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Monday
Jul012013

Town Square Initiative: Seattle

Image © Gensler

The Town Square Initiative is a yearlong volunteer effort in which Gensler designers set out to unearth and re-imagine unexpected open space in cities around the globe. All 43 Gensler offices were invited to participate in the conceptual project, in which we challenged our designers to identify open space in the city and re-imagine it as a town square.

On a normal day, Seattle’s Westlake Park is a bustling public plaza, traversed by tourists, shoppers, and commuters spilling out of the transit tunnel adjacent to the park. It is a mess of buses, cabs, and cars inching their way through the city on a roadway that bisects the plaza. This wedge of public space, often referred to as Seattle’s town square, has been the center of political rallies, outdoor concerts, and other public and holiday gatherings. Despite its ideal location, the park has not been embraced by the many people who pass through its plaza daily. There are few pedestrian amenities, not a blade of grass, and it is regularly plagued by crime. This vastly underutilized one acre site could be so much more. It’s time to rethink Westlake Park.

United Nations data reveals that nearly 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. How do modern cities create and shape their community-supporting spaces? The need to create distinctive informal gathering places where urbanites can pause, share ideas, and come face to face with their community is more important now than ever. So let’s take another look at Seattle’s Westlake Park.

Image © Gensler

Westlake Park represents an entry point into downtown Seattle. Four different transit modes converge on three distinct levels, collecting and redistributing commuters who are entering and leaving the city. The one acre site on the corner of 4th and Pine is technically a transit hub, though entryways to the transit tunnel are difficult to find. Police officers in the area field nearly 100 questions a day from people trying to find the tunnel. But its potential as a transportation and social hub for Seattle is on par with similar spots in other great global cities. Seattle’s narrow corridor, constrained by water to the west and steep grade changes to the east, simply won’t sustain expected population and job growth. Leveraging public transportation alternatives will become more and more vital. Gensler Seattle’s approach: combine our transit network with the best qualities of public space and bring the town square to the commuters.

Urban architecture typically compartmentalizes human activity into separate cases, defined by place, discipline, or genre. There are places for work, places for leisure, and other places for learning or entertainment. But that organizing structure simply doesn’t work for an increasingly interconnected and diverse world. Transportation hubs, for example, are places rarely occupied for any length of time. This essential city infrastructure could be an important amenity, not just for commuters, but for the entire community. What if a transportation hub was the connective tissue to which our social interactions adhered? It would function as a physical and social connector in the city.

Image © Gensler

Image © Gensler

Our strategy is to increase visual and social connections at the site and to physically connect the multiple transportation modes into a central hub supported by a lively public space. We propose cutting into the existing plaza and removing a portion of the city street to physically connect the transit tunnel, mezzanine, and ground plane. This visually reveals the transit circulation and allows in the light and air necessary for a retail program in the plaza. It also repairs the pedestrian connection across the plaza, which is currently disrupted by the roadway. New views across the site increase visual connections, allowing people to more easily find each other and to enjoy the city’s sites. With deference for the original site, the existing surface pattern of the plaza, based on a local native basket weave, is re-imagined to create seating. Extruding the pattern three dimensionally connects the new spaces within the plaza and creates a unique spatial experience for pedestrians. New grass and landscaping, including iconic northwest tree species, provide a respite from the urban environment.

Imagine this new vision for Westlake Park. Lush grass terraces filled with downtown workers on their lunch hour; children climbing and playing with their families; commuters traversing the plaza and easily finding their way to their train or bus; and shoppers stopping to rest their feet alongside those lingering in the shade of a fir tree, enjoying the views of the city. This concrete wedge of urban space has the potential to become a safe and lively town square, embraced by residents and visitors alike.

Image © Gensler

Maggie Goodman is devoted to identifying new ways of experiencing our world and envisioning how the design of spaces and products can bring them to life. Her design aesthetic maintains a human-centered approach, both experiential and functional, and she believes public and social spaces are the heart of any community. As a sustainability leader in our Seattle office she looks to science, nature and global culture for inspiration. Contact her at maggie_goodman@gensler.com.

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