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Hybrid Landscapes: Toward an Inclusive Ecological Urbanism on Seattle’s Central Waterfront

Ecological design in the urban context faces not only the challenge of meeting the ecological imperatives, but also that of negotiating a meaningful articulation and expression of the coexistence of urban infrastructure, human activities, and
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  HYBRID LANDSCAPES 1 Hybrid Landscapes: Toward an Inclusive EcologicalUrbanism on Seattle’s Central Waterfront JEFFREY HOUUniversity of Washington Urban Ecologies Ecological design in the urban context faces adual challenge of meeting ecologicalimperatives and negotiating meaningfulexpressions for the coexistence of urbaninfrastructure, human activities, and ecologicalprocesses. In recent years, a growing body of literature and examples of urban sustainabledesign has addressed issues such as habitatsrestoration, stormwater management, andenergy and resource conservation. While suchwork have been important in building thenecessary knowledge and experiences towardresolving problems of ecological importance,there have not been adequate discussions onstrategies of conceptual and tectonicexpressions of sustainability that embody theecological and social complexity in the urbanenvironment. The inadequacy is exemplified inthe tendency to reproduce naturalisticenvironment in which the appearance oftendisguises the complex processes and conflictson the site. These design projects often fail toengage multiple understandings and forces inan urban context. Parallel to the discourse of sustainable design, a growing body of literature under the rubric of landscapeurbanism has stressed the blurring boundariesbetween architecture and landscape, forms andprocesses, ecological and cultural (e.g., Angeliland Klingmann, 1999; Corner, 1997; Mostafaviand Najle, eds. 2003; Pollack, 1999;Waldheim, 2002). The recent discourses anddesign projects offer advances in theoreticalthinking and design expressions. However,actual outcomes in terms of improvedecological functions in the urban environmentremain to be seen.How would an inclusive approach of ecologicalurbanism address the imperatives of restoringand enhancing the urban ecosystems whileoffering expressions of ecological and socialmultiplicity in the urban environment? Thispaper examines a series of recent designproposals for the Central Waterfront in Seattlethat acknowledges the multiple constructionsof social, ecological and economic processes inthis evolving urban edge. Specifically, theanalysis looks at how these hybrid designproposals respond to the ecological, economic,and social demands on the City’s waterfrontedge. The paper first describes the historicaland developmental contexts for the recentexplorations by various stakeholders in theCity, followed by a discussion of selectedworks. It then examines the theoreticalimplications as well as practical challenges andopportunities for a vision of inclusive ecologicalurbanism. Seattle’s Evolving Waterfront Since Seattle’s founding in 1852, thetransformation of its downtown CentralWaterfront has been closely linked to the city’sdevelopment and evolving identity. Formerlythe site of a Duwamish tribal village, thewaterfront has served as the city’smanufacturing and industrial core. Over thespan of decades, rail lines, mill waste, shipballast and earth from numerous regradeprojects have transformed the waterfront froma naturalistic shoreline to a concrete urbanedge. In the mid-1930s, a seawall was built,creating the Alaskan Way. After World War II,the waterfront experienced another majorchange as the Alaskan Way Viaduct, wascompleted in 1953. Following the 1962 World’sFair in Seattle, the prospect of tourism and  2 commercial development led to a series of newprojects (DPD 2003). Several parks and openspace have since been created. In 1982, astreetcar service began operating on theAlaskan Way, linking tourist attractions andpublic amenities along the waterfront and partsof downtown. In the 1990’s, a series of development projects including new offices, ahotel, and condominiums were built onwaterfront parcels formerly owned by the Portof Seattle. In a haphazard way, the CentralWaterfront has become a diverse urbancorridor with tourism activities, industries,public recreation and commerce, coalescedwith layers of history and the overshadowingpresence of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.The current redevelopment planning for theCentral Waterfront was triggered by the 2001Nisqually Quake, which resulted in significantdamage to the Viaduct and the aging seawall.The planning for reconstruction and repair of the waterfront infrastructure opens a new andrare window of opportunity for redesigning anew waterfront edge for the City, which hasbeen disconnected from its downtown businessand lacks significant public amenities. Anumber of new development projects on thewaterfront also create a desire for greatercoordination and collective visions. Theseprojects include additions to the SeattleAquarium, expansion of the Washington StateFerry Terminal, and a large sculptural parkbeing developed by the Seattle Art Museum.Additionally, Terminal 46, a 90-acre cargocontainer facility owned by the Port of Seattle,has been a subject of contentious debatebetween developers and Port workers whoenvision different futures for this largestwaterfront property in the city. Among themultiple projects and uncertainties, the centraldebate concerning the redevelopment of Central Waterfront has been the replacementof the Alaskan Way Viaduct. Differentreplacement alternatives for the Viaduct andseawall have been evaluated by local and stateagencies, ranging from reconstruction of theViaduct to different subsurface and subsurfacesolutions.Given the significance of the waterfrontredevelopment, various local organizations inthe city have attempted to influence theplanning process and outcome. The Allied Artsof Seattle, a civic organization concernedmainly with design and planning