The intersection of art and tranquillity
The cranes dotting Seattle's skyline are testimony to our city's rapid densification. More people are using our streets, parks, buses and...
Special to The Times
The cranes dotting Seattle's skyline are testimony to our city's rapid densification. More people are using our streets, parks, buses and city services. To accommodate this growth, Seattle has to find smart and creative ways to maintain the elements of urban life that Seattleites value: open space, public safety and a feeling of community. I recently witnessed how a small thing could make a big difference in the life of a neighborhood.
One morning a couple of weeks ago, I took a walk with my two young sons to Green Lake from our home a few blocks away. Walking down Kenwood Place North toward the lake, I noticed that the long-planned traffic circle at the wide intersection of Kenwood and Woodlawn Avenue North was finally installed and filled with beauty bark.
What caught my attention, however, was that the middle of this wider-than-average traffic circle had been decorated with a round metal table covered with a white tablecloth, two chairs, a lamp and a still-life of fruit painted on cardboard and affixed to a pole about 5 feet tall. On the table sat a few magazines and a newspaper. There was a mug that could have been left by someone having just enjoyed his or her morning coffee. It was inviting and curious at the same time. My sons and I were compelled to sit at the table and enjoy the unobstructed view of Green Lake one block to the west.
As we sat there, I had a subversive feeling of breaking the rules by being in the middle of the street, a safe distance from passing cars yet in full public view and participating in a mise-en-scène of domesticity. It was as if the traffic circle had created new space. It felt like a bonus, like sneaking onto someone's deck to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July.
In those moments, I had an idea: Traffic circles can be more than mere traffic-calming devices. They could be venues for art and public gathering. Granted, most traffic circles are too small to accommodate much besides some plants and perhaps a tree or yellow sign cautioning traffic to avoid the large obstacle in the middle of the intersection. But some traffic circles are large enough to offer a place to sit, play chess, meet a neighbor or simply contemplate the street scene.
On our way back from the lake, we saw several people getting out of their cars or interrupting their run to take photos of the sight and experience this new public amenity. Tickled by the whimsy of the gesture and the reaction of passers-by, I asked the first neighbor I saw, Niklas Christensen, if he knew who was responsible for it. Turns out, he was, in part.
Christensen initiated it by securing a commitment from Seattle Department of Transportation to install a traffic circle based on the intersection's accident history. He didn't know who put the objects in the circle, but because the final landscaping is not scheduled until September, he enlisted my help in working with SDOT to include a pathway leading to the center and a table with seating in the final design.
Nearly 25 percent of Seattle's total land surface — including all private property, parks and open space — is public right of way and under the jurisdiction of SDOT. That's a lot of land, reflecting tremendous value. Yet, this common good is used primarily by motorized vehicles, bicycles, pedestrians using crosswalks and residents who commandeer parking strips. Compare that figure to the city's official calculation that parks and open space comprise 11 percent of land within city limits.
I credit our city planners and engineers for the great strides taken to improve the safety and aesthetics of our streetscape through traffic-calming devices, the land-use code and landscaping. But we could do more with this resource. I am proposing that the city consider design guidelines that would encourage multiple uses of traffic circles where safety and space permit. With density increasing, Seattleites are clamoring for more open space and traffic circles could provide little oases of urban tranquillity.
In the past two weeks, I have visited the traffic circle several times. People have added new things: drinks for passing runners, a continually refreshed vase of garden flowers. Someone has left a guest book in which people have expressed their delight at this creative use of space. The pages are full of poems, drawings, and exclamations of appreciation — indeed, one entry notes that it provided "the perfect place for our first kiss."
Determined to find the folks responsible for this guerrilla act of street takeover, I went door-to-door, asking neighbors if they knew whodunnit. No one did. But each person with whom I spoke remarked at how entertaining it was to watch people ponder the scene, read a magazine or have a snack. It has generated a feeling of community and co-conspiracy.
No one knows if city officials are aware of this phenomenon, nor what they would do if they became aware. It gives passers-by a sense that they've gotten something extra, a place to just be — unexpected and so obviously fun.
Sara Nelson served as Council President Richard Conlin's aide from 2002 through 2007, working on transportation and environmental issues. She is a recovering academic with a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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