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Tactical Urbanism: Seattle Streets Grow With the Flow

By Wendy K Leigh

They say that everything is set in stone when it comes to government agencies – but Seattle’s Department of Transportation (DOT) is going the extra mile to make sure nothing falls through the cracks as the city continually expands. With at least 50,000 new residents settling in Seattle between 2010 and 2015, the word “adaptive” takes on multi-tiered meaning and gets tossed around like a ball nobody wants to slam-dunk for fear of where it may land. But the DOT has decided that baby steps are better than no steps at all, leading to programs such as Adaptive Streets, which includes the Pavement to Parks and Tactical Urbanism projects.

Pavement to Parks reclaims underused public street space in Seattle and repurposes it into pedestrian-friendly, active neighborhood zones that foster a sense of community while also giving streets a major facelift through very minor changes.

“We’ve worked extensively with neighborhood community groups to develop these projects in ways that reflect the character of their neighborhoods while providing useable public open spaces,” explains David Bergesser, a planning and development specialist with the City of Seattle.

The basic concept is to transform existing street rights-of-way that serve little purpose, using simple, low-cost, temporary materials such as paint, outdoor furniture, murals and shade (or rain) umbrellas. Maintenance is the responsibility of community hosts who partner with the city, and can include keeping the areas clean, managing vegetation and protecting amenities from vandalism or theft. Most furniture is secured (subtly) with chains or other anti-theft devices.

Since its inception in 2015, projects have transformed prior parking spots into “parklets,” cordoning them off with paint, pavers or other structures. Others take slim sections of actual streets and place tables and chairs where anyone can rest, gather, read or join others for a game of cards or dominoes.

Before and after, Pavement to Parks project in Seattle. All photos courtesy of City of Seattle.

Before and after, Pavement to Parks project in Seattle. All photos courtesy of City of Seattle.

Six projects are complete to date, including ones in First Hill at University Street, East Union and Boylston Avenue; Taylor Avenue in Belltown; 17th Avenue Northwest in Ballard; Phinney Avenue in Phinney Ridge; and another one in First Hill at 9th and University Street. An elaborate community-designed street mural (literally on the concrete) splashes color and culture on South Genesee Street in Rainier Vista.

“We also have two additional Pavement to Parks projects and 11 tactical projects (safety and mobility improvements) that are now in the pipeline,” states Burgesser.

A major factor in the success of the reutilized Pavements to Parks spaces is the quick-build, temporary approach. Because the cost is minimal and maintenance is shared, it’s much easier to gain approval and to get a project started. It also gives both public officials and community members a chance to see what works, what doesn’t, and what needs refining before anything becomes permanent.

Tactical Urbanism is a twist on the concept, because it adds the element of safety and mobility for pedestrians. These projects can range from adaptive sidewalks, which repurpose portions of a street to extend existing sidewalks, to brightly painted curb bulbs, traffic circles, crossing islands and intersection diverters.

Pavement to Park project in First Hill, Seattle.

Pavement to Park project in First Hill, Seattle.

Street colors play an important part in delineating the public projects from existing street space. Some are dedicated colors that indicate specific uses, such as bright red for bus lanes, and grasshopper green and white for bike facilities. Other areas give creative leeway for neighborhoods to reflect their own history and culture, including the multi-colored rainbow stripes on crosswalks in Capitol Hill.

So if you’ve wondered about the splashy new colors popping up beneath your feet lately, now you know who’s stirring the pot – and why. Expansion doesn’t have to mean eradication of a city’s personality, and Burgesser stresses that Adaptive Streets is designed to blend with the existing character of each neighborhood. Individuals, community groups and businesses are all invited to give suggestions about potential locations for the future.