The West

Observations from Seattle, Washington – where I attended the 25th Congress for New Urbanism.

  • Buses everywhere – Immediately upon landing in Seattle I was surrounded by a wealth of transit options. The Link light rail connected the airport to downtown and several intermediate points. However, the real surprise was the sheer quantity of bus transit. King County Metro operates the majority of bus service in the city. They operate a mixed fleet of diesel, hybrid, articulated, and trolleybuses. In the course of four days, I got around Seattle exclusively on foot, bus, streetcar, and light rail using the handy Orca Card for payments on each system.
  • Bike paradise – Once we exited the light rail station in Capitol Hill, we saw the first of several cycle tracks that the city of Seattle has installed. Each light rail station had two maps: a network map which showed your place on the rail line and a bicycle facility map which indicated the various bicycle facilities on the street network. 
  • It’s bigger on the inside – The enigmatic spaces around Pikes Place Market seemed to grow as we explored them. The famous market is much more than a couple of dudes pitching a salmon around for tourists. The 6-story building connects downtown Seattle to the waterfront through a series of winding, somewhat disorienting corridors. The alleys outside of Pikes Place also host a variety of businesses – including two restaurants I patronized for lunch. 
  • Rules of enclosure – Intimate public spaces such as Occidental Square showcase the importance of good urban form to creating useful public space. When I visited the square and the adjacent pedestrian street, a huge variety of people from all walks of life were utilizing the space. Kudos to the Seattle parks department for mixing active uses (basketball hoops, ping pong & foosball tables) passive uses (a violin player, cafe chairs & tables, benches, walking pathways), and food in delightful proportions. 
  • The Region of Boom – My college classmate told me that Seattle was in the midst of a construction surge. Indeed, wherever I looked I saw a crane (or three). The parcel of land next to his apartment was a case-in-point. On a space that appeared to be roughly 5 acres he said another 250 apartments would soon be available. The rapid pace of development has provided a crash course in urban planning for many locals. I found that Seattleites were very well informed about civic issues regarding housing affordability, public transit, and the environment.

Observations from Joseph, Oregon – where I visited my sister in-law’s family.

  • It’s bigger on the outside – The charming town of Joseph is completely overwhelmed by a vast expanse of wilderness. To the south, Lake Joseph provides a mirror to the mountains and the moraine. To the west, Mount Joe and the Wallowa range create a formidable wall. To the east, the immense Zumwalt prairie and agricultural lands extend practically as far as the eye can see. On a clear day we spotted the “seven devils” in nearby Idaho. In spite of the relative compactness of Joseph, I spent more time exploring the prairie, moraine, lake and valleys than the shops.

  • Isolation without deprivation – Even though the town feels like it’s located at the edge of the earth,  we could easily walk to a grocery store, two cafes, a diner, the post office, and a dozen other shops. Ironically, the rental car that I used to drive from Seattle to Joseph sat parked from the moment we arrived until we left to catch our flight back home. In addition to the local retailers, it was obvious that internet retailers were essential to keeping the household stocked with sundry goods that were hard to come by in the area.
  • A sense of safety – It is easy to imagine so-called ‘free range children’ in a town like Joseph. The single state highway that bisects the city may present the only meaningful barrier to kids who play on quiet gravel streets and empty lots.  Indeed, during our brief stay, we happened to run into acquaintances of our hosts practically every time we left the house. These loose social networks are the perfect catalyst to creating towns that are safe for children, adults, and the elderly.