Olympia’s Urbanism and Public Spaces

We were presented with two timely developments this week. First, the Olympian’s Matt Batcheldor penned a piece about the latest effort to revitalize downtown.

A quick walk down the 300 block of Fourth Avenue, in front of the boarded-up location of the Northern, a former all-ages venue, reveals the situation the city wants to address.

About a dozen young people, some in their teens, some in their twenties or older, are gathered, meeting friends and asking passers-by for change. They’re careful to stand six feet away from the building’s edge; to do otherwise would violate the Pedestrian Interference Ordinance, a 2006 measure that bans blocking the sidewalk, sitting or lying within 6 feet of a building’s edge. There’s a blanket sitting right next to the curb, with two leashed dogs and a cardboard sign asking for change.

[The city’s downtown liaison, Ruthie] Snyder said business owners told her people don’t want to shop downtown “because they can’t walk down the street without being occasionally – not all the time – but occasionally, harassed.”

The next event was the groundswell of public testimony on the city’s busking ordinance which prohibits people from performing music in the streets and sidewalks without a permit.

In light of the testimony, the city council referred the matter to the Land Use Committee (LUC), chaired by Councilmember Steve Langer. The council instructed the LUC to consider a further referral to the planning commission. I eagerly await the opportunity to look at the issue with my fellow planning commissioners.

Batcheldor mentioned in his article that the city planned to hire the Project for Public Spaces. PPS has long been my favorite organization for creating community out of any built environment. I am interested in whether their experiences will translate to a downtown that does not make for such easy stabs as those that Batcheldor took in his lead: “Chronically drunk people urinating on the sidewalk. People sitting and lying on sidewalks next to the curb, blankets piled up and dogs in tow. Aggressive panhandlers.” (I work downtown as you probably know, and while this description may be accurate at times, it’s not the situation all of the time.)

How would our downtown need to change in order for it to become desirable? I suggest that there must be meaningful work (or at least a chance to acquire or create it), there must be access to amenities for daily needs and leisure activities, there must be sufficient physical and metaphysical space to live one’s life as one sees fit, hence the connection to the busking ordinance. The desirability of a city is completely in the eye of the beholder, and I submit that there are communities of people who like where they live and in number sufficient for them to be the object of study.

One of the tools that PPS uses to evaluate public spaces is found here. I imagine this will not be the only time we will see this chart. It should help spur our thinking, discussion, and might even result in some kind of epiphanal experiences. More has happened with less after all. Notice the assemblage of qualities that create a desirable space: 1.) Accessibility; 2.) Engagement in Activities (e.g. reasons for people to be there be it work or play); 3.) Comfort including safety; and, 4.) Sociability.

According to the Project for Public Spaces, the presence of these characteristics is more likely to make a space desirable. Here are their summaries that each factor requires:

Access & Linkages

You can judge the accessibility of a place by its connections to its surroundings, both visual and physical. A successful public space is easy to get to and get through; it is visible both from a distance and up close. The edges of a space are important as well: For instance, a row of shops along a street is more interesting and generally safer to walk by than a blank wall or empty lot. Accessible spaces have a high parking turnover and, ideally, are convenient to public transit.

Comfort & Image

Whether a space is comfortable and presents itself well – has a good image – is key to its success. Comfort includes perceptions about safety, cleanliness, and the availability of places to sit – the importance of giving people the choice to sit where they want is generally underestimated. Women in particular are good judges on comfort and image, because they tend to be more discriminating about the public spaces they use.

Uses & Activities

Activities are the basic building blocks of a place. Having something to do gives people a reason to come to a place – and return. When there is nothing to do, a space will be empty and that generally means that something is wrong.

Sociability

This is a difficult quality for a place to achieve, but once attained it becomes an unmistakable feature. When people see friends, meet and greet their neighbors, and feel comfortable interacting with strangers, they tend to feel a stronger sense of place or attachment to their community – and to the place that fosters these types of social activities.

A fascinating analysis would consider how many desirable spaces does a community need for it to become desirable to maximum number of people living it in. But if we apply these factors to some of our existing public spaces, like the Percival Landing, the Artesian Well, our new city hall, Marathon Park, how many criteria would they satisfy?  Do these factors actually assist us in evaluating urban amenities? Will it help us in resolving the problems addressed in the article?  Why or why not?

Stay tuned.

