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C200: Unearthing Neighborhood Assets

2011 March 18
by Lesley Bain

< Gilman Gardens in Seattle's Queen Ann neighborhood; photo: Lesley Bain >

Great cities come from visions of all sizes. Some of the best places are at the neighborhood scale, where an idea can come to fruition with lots of energy and persistence. Gilman Gardens, on the west side of Queen Anne hill, is one of those places. With vegetables, flowers, a picnic table and a basket for sharing, it’s clearly a place that is loved.

Charlie Hoselton saw an opportunity in the neglected median strips along Gilman Drive West. With apartments and condos nearby, plenty of people needed a place to grow things and spend time out-of-doors.

So how do you turn an unneeded piece of the street into a  community-run garden? Get the permit first, says Charlie. Seattle’s Department of Transportation oversees the enormous amount of real estate (like most urban areas, somewhere between a quarter and a third of city land) that is public right-of-way. SDOT recognized that the medians were unused space, but needed a plan of how the garden would lay out. And to make sure that they are not liable for anything that would go awry, they asked for insurance. So that meant organizing, non-profit status and a bank account.

Work parties of ten to twenty people hauled out literally tons of garbage, broken glass, tires and TVs. People signed up for the 54 plots and signed a users agreement. It was a successful season. The sharing basket was full for weeks; the community came together for a harvest festival and even a wedding.

All they need now is water. And there is plenty of it in a spring just up the hill, eroding the neighbor’s driveway. If the Gilman Gardeners can figure out how to get it to the garden, they’ll have the water they need. That’s what they do: turning problems in their neighborhood into great assets.


Lesley Bain is an architect and urban designer at Weinstein A|U.