issues in thecity, held a month-long design collaborative inSeptember 2003, involving seven teams of local design and planning professionals toformulate proposals based on three specificcriteria: removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct,subsurface through-traffic, and prioritization of pedestrian activities (Allied Arts of Seattle2003). In summer 2005, Allied Arts organizeda second design collaborative specifically toadvocate its preference of the tunnelalternative for Viaduct replacement. In themeantime, other civic organizations have beensupporting different alternatives. Particularly, agrassroots group called ‘People’s WaterfrontCoalition’ has been advocating for noreplacement of the Alaskan Viaduct, arguingthat the replacement would be too costly andthat the transportation needs could beaddressed through other improvementselsewhere in the city. Currently, the City is infavor of the expensive tunnel alternative.However, the project remains uncertainbecause of the lack of adequate funding toimplement the tunnel alternative. To addressthe multiple interests and need for publicinput, the City’s Department of Planning andDevelopment (DPD) initiated a planning andpublic involvement process to create a long-term vision and strategy in early 2003 (SDC & SPC, 2004). The process culminated in a largedesign charrette held in February 2004, withinvolvement of more than 300 designers,planners, artists, and concerned citizens fromthe region and abroad. Altogether, 22schemes were proposed. Design Visions and Proposals From the city-sponsored charrette, the AlliedArts’ design collaborative, and design studiosat University of Washington, a variety of design and planning proposals have emerged.Aside from addressing the multiple needs andchallenges, one of the most consistent themesacross the different proposals has been thearticulation of the waterfront’s dual identity asboth an ecosystem and an urban space.Specifically, the various combinations of habitat functions and urban infrastructurebecame a key feature shared by many of theproposals. In a proposal entitled Split Decision  ,a floating ferry terminal was proposed thatwould combine habitat functions andtransportation infrastructure. Similarly, a ‘ habitat barge  ’ was proposed by anothercharrette team Econnection  , which wouldprovide additional habitats near the shore.Several schemes have sought to create  HYBRID LANDSCAPES 3 softened shoreline edges that would includeislands and floating piers in the Elliott Bay, aswell as integrating canals into new waterfrontdevelopments. In restoring near-shorehabitats, many schemes have included coves,ledges and shelves along the seawalls. In aproposal entitled Reversed Evolution  , Terminal46 was converted into a Duwamish Basin Park,featuring naturalistic shoreline, mixed withhousing and recreational facilities. To provide amore in-depth discussion of the proposals, thefollowing discussion focuses on three of theproposals that explicitly respond to thewaterfront’s hybrid conditions. Edge Habitat(s) From the City-sponsored charrette, the groupEdge Habitat(s), formed by graduate studentsand a faculty member from University of Washington, created a series of designs thathighlighted the mixing of ecological processesand urban activities on the waterfront. Thedesign elements included Salmon Spirals thatwould create false bathymetry by retrofittingexisting pier columns. The design features aspiral ramp that would slope down into thewater to provide habitats for salmons andother juvenile fish. The spiral can also becombined with other design features such asan underwater observatory and abovegroundplay structure for children (see Figure 1). Inanother design by the Edge Habitat(s) group, aseries of armatures projecting into the Baywould create ‘Habitat Hooks’ that allowsediments to accumulate over time to createshallow conditions and beaches suitable forhabitat functions. In mixing ecological andpublic functions, another design featured theuse of debris from future demolition of theViaduct to create Kelp Bombs in enhancingnear-shore habitats and a Rubble Walk forgreater public access along the waterfront. Inaddition to wildlife habitats, several otherdesign ideas have focused on different ‘habitats’ along the waterfronts including thoseof pedestrians, workers, tourists, and othersocial groups that inhabit the shared urbancorridor. Examples included an ElevatedGreenway that would create both shelteredspaces for various waterfront events andactivities, as well as a continuous, elevatedgreen corridor along the waterfront for bikers, joggers, pedestrians and other urban animalspecies. Another design entitled Park/Dockswould create a series of floating community Figure 1. Salmon Spiral (Stephanie Hurley with Edge Habitat(s)) gardens to serve as community and publicspace for residents and tourists. With multipleinterventions instead of an overarchingscheme, the Edge Habitat(s) project embracesthe existing diversity of the waterfront andmultiple expressions of local activities,identities and processes. By activating theindividual sites without dictating a formalrelationship, the project also allows fordynamic interactions among the multipleelements, actors and processes on thewaterfront. Structure for Resilience  The design concepts of the Edge Habitat(s)project echoed those of Team HyBrid from theearlier Allied Arts’ collaborative in a projecttitled ‘Structure for Resilience’. Similar to thestrategy of individual interventions, the projectfeatured four key elements along the CentralWaterfront that address the multiplicity of needs and characteristics of the waterfront.The four elements include: Cargo/town  at  4 Figure 2. Structure for Resilience (Team HyBrid) Terminal 46, Modular Edgespace  at thefootprint of the Viaduct, Armored Habitats  attwo shallow nearshore locations, and finally alinear park/greenway, linking together the fourdistinct elements (see Figure 2). TheCargo/town represents a new housingprototype using cargo containers that respondto the political and socio-economic