Views vs. Streetscapes

There is much ado in Seattle these days about the South Lake Union Rezone. Even though the city doesn’t officially protect private views the political pressure on City Council to preserve views of Lake Union and the Space Needle is huge.

Here’s a land planner joke for you:

Q: What does a city look like if it preserves everyone’s private view of every body of water and major landmark building, (especially if it’s a city with as much water as Seattle)?

A: That’s not a city, that’s a village!

Being in Hong Kong makes me acutely aware of Seattle’s need to grow up and redifine what it means to be a city. A city does not terrasse every building down to every body of water. If Hong Kong followed that rule of thumb and then kept filling in the harbor, why buildings by the water would–by now– be only 3 inches tall. Instead there is this:

By gum, they're really big!

Arguably one of the most spectacular waterfronts in the world. New rows of buildings, as tall–nay, taller– than the ones behind. Great public spaces along the water on the Kowloon side and waterfront parks on the Hong Kong side. Seattle is a far cry from ever being this tall or compact, but Hong Kong provides a great example of a city that has foresworn “little boxes on the hillside” and still delights the eye at every turn.

What? you ask, agahst? How can the eye be delighted without a view? How can you know where you are without the Space Needle?

Easy. It’s the streetscape.

It’s the part of the city that breathes life. That is human. That teems and undulates and varies and layers itself over time. Hong Kong has a streetscape that is as rich as it’s buildings are tall.

It’s no accident. Tall buildings (all tall, not just the ones far away from the waterfront and the space needle) make this streetscape possible.

The huge podiums of some of the newer developments in Central do a disservice by privatising (and ultimately eliminating) the networks of small streets that support a rich and random pedestrian experience, but most of the city has avoided this type of redevelopment and has small streets with shops on the ground floor, upstairs and even on the pavement outside. 

This is what makes downtown Hong Kong and Kowloon so lovable and livable. This is what makes me go up and down the same block two or three times and still see new things. This is the type of aesthetic richness that Seattle can aspire to if it grows up and sets aside some of its preoccupation with views. We have the entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity in the Northwest to create this intense sort of palate and sense of place if we can allow ourselves the builing heights to support it.

We must try. The economy is growing again, and Seattle’s more so than the rest of the country. People and jobs are coming, and if South Lake Union doesn’t take its logical share, then certainly Greenwood, Laurelhurst and Beacon Hill will push back even harder knowing they have a precedent. If we chicken out from urbanism in South Lake Union we have not missed an opportunity in one neighborhood, we have missed an opportunity for our region.

As I walked around yesterday, blissfully absorbed in the sights and smells of this huge huge city that I immediately loved, I found myself putting together this little ditty:

Everywhere, things catch pedestrian eyes. Everywhere suprise and delight. Banyan trees, courtyards, egg-tarts and chai, and nary a Space Needle in sight.

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About aphurd

better cities...better planet.
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