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4 Responses to Olympia’s Urbanism and Public Spaces

  1. Thad Curtz says:

    I don’t suppose that the rules of thumb you quote from PPC are wrong, but I don’t think that they take us very far toward understanding the situation downtown. The area on 4th Ave. in front of Jakes’ and the plaza in front of the bus station, are desirable spaces – to quite a few people. (And ironically, I think that almost all of those rules of thumb fit them – from the point of view of the people who congregate in them.) The problem (if it is a problem) is that they aren’t the sort of people that businesses downtown and their potential customers want there…

    It may be that how some of them are behaving some of the time is part of the problem. The Batcheldor article you link to quotes Councilmember Langer to this effect, saying: “it’s not about who’s downtown, but how they behave when they’re downtown.” Unfortunately, this issue isn’t just about people’s behavior – unless you mean a great many things about how they are living and who they are by “how they behave.” They’re pierced, and tattooed, and sometimes dirty, and there are a bunch of them hanging out together. I think that most of the people who are upset about downtown have visceral anxiety-laden reactions to these things, and I think that they would still have a lot of the same reactions if the people in front of Jakes’ sat at little cafe tables all day and never asked for money at all.

    I guess that their reactions wouldn’t be as acute, because I think that part of that anxiety comes from dealing with people who seem far enough from middle-class norms so that one isn’t sure what they might do. (If one of them does something outside of those norms, like begging, even occasionally, it provokes anxiety because one doesn’t know what else people who don’t abide by middle-class norms might do.) And part of that anxiety arises because people are conflicted about what to do when somebody who obviously doesn’t have much asks them for money, so then even having someone on the same street who looks like the sort of person who might ask one for money makes people anxious, and if somehow nobody ever did that it would reduce their reactions too. But I think that most people who are upset about downtown would still be upset.

    I don’t know if that takes us any closer to good ideas about how to “improve downtown”, but I do think an accurate account of the issue is where good ideas have to start.

    I wish Batcheldor’s article had estimated how much money the City has spent on patrolling, arresting, charging, and then dealing with the “1,353 people charged with drinking in public from 2008 to 2010; 525 charged with criminal trespass; 204 cited for urinating in public, and 135 charged with pedestrian interference.” That might give us some idea about the budget that might be available for an alternative approach if we could dream one up.

  2. Mark Derricott says:

    One of my personal complaints about the processes we’ve undergone in the planning commission and with other groups informally in approaching “problems” is our lack of criteria for evaluating them. Your line: “I don’t know if that takes us any closer to good ideas about how to “improve downtown”, but I do think an accurate account of the issue is where good ideas have to start.” is brilliantly stated. I believe that not only solutions but understanding of the problems can occur only through so some sort of quasi-scientific inquiry.

    I don’t know that it’s necessary, or intended, but I feel the need to defend my reference to the PPS chart. I don’t think it’s applicable to downtown as a whole but it is a means by which we can begin to look at problems of urban planning and development generally through a more rigorous inquiry. We need criteria that helps all community members who want to participate in the process evaluate our collective problems. I think this is a start. Ideally, when people approach problems (as we’re about to) we’ll begin by asking first: “what are the criteria the we will use to evaluate this issue so that we can understand it as completely as possible?”

    What are some of the factors you would use to evaluate the issues in downtown? (assuming they are more or less accurate as described in the Batheldor article.) You named budget, but what else is on the list?

  3. Thad Curtz says:

    I think that the PPC criteria are good ones for thinking about things that make attractive public spaces, and I think that having more of those downtown would be a good thing for downtown development – witness how much everybody seems to like Percival Landing and the remodel.

    I’ll think about your closing question.

  4. Mark Derricott says:

    The substantive comments you gave are very interesting though. One of the things that happen in a city are interactions with people of other backgrounds and classes, whether or not it is a comfortable experience. The difference between here and in many other larger cities is these encounters occur more frequently here due to what I think are obvious reasons. I’d say Seattle is dealing with close to the same problems as we are in Pioneer Square. (Their solutions are much more obvious for some reasons that I hope this comment will outline.)

    In the Imagine Olympia process, we heard more than anything else that Olympians want to retain the small town feel. I still don’t know what that means. Does it mean they want a mainstreet that’s scrubbed clean? Does it mean they want an agricultural economy like an Iowa farm town? Does it mean Bellingham? Port Townsend? Wallingford or Fremont?

    I often wonder how our downtown would be different had the state agencies located on Israel Road located downtown instead? (I realize parking and cost of building were primary issues.) The composition of daily users would be dramatically different. Some of the issues you described would still exist but be much less obvious or pronounced. Maybe diluted is the word thanks to a different ratio of individuals.

    Essentially and paradoxically, we won’t get the kind of city we want until we start living our lives as we would in it (even though it doesn’t actually exist yet). At least in our political expression (articles like Batcheldor’s, parking uproar, etc) we’re doing the opposite.

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