dynamics atthe Terminal 46 site. With the ability to evolveand adapt, the design allows for temporaryinhabitation, continued operation of the port,and future reconfiguration. The ModularEdgespace supports a string of newprogrammed and unprogrammed spaces alongthe footprint of existing Viaduct to instigatenew activities along the waterfront whileallowing for continued changes and renewal.The Armored Habitats include a set of perpendicular structures protruding out fromthe shoreline to create and protect nearshorehabitats along the waterfront. These threecomponents are linked by a linearpark/greenway that includes a series of spatialand programmatic markers (Egan, et al.2003). Each of these elements presents ahybrid combination of multiple activities andprocesses, and responds to the specificconditions of respective segment of thewaterfront. Waterfront Studio  In spring 2005, the Department of LandscapeArchitecture at University of Washington wascontracted by the Seattle City Council toexamine possibilities of creating nearshorehabitats in the Central Waterfront whileproviding public access and amenities. Theproject was carried out through a design studioin which students were asked to design for twospecific sites on the waterfront—the WaterfrontPark and the Piers 62/63, where the depth of water is most suitable for habitat functions.With an emphasis on enhancing habitat valueusing built structures and strategicinterventions, the studio produced a range of design strategies and devices that recognizethe physical constraints and possibilities of theurban sites. In terms of creating nearshorehabitats, the strategies included accretion anderosion of materials to allow for gradualbuilding of shallow water conditions along theconcrete edge. Another set of strategiesincluded design of floating structures tosimulate conditions of different tidal zones fordifferent habitat environments. The structuresthat support the accretion of materials andfunctions of the floating platforms in turn alsoallow for public use of the water’s edge. Theyprovide not only access to the waterfront butalso opportunities to learn and observe thedynamic changes at this urban edge.In a project titled ‘City Falls into the Bay’, aseries of finger-like gabion structures wouldprotrude into the bay, containing debris fromthe demolished Viaduct. Tidal and wave actionswould over-time allow the debris to disperse,deposit and stabilize, and thus create shallowconditions and nearshore habitats around thestructures (see Figure 3). The gabionstructures would allow people to walk on andaccelerate the process of erosion anddeposition. In another project, a series of perpendicular walkways would trap sedimentscirculating in the bay to form nearshorehabitats as well as beach areas for public use(see Figure 4). Both ocean currents and humanactivities would cause the process of erosionand accretion. Finally, in one project that madeuse of floating platforms, a system of movablepanels installed at different depths wouldprovide a field for continuous experiments andadaptation for investigating how such systemprovides habitat functions (see Figure 5).  HYBRID LANDSCAPES 5 Figure 3. City Falls into the Bay: Natural and human induced erosion and deposition (Virginia Coffman)Figure 4. Waterfront Scaffolds (Nathan Brightbill)Figure 5. Floating Platforms as Urban Habitats (Kent Straub-Jones) Challenges and Opportunities The three sets of design proposals describedabove present a vision of hybrid landscapesdistinct from other more conventionallyconceived design proposals that still echo thepastoral park design tradition of a bygone era.At a theoretical level, the strategy of hybridinterventions creates an intermediate groundfor the coexistence of ecological processes,infrastructure and urban activities. The designsexhibit different ways of bridging the multipledimensions of urban activities, structures, andprocesses. However, as an emergent approach,there are still several significant and practicalchallenges facing these strategies. First, at amore general level, the experimental nature of these projects requires a different kind of planning, design and implementation process.It also requires the public and users to accepta different kind of design outcomes that arelikely to shift and evolve. Secondly, specific tothe Seattle’s case, the debate overtransportation and Viaduct replacementalternatives have continued to dominate thecurrent planning and public discussion on thefuture of the Central Waterfront. There hasbeen less public attention toward the differentdesign proposals following the charrette andcollaborative. The dominant institutional andpolitical interests in the decision-makingconcerning the replacement of the Viaducthave sidestepped other equally significantissues concerning one of the most importantopen space and infrastructural opportunities inthe city.Another challenge for realizing the proposalcomes from the institutionalized planningprocess. The results of the charrette, forexample, have been transformed into a seriesof generalized design principles and matrices of shared characteristics that fail to express thescope and significance of the different designproposals. The generalized principles and thematrices fail to capture the distinctiveness andcomplexity of the different proposals and theways in which they depart from theconventional approach of waterfront design. Inthe midst of these challenges, one hopeful signwas present recently when the WaterfrontStudio projects received positive responsesfrom the City Council and environmentaladvocates in the city. The hybrid solutions aspresented by the studio provide a space fornegotiating ecological restoration andrebuilding of the waterfront for public use. Itopens a possibility for a critical co-existenceand co-evolution of urban and ecologicalprocesses. By addressing the need forenvironmental restoration while providingopportunities for public access, recreation andother socio-economic activities, the proposal
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