An Intervention: Seattle architects weigh in on the city’s style

How buildings can bring famously guarded Seattleites together

By Stacy Kendall April 10, 2023

Schemata’s cohousing project brings people together.

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

The elevator door opens. You step aboard and join a few others on the 30-second ride down to the ground floor. If you’re a Seattleite, you know instinctively to stare ahead, up, down — anywhere but into the eyes of a stranger.

When the noiseless descent ends, you escape the forced close quarters to get on with your day. But you’re just leaving your own apartment building, and those potential maniacs are your neighbors.

That example is just one common difference that transplants to the Emerald City point out as a part of public interaction they don’t understand. Gallons of ink have been spilled about the “Seattle Freeze,” that specter of local culture that describes incoming residents’ difficulties trying to get to know people. But is this solely an interpersonal quirk?

Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that Seattleites are, well, loners. One-person homes make up approximately 40% of all households here, landing us comparatively at No. 22 among the 30 largest cities in America. And since the pandemic, we’ve all been made more aware of the scourge of loneliness worldwide.

How does Seattle’s built environment influence a sense of community? How does building design shape the way people interact? Can design intervention — a concept that seeks to increase human interaction — make a difference?

We asked four architects what they think.

Michelle Linden, partner and co-owner of multidisciplinary design firm Atelier Drome, thinks Seattleites want connection, but on neutral ground in the way you might run into a neighbor sitting outside at a café or at the dog park. She dubs these “chance encounters,” and sees them as a key component to making personal connections more frequent. “Seattle actually does really well with ‘Third Places,’” Linden says, or places outside of home and work. “Restaurants and cafés are small and intimate, and there are neighborhood bars where communities can interact.”

She urges, though, that we can do more. “Parks and public spaces could have more to draw in people — a market, a food truck, an ice cream cart, or as simple as a few benches. Not all open spaces need commercial programming, but some design goes a long way to helping connections happen.”

Recently, a victory for chance encounters was codified when the Seattle City Council voted unanimously last December to make pandemic-born “streeteries,” the sidewalk extensions of restaurants, a permanent fixture. Linden adds that Seattle zoning causes single-family homes to be sited in the middle of a lot without “a super usable front or rear yard. Why not give people a large front yard to encourage neighborly interaction?”

Her preference is to push housing closer to sidewalks for a more urban and pedestrian experience, allowing for better backyards and access to activated alleys when possible.

But how much neighborly interaction are Seattleites really looking for, and are our housing options building bridges between communities or putting up walls? It’s something that architect Grace Kim, founding principal of Capitol Hill-based Schemata Workshop, spends a lot of time thinking about.

Kim has served on the board of the Cohousing Association of the U.S., is a founding member of Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing and has served on the Seattle Planning Commission for eight years. Her research, fellowship, 2017 TED Talk, and book, The Survival Guide to Architectural Internship and Career Development, are all on the concept of cohousing, which she is careful to define as setting a strong intention to live collaboratively, more so than a building typology.

Originating in Denmark in the late 1960s, cohousing consists of independent dwellings with all the normal amenities of a home, but with significant shared amenities such as open and recreational space and most importantly a “common house” that includes a large community kitchen, dining and meeting spaces.

It can look like an existing apartment and condo buildings with shared amenities, but it goes further to call for residents to establish a collective purpose with shared values, active participation in management and governance and to look out for one another. Schemata is working on cohousing communities in Anacortes and Marysville, and Kim says there is pent-up demand in Seattle, especially post-pandemic, when people realized they were interdependent on others for social connection and to maintain their mental and physical health.

Kim lives and keeps an office in one of Schemata Workshop’s cohousing buildings on Capitol Hill. Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing consists of 17 adults and 10 children, all of varying backgrounds and professions. The community gathers in common spaces to eat dinner up to three times per week, hosts speakers, and organizes around neighborhood issues and gardens together.

“I would say half of us are introverts, and cohousing supports less extroverted people because they are mostly around people they know, not strangers,” she says. “The barrier to interact is low, so you can dip in and out of social settings with ease and comfort.”

In a way, the city crafted a shared living space for some residents in Seattle with the pandemic-led advent of “Stay Healthy” streets that closed off blocks to through traffic. Landscape architect Brice Maryman lives two blocks from one, and says it’s transformed life for his family, who take two-mile walks every evening. “One of the coolest things is seeing how it has encouraged individual neighbors to contribute to civic life,” he says. “Everything from chalk drawings to a little free library with (importantly) a bench. It’s a simple little gesture, but nonetheless an invitation.” Even if it’s passive friendliness, it’s there.

Pioneer Square’s Railspur development

Photo courtesy of MxM Landscape Architecture

Maryman is cofounder of MxM Landscape Architecture. Along with his cofounder Scott Melbourne, he has a combined 40 years of projects ranging from the Seattle Pedestrian Master Plan (2009, 2015), the Burke-Gilman Trail, Alderwood Mall in Lynnwood, and Pioneer Square Alleys. For him, Seattle has an unprecedented opportunity to create public spaces that provide a bridge to previously disconnected communities, not just to bond the ones already there.

“Seattle is at an inflection point to live up to the progressive values it espouses,” Maryman says. “Something we think about a lot in the conversation around who public spaces are really for.”

The Seattle waterfront project is one example he says is ripe for this kind of blending of communities. “It’s such a ‘front porch’ for the city, and a civic magnet,” he says. “Through art and programming, it can be that bridge for everyone.”

Some of those people are living on the economic margins. “If we tweak the conversation from ‘Who is going to use our benches?’ to ‘There are enough benches for everyone to use,’ we can move toward abundance in public spaces, rather than diminished quality through a thousand little cuts.”

Lisa Town, an associate at Atelier Drome and former landscape architect, stresses the importance of having outside places available to sit and eat. Drawing on her experience working and living abroad, she sees many people here who love and use the public spaces on their vacations, but don’t act the same way at home.

Cities such as Paris or Portland that have similar climates to ours manage a human scale on much of the city streets. Town believes sidewalks contain untapped space to invite interaction and still make room for pedestrians and all kinds of transportation styles.

“When it snows and all the curbs are covered up, you can literally see the driving patterns of cars and buses in tracks on the street,” she says. “It’s less physical space than we think.”

Despite such design interventions — a concept that seeks to increase human interaction — it ultimately takes people to make a space come alive. So, next time you’re in an elevator, consider breaking the silence.

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