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C200: The Place of Seattle

2011 April 14
by Lee Copeland

< Seattle; photo: Juan Hernandez - click to enlarge >

Most great cities in our world have an engrained sense of place created by the choice of the site for the city. Often cities were sited on bodies of water affording access which in turn “naturally” creates a sense of place from the beginning. Fortunately, more often than not, city designers overtime have celebrated this sense of place by the organization and development of the urban environment.

Seattle has three qualities which stand out in defining its distinctive sense of place, its geographic position, natural setting and its climate. Historically Seattle is located in the northwest corner of the United States, though more recently Alaska claims that distinction. As such Seattle has always been considered removed, a ways away, but its position in a corner contributes to its sense of place. The City is located on two bodies of water, Puget Sound and Lake Washington and within eye sight of two mountain ranges, the Olympics on the west and the Cascades on the east. Mount Rainier stands out as a landmark to the south of Seattle. These natural environments, a visible part of everyday life, impact ones sense of life as well as sense of place.

Seattle, like many cities built on the shores of large bodies of water such as Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo and Vancouver are also distinguished by being on an edge. Part of ones’ experience of the sense of place is the contrast between a usually vibrant urban environment on one side and the openness to the water on the other.

The climate of Seattle is also distinctive, especially in the context of the larger United States. It rains or drizzles more often than most other cities though in actuality has fewer inches of rainfall per year than cities such as New York or Philadelphia.  But Seattle is known for its grayness however when it is clear it is bright and clear, unlike Philadelphia, Chicago or New York in July. The grayness attributed to Seattle impacts the attitudes regarding the use of color in architecture, There are those who feel that the use of color should be of a subtle nature essentially complementing  the grey light. This is also a tendency in the Scandinavian countries which are a part of the historical culture of Seattle. However there are others who feel it is necessary to introduce brightness and contrast into the environment to off set the grayness, though others would argue that bright colors are more appropriate in climates of brightness in essence a celebration of that type of “southern” climate.

The temperatures are relatively mild, with very little snow in the City (Though a significant amount in neighboring mountains) and summers rarely reach temperatures above 80 degrees and there is no sense of the humidity felt in many east coast cities. Another  quality of the weather is the distinctive, beautiful cloud formations that are a regular, ever changing element of this sense of place.

The position of Seattle at a latitude of 46 degrees also contributes a distinctive quality. In the winter it becomes dark early in the evening and light late in the morning. Most commuting to and from work is done in the dark from November through February, but in the spring and through the summer the opposite is true with light remaining as late as 10 PM. The rain and grey skies contributes to the darkness in the winter and the bright, clear skies in the spring and summer adds to the lightness. This uniqueness contributes to the way of life in Seattle and is a quality again contributing to the sense of place of Seattle.


Lee Copeland FAIA is a Consulting Principal with Mithun.