The Case for Keeping Seattle's Streets Messy
A few years ago I was talking with an engineer for the Washington Department of Transportation about removing Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct, and he declared that the rewiring of Seattle's waterfront was a great chance to do some things that would "fix the grid."
Few engineers look at a map of Seattle and see anything but a broken mess. Fly over the Midwest, and you see man-made land patterns from geometry class: perfect squares, circles and huge rectangles of corn and wheat, big flat places — seemingly whole states — sectioned-off by ruler and compass.
Aerial shot of Ballard, Seattle. Photo courtesy of Dcoetzee/Wikimedia Commons
In comparison, Seattle is like a messy bedspread. Attempts to lay down The Grid were derailed from the very beginning, partly because the men who founded the city had different ideas about which direction the grid ought to go (along the shore of Elliott Bay, or north and south by the compass, per Doc Maynard). As a result, downtown is like a three-car crash as the Belltown, Central Business District, and Pioneer Square grids collide and buckle. Other communities that were gobbled by annexation, such as Ballard and Georgetown, added their own grids, complicating matters.
Why is traffic so sucky? Well, blame passive-aggressive drivers, righteous pedestrians, and risk-taking cyclists, but it's also tough to drive on streets that jog spastically or end unexpectedly. In her new Seattle novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple has her main character, a migrant from Los Angeles, rant about Seattle. At one point, she complains, "Whoever laid out this city never met a four-way intersection they didn't turn into a five-way intersection. They never met a two-way street that didn't suddenly and for no reason turn into a one-way street." I'm sure everyone in Seattle has their favorite five-way, and none better than one blocked by a misshapen, view-obliterating traffic circle on steroids.
Our city of hills and water is also a city of broken streets. We're engaged in an endless process to make transportation work, by any means necessary. Currently, we're building more light rail, streetcar lines, digging a deep-bore downtown tunnel, fixing the "Mercer Mess," tearing down the Viaduct, building new highway ramps, and widening a floating bridge to carry cars, pedestrians, bikes, and buses. We've got foot and car ferries, heavy rail, bikes paths and sharrows, foot bridges, sky bridges, stairways, public and private bus systems, taxis and unofficial taxis for hire.
Talk never dies of expanding the monorail or possibly installing a waterfront tram. We're less multi-modal than we are modal-maniacs. We've never met a mode of transportation we don't believe will free us from the challenges of being gridlocked in a landscape that was never flat, never open, and never dry.
The explorers and pioneers who imagined The Grid here were, in short, madmen, or drunks, bless them. When I hear phrases like "fix the grid," I remember that it's important not to let the grid-fixers determine everything. If you listened to the debate this year over a possible new basketball arena in SoDo, you would have thought that the city had no other value than "freight mobility." Fortunately, we do. Important as they are, life is more than where the Port wants to ship containers from China. And those values have left their mark on our streets.
Another grid fixer is Kemper Freeman, Jr., the Bellevue developer, who once told me that instead of spending money on light rail, we should be fixing The Grid on Seattle's Eastside, a landscape clogged with lakes, hills, and cul-de-sacs.
The Olmsteds were not grid guys. At the beginning of the 20th century, they began designing many of our major parks, but also the roads that connected them. If Seattle has incredible green spaces, wonderful oases of nature with living old growth within the city limits, it's due to their vision and the public's support. They created a system of boulevards to connect these parks. Their roadways followed the contours of the land in curvilinear ways.
These boulevards meander, they lead us (drivers, walkers, cyclists) down paths from one view to another, from one park to another, from one quirky neighborhood to another. Thanks to them, you can flow from Ravenna to University District to Montake to Arboretum to Denny-Blaine to Madrona to Mount Baker to Beacon Hill or Seward Park. If, as Jonathan Raban has said, Seattle is the only city you move to in order to be closer to nature, nowhere brings you closer than gliding along on these manmade dreamscapes.
They give Seattle a sinuous quality, an organic feel. They don't move freight, but they move us all through beauty.
I have followed Lake Washington Boulevard nearly all my life on foot, bike and automobile. Its winding coils are part of me. I sometimes think I could do it blindfolded, making each turn by body memory. I remember as a child watching the reflections of the sky in the hood of our 1950 Chevy as we drove through the Arboretum, and that patch of sky reflected there looked to me like a river were were following. The boulevard isn't grid-like, but rather tracks the shape of flow, of streams and lakes. It facilitates the way we move through space, taking the scenic route, the short-cut over the hills, the path that must be taken because it feels so good.
I wish Seattle had less grid. I wish it were more like a Tuscan hill town or a landscape of organic patterns like rural India, which sometimes looks from the air as if it was grown in a petri dish. We could do with more ground-level irregularity on the human-scale; it would create more interest and variety on the streets (and it's one reason the Pike Place Market is so satisfying). It would be more pedestrian friendly. Seattle Center, for example, chose to keep the old street grid more or less intact, but wouldn't it be more satisfying to break it to allow visitors to wander, to explore? I remember Robert Moses's judgement about the fairgrounds: "Too much concrete!"
This is a city of boulevards, a city of street-ends that are beaches or pocket parks, a city of street signs that poke out of roadless green belts, of competing grids that force us to slow down, of ambling boulevards. We shouldn't be fixing the Grid but finding new, organic ways to mess with it.
A version of this post originally appeared on Crosscut.