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American Society of Landscape Architects


April 2008 Issue

How Not to Revitalize an Icon
In tidying up a deteriorating public park, did the city of Seattle have to carve out its defining features?

By Brice Maryman, ASLA, and Elizabeth Umbanhowar, Associate ASLA

How Not to Revitalize an Icon Robert McCadden

Just a few years ago Jim Brighton could be found taking out-of-town guests through Seattle’s Occidental Park. Highlighting the simple bosque of London plane trees that created a green, architectonic enclosure for the space, he would draw visitors’ attention to the singular charms of the well-worn sandstone cobbles underfoot and the hooped benches along the edges. When conversation inevitably veered toward the drug dealers at the end of the square, Brighton, who works in the area and was a member of a community group working to revitalize the space, would not flinch. Instead he would enthusiastically detail the community’s plans for revitalizing the space, starting with the new retail shops and housing whose activity would feed into the vibrancy of the space.

Those days of exuberance are over. For Brighton, the once remarkable park is just another urban open space—banal, generic, and rootless—transformed by a 2006, $2.3 million overhaul that took its cues from the Project for Public Spaces (PPS). Seattle’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) directed the Seattle offices of the multidisciplinary Portland-based firm Otak Inc. to perform extensive surgery on the space in an effort to create a healthier public realm, more attractive to upstanding citizens and less of a magnet for drug dealers and the homeless. As a result, a number of mature London plane trees and a steel pergola were removed, while precast concrete pavers took the place of the historic cobbles.

For Brighton, what had begun as a transparent community-instigated process that sought to massage the bones of the park was recast as an unnecessary surgery. In the end, the community of local interests who advocated less invasive methods felt pushed out, and heated personal attacks spilled over into public hearings. The acrimony went so far that lawsuits were eventually filed against the city. Even today, more than a year and a half after the park was redesigned, the wounds are still raw, and finger pointing and recrimination abound.

At this difficult moment in the park’s history, Landscape Architecture is examining the ongoing controversy that surrounds Occidental Park. Was it a battle between design integrity and current park needs, historic intentions versus contemporary uses, individual design egos versus community sensibility, or commerce versus egalitarian open space? And what does this local skirmish in the Pacific Northwest mean for the future of other urban open spaces across the country?

…To read the entire article, subscribe to LAM!

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