ways,” says Nicholls, who also points to a community center he’s visited in Copenhagen. The box-like building sits on stilts, which creates a dry, sheltered space underneath. While kids attend dance classes above, old men enjoy an unofficial haven below where they can socialize without disturbing others.

Another idea Nicholls shares in a recent email: Why not public "street lockers" for the homeless? "Places for bedding and packs ... currently those living on the street stash their stuff in empty newspaper kiosks, between dumpsters." Having a safe place to store one's worldly possessions during the day would be a real help.

Could progressive Seattle encourage this kind of inclusivity in its design guidelines? Would private developers take the risk of building this way?

Nicholls' third criterion is “authenticity,” which cannot be fabricated. The U District, he says, has plenty of authenticity. The notion of turning it into a tech hub, a la South Lake Union, reminds Nicholls of the TV commercial for Cadillac which touts the brilliant enterprises that trace their origins to garages: Apple, Hewlett-Packard, the Ramones, Disney. Instead of manufacturing new spaces for that purpose, he says, “maybe we should try and capture the real garages before they disappear.”

“The best designs,” Nicholls says, happen “when you have contradicting criteria.” The dissonance forces you to think, to get creative, to get real. You can’t be generic. By that standard, the new U District makeover presents a terrific opportunity for the city, urban planners and the U District community, including the homeless and their advocates.

“I hope it doesn’t become a demonstration project for the broken social contract,” says Nicholls. Inviting homeless youth and their advocates into the design process as the neighborhood charts its new course would be a very positive way to demonstrate just the opposite.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.