Learning from Taipei
Having recently returned from a trip to Taiwan, including a number of days spent exploring Taipei, I came away with a few personal insights related to urban issues currently being discussed in Seattle. I acknowledge that Taipei and Seattle are quite different. Taipei is a big Asian metropolis that fully embraces its high-density neon-hued 24-hour urbanity. It is the capital of Taiwan and has almost 7 million people in the metro area. The Seattle metro area has half of Taipei’s population and remains, in my estimation, a reluctant big city where emerging urban and longstanding provincial cultural values collide. We embrace certain features of city living (arts, professional sports, a vibrant high-end culinary scene) but simultaneously still seem to fear population density, revere retro-agrarian hobbies like backyard chicken raising and hold sacrosanct inexpensive (or free) on-street parking. Taipei is unabashedly urban. Seattle is moving in that direction, but slowly.
All cities draw on their historic, cultural and political patterns to find their own unique form and organization, which evolve over time, but for millennia urban planners, politicians and developers have drawn lessons from other places to inform and ultimately improve their own cities. As Seattle continues its evolution as a city, here are a few lessons I think we could learn from Taipei.
1. Density requires open space. An inevitable consequence of Seattle’s continued economic and population growth is increasing population density – more people living in multi-family residential (condo, townhouse or apartment) buildings in close walkable proximity to transit and amenities. A key feature of dense but highly livable urban living is open space, where city dwellers can get out and play. Taipei does this very well, with one prominent and relevant example being the vast assemblage of park, bike and walking paths and wetlands that stretches for miles along the Danshuei and Sindian rivers in central Taipei. On a weekend day, the paths are packed with cyclists, walkers, bird watchers, Tai Chi practitioners, families at playgrounds and many sports teams. In many ways it feels much less like a tourist attraction than like the city’s back yard, where citizens come to recreate, relax and enjoy a respite from the crowded city. With the redevelopment of Seattle’s waterfront, we have a generational opportunity to create a similar amenity for our city – not just a place primarily for tourists like our current waterfront, but a place for Seattleites to recreate and consider their own.
2. Don’t be afraid of signage. A city’s primary function, indeed what makes the city humankind’s greatest invention, is to bring people together to exchange ideas, goods and services. Commerce is at the very heart of urbanity. Building signage is nothing more than the city’s various merchants visually announcing what they have on offer. It adds vibrancy, color and life to the streets and in some cases is like a table of contents for buildings – telling you what is inside and inviting you in to explore. Some of Seattle’s best-loved icons are bright signs – the Pink Elephant and the P.I. Globe come to mind – so we have a tradition of embracing signage. Why not let our buildings better express their contents and embrace the fact that our city is a thriving commercial hub with businesses we are proud of?
3. Embrace street food. Far from detracting from the success of sit-down restaurants, Taipei’s street food provides a tantalizingly interesting and appealing feature to the sidewalk (adding new and appealing sensory dimensions of smell and taste) and creates an almost block party like feel as people evaluate, discuss and stand in line for various snacks. These street food carts serve to invite people to be a part of the interesting street life, where they are naturally inclined to shop and eat at other establishments. Further, this sort of homegrown micro-enterprise entails far less cost and risk than opening a bricks and mortar restaurant, meaning street food carts can also allow small entrepreneurs to get a start. Take, for instance, the food cart pod on First and Pike, which has transformed a surface parking lot into an active and interesting sidewalk. Why not encourage more of this?
4. Unconventional retail configurations can not only survive, but succeed in unexpected and appealing ways. One of Taipei’s most striking features is the unexpected variety of retail shops – both their content and configuration. Unlike Seattle, where retail is traditionally found on the ground floor in spaces of at least a few hundred square feet (and often much larger) located on arterial streets, Taipei has many small and narrow retail shops (in some cases just six or eight feet wide and ten to twelve feet deep), narrow shopping alleys with no car traffic, and restaurants and retail on the second and third floors (and in some cases much higher than that). To a large extent, this diverse and finely detailed retail pattern is a reflection of population density. Clearly, Seattle’s current population cannot support the same quantity or diversity of retail as a city like Taipei. But, in many ways, by not fitting into a formulaic retail pattern, these spaces are more interesting, intriguing and inviting. An example here in Seattle is Post Alley or the warren of shops in the Market. Most retail consultants would describe locations with these characteristics are sure failures, yet they work because the adjacent activity, scale and interest draw people in. And, as with street food, small retail footprints and one-off locations allow small businesses to set up shop, with lower gross rent, increasing employment and the retail mix in the city.
One of the most delightful things about travel is that it opens one’s eyes to new realities and possibilities. Though Taipei and Seattle have a great deal that differentiates them and many features of the culture and built environment simply do not translate, there is much we in Seattle could learn and apply to our own city.
Gabriel Grant is Vice President at HAL Real Estate Investments and is currently an Affiliate Fellow of the UW’s Runstad Center for Real Estate. All photos by the author (click on some of them to enlarge).