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C200: Urban Design From Below

2011 March 22
by Josh Mahar

< Union and 10th in Capitol Hill's Pike/Pine neighborhood; photo: Dan Bertolet >

Anyone reading this blog certainly knows that creating walkable, people-oriented communities is a necessary step in ensuring a sustainable future for America. Unfortunately, this is a daunting task in the face of the auto-centric designs that dominate our cities and towns. Much of the Urbanist Movement today is about simply figuring out what codes and regulations nurture walkable communities. It is about answering the question: what physical structures will encourage the human activity and interaction we see in great neighborhoods around the world?

But we can approach this same question from the other direction as well: what social structures foster a more humane and friendly built environment? Are there ways of leveraging social interactions to design better, more vibrant communities? I would argue that this bottom up approach is how many of the medieval cities we seek to emulate originated; the activities of society organically shaped the urban landscape. I can’t speak much to Paris or Rome, but I do have some insights into my own neighborhood, Capitol Hill, arguably Seattle’s finest example of an urban village. The Hill provides some interesting lessons in how social organization can influence the built environment.

As an officer on the Capitol Hill Community Council I was impressed by how the network of interest groups helped improve urban design projects. Rather than some neighborhoods where a single NIMBY or business group dominates discussion, Capitol Hill’s many different advocates are constantly jockeying to get their voices heard. However, contrary to what one might assume, this plethora of voices doesn’t complicate a community vision, but clarifies it. As leaders of each distinct group come together to work on various projects, they discuss and debate ideas, constantly communicating different concerns and opportunities to each other. Through this complex process of exchange and interaction a unified vision of the neighborhood, almost unconsciously, bubbles to the surface. The results of this process are evident in the bold First Hill streetcar plan which rallied the community together behind a design proposal that is much more ambitious than even SDOT’s fine planners had proposed. A similar situation is unfolding around the future Broadway TOD site, which has forced Sound Transit to think much grander about place-making than they ever have in the past.

Similarly, I believe some of the most under-valued assets of Capitol Hill are its local investors. Developers like Liz Dunn, Mike Malone, Maria Barrientos and the staff at Capitol Hill Housing and Schemata Workshop are all familiar faces in the community and their projects reflect a deep understanding of the neighborhood. Unlike national or even regional developers, these groups are able to see creative opportunities for community improvement, and perhaps more importantly, are willing to take the risks necessary to pursue them. The Broadway Building with its alley-focused retail. Melrose Market with its farmer’s market-style boutiques. The Pantages apartments surrounding a restored 1907 mansion. These buildings may strictly adhere to the best urban design guidelines, but they fill important gaps in the surrounding neighborhood and strengthen the identity of the community. No matter how specific the design code is, it can’t impose the local knowledge that these individuals manifest in their projects.

While design codes and building regulations are a useful starting point, my experiences in Capitol Hill have made me rethink the process of manufacturing vibrant communities. The best structures do not come from those that follow the rules but from local groups and entrepreneurs that take the time to appreciate all of the neighborhood’s intricacies and design with a personal interest in improvement. Rather than focusing on defining the physical elements of good design, perhaps we can find ways of organizing space from the bottom up. Not community-oriented but community-built.


Josh Mahar is a first year student at the UW’s Evans School of Public Affairs, Urban Policy Intern at the Cascade Land Conservancy, and occasional contributor to