New Urbanism is a now-popular approach to development which, on paper, promotes walkable neighborhoods, green buildings and city planning with a humanist edge. In Seattle’s South Lake Union, it stretches up between the sidewalks and underneath the entire neighborhood like a massive organism. If you dug up the corners, you could fold Seattle’s South Lake Union into a rucksack. There, Urbanism buzzes during the Amazon.com lunchtime hour and huddles into warm street-side cafes at night. It does its work like the dentist with the drill, scraping out the incongruous parts of town and filling those cavities with crystalline high-rises. Through history, booming cities have branded themselves in order to remind future generations of their story: Carthage had a massive port. Germany had an ideological wall. We are living in a time when a Golden Age of New Urbanism is redrawing the Pacific Northwest.
The Edge of Innovation
Universities from around the world compete at the bi-annual Solar Decathlon to design environmentally-friendly and inventive affordable housing. Annaliese Miller was a Business and Applied Mathematics major at Washington State University. In 2017, she led the engineering of WSU’s Solar Decathlon project, called EnCity. Miller’s team built energy systems that collected sunlight and wind energy to power the house. They designed rainwater capture basins that treated water for re-use in toilets and other non-drinking water. EnCity’s unique design centered around a super-fancy shared community space that housed the only television, stovetop, and large collection of common appliances.
EnCity, says Miller, “helped design how young families just starting out could live affordably and sustainably in growing Pacific Northwest cities, like Spokane and Seattle.” EnCity never actually made it to Washington D.C. for the Solar Decathlon competition due to budgeting constraints, but Miller still loved the experience. It provided her with a vision of urbanism to take into the world and the next stage of her life. Miller spoke with DOPE from Namibia where she has joined the Peace Corp and helps instruct local entrepreneurs in how to start businesses to solve local challenges.
“We are living in a special time, when a Golden Age is redrawing the Pacific Northwest.”
In 2004, the city of Seattle introduced a comprehensive plan for a city’s urban transformation, though similar plans have failed in the past. For example, in the mid 90’s, the late Paul Allen purchased $20 million worth of land to build the Seattle Commons, a massive park space inspired by New York City’s Central Park. Proposals were defeated twice before the plan was ultimately scrapped. The scraps of the Seattle Commons plan became the seedbed for the downtown campus of a little company called Amazon.
South Lake Union has developed into a lively neighborhood, busy with a mix of residents, daytime employees, and visitors. It’s a celebration of urbanism: the sunlight is measured, the rain is captured for treatment, noise does not bleed from the boulevards over and into the neighborhood roads. Every element is measured according to the principles of urbanism as they are set forth in the textbooks. That gritty and sleepless Seattle of the 90’s was caged in Belltown to count down days until redevelopment.
Famous Seattle music spots El Corazon —the last place where Kurt Cobain was seen alive — and The Crocodile are bastions of old Seattle. They’re situated just outside of the Eastern and Southernmost limits of South Lake Union, respectively. Thursday through Sunday, crowds pack in to turn up the gritty Seattle rock like it was yesterday. Then they drive home 20 or 30 minutes south. Urbanism promises a better future for everyone, but some people seem to be left out. Often, those excluded from the fruits of Urbanism are the poor, both before and after redevelopment. Maybe history forgets those people or says they all died out like dinosaurs after the ‘90s. When Seattle looks in the mirror, it has two different faces. Everything that glitters ain’t gold.
Portland’s Riverside Renaissance
Portland’s South Waterfront (SoWa) is a 130-acre site south of downtown, butted up against the west shore of the Willamette River. For years, this area was a brownfield: land where industry had sapped the earth of nutrients and purged the natural ecosystem. Brownfield development suits urbanism because green buildings can restore natural environments over time. City governments are often willing to incentivize the sale and taxation of brownfield developments since the land is otherwise worthless.
Planning for SoWa began in the early 2000s when Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) approached the city with interest in a large expansion down from their hilltop campus. Director of the South Waterfront’s Community Relations, Peter Collins, explained that urbanism provided the city with a methodology for integrating OHSU’s expansion into a larger plan that could address some of the problems more generally facing the city.
SoWa addresses Portland’s specific challenges by providing development space south of downtown, more jobs, and public-transport friendly accommodation for a growing population. By 2035, SoWa expects to add 5,100 new households and 11,200 jobs. Oregon was not recognized by LEED as a top 10 city for environmental leadership (Washington was), but nobody can blame the South Waterfront. SoWa has the largest concentration of LEED-certified high-rises in America as well as OHSU Center for Health and Healing, the world’s first LEED Platinum certified Medical Building.
Portland has long abused the Willamette, so SoWa’s developers levied its position south of the city to construct a healing gateway that cleans river water as it flows out of Portland’s downtown. Atop each of SoWa’s buildings, green-roofs capture and funnel acidic rainwater into ground-level bioswales, artificial swamps that purify water before releasing into the Willamette. Populations of native animals such as Bald Eagles and Chinook Salmon are rebounding as a result of SoWa’s targeted efforts.
Peter Collins expressed that the South Waterfront needs a defining piece of art. He mentioned artists famous for large-scale sculpture work, like Alexander Caulder, Claes Oldenburg, and Richard Serra. A beacon, like the ancient 100-meter Lighthouse of Alexandria or the famous Jelly Bean in Chicago’s Millennium Park, tells the world you are — and, later, were — here. Monuments freeze a moment in time, during which a culture transcends its past — like thank u, next — and there is no greater hope for urbanism but to mark the time in history when humanity transitioned from the destroyers of earth to its caretakers.