Walking and the pedestrian environment
June 22, 2005
Cross Cultural Urban Design (Seattle)

A couple of years ago I had an epiphany about the cultural convergence of Seattle's International District, and what was missing from a design perspective.

I shopped it around to community members but it never went farther than a few obtuse references in our recent Urban Design Plan. I'll use this entry as an outlet.

It started when I was thinking about Uwajimaya, our Japanese (and other Asian) grocery store. In Uwajimaya the products can be categorized as American, pseudo-Asian, Asian-American, and Asian.

I believe that first-generation immigrants predominantly buy Asian and American products; non-Asian Americans tend to by American, pseudo-Asian, and Asian products; and Asian-Americans will buy all of them but are most likely to buy Asian-American.

I have no data to back that up.

However, think about these items and which customers would most likely buy them: Budweiser beer, Sapporo beer, Spam, American-sized greeting cards with Chinese characters, and Natto.

Uwajimaya - and the larger neighborhood - serves as a portal, Nitobe Inazo's "bridge across the Pacific". Travelers, business trippers, students, and recent immigrants from many Asian countries can visit for a respite from the overload of foreign Seattle. Americans of Asian descent can find a place to identify with, even if they don't really fit in anywhere else. Other Americans (and many of those Asian-Americans, actually!) can get a glimpse of what life is like on the other side of the pond. Americans who will soon themselves be travelers, business trippers, students, or emigrants to Asia can prep themselves.

So let's take the presumptuous Uwajimaya lesson out to the street. If the streetscape functioned like a perfect market, we would see features that appealed to the entire population of residents and customers served by the street. There should be designs that mimic Uwajimaya's product types: American, pseudo-Asian, Asian-American, and Asian. As you review some samples below, you’ll notice a definite lack of Asian elements, especially in proportion to the number of first generation immigrants living in and visiting the neighborhood. At the very bottom I have an email that I sent a couple of years back with some brief ideas of elements that could be added to Seattle’s International District. Considering that much of our streetscape is determined by regulation or controlled by government agencies and their standards, there are severe limits on which items we can really impact.

1) American:

Newspaper boxesNewspaper boxes line the wall in front of the post office. These are American in design and in function. In Japan papers are sold at kiosks or convenience stores, and drink vending machines line the sidewalk.

Mail boxIn front of the post office this mail box is American blue. Other boxes in the neighborhood are an olive military green. None look Asian.

Phone polesThe need to specifically designate space for motorcycles is certainly not Asian! They park anywhere and everywhere! American.

Phone polesAt least I've certainly never seen wood utility poles in Japan or Korea. Concrete and steel are the norm. This is American by-and-by.

CrosswalksOur crosswalks and street painting in general are American.

Tree grate coversSteel grates ring each street tree in Seattle's International District. They are the norm across downtown. I can't remember seeing them in any of my travels in Asia, but that's by no means definitive. I'll venture a guess at American. At least the design has taken no consideration of Asian influences.

Garbage cansGarbage cans are the same style as those found in business districts across Seattle.

Sidewalk glassSeveral spots on sidewalks in the International District have purple glass cubes. They allow light to enter underground storage areas. Throughout downtown these were installed when street heights changed after steep grades were leveled. These are American – I spotted them in Los Angeles when rewatching They Live recently.

Manhole coversThere are a variety of styles of manhole covers. They are all typical of Seattle, and thereby American.

30 minute parkingThe idea of setting aside street space for parking is definitely not Japanese. How about other Asian countries? I doubt there is regulated, approved space like the 6 feet on either side of nearly every American street. More likely people make up their own ad hoc spots. With an assumption of legal parking in the US, we have to go out of our way to set aside pay and limited-time zones. This 30-minute limit sign is very American (in contrast with Asia).

Street widthA more abstract concept is street width. Even with a large delivery truck passing a car, there are still large buffers to the parked cars. In Japan this would be the width of an inter-neighborhood road. In Seattle this is a local road that dead ends within a few blocks on either side. Width is so important because it sets the tone for the street's purpose. Although there are plenty of pedestrians in the ID, there are always fewer on this block than other areas of the neighborhood. This is so American.

2) Pseudo-Asian:

Phone boxesThe phone boxes are an example of Pseudo Asian in the neighborhood. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that phone booths like this exist somewhere in Asia, but even so they aren't the norm. Why not put in some of the green phone booths in Japan?

Pedestrian lightsThe sidewalk lights are another Pseudo Asian element.

3) Asian American

Neighborhood MuralsSeveral murals throughout the district relate the history and activities of its community. These are obviously Asian American.

Dragons on light polesDragons climb telephone poles at a number of locations around the district. A respected local Chinese woman used feng shui practices to determine the best locations for them. The original designs were from a Chinese artist. And yet, I have to categorize these as Asian American. Maybe I'm wrong. But I can’t convince myself that this is typical of a Chinese street. Too much thought was put into them for me to call them Pseudo-Asian, though.

Chinese Bulletin BoardOn 7th Avenue South, Chinese speaking community members post notices on a newly renovated bulletin board. This board has been here for several decades. It is topped by a terra-cotta roof that cost local leaders quite a bit to design, build, and install. This is another element that is tough to classify. Like the dragons, I can't believe that bulletin boards across China look like this, and I doubt that even particularly important ones resemble it. It does remind me of structures at temples in Japan with fortunes and advice how to survive the day. It's definitely not Pseudo Asian.

Dragon playground toyOn 7th Avenue South and South Lane Street in International Children’s Park you can find this fun toy. Shaped like a dragon, it makes a great spot for children to run around or climb on. It can categorized as Asian American. Sometimes there can be a subtle and very subjective difference between Pseudo Asian and Asian American. I guess my mind is made up by the unpretentiousness of the design. By the way, if you look carefully at the park - especially if you are able to climb a tree - you'll notice that the flat area is shaped like a yin/yang symbol. The sand pit and grass are the two halves, bordered by concrete. The tree and dragon toy mark the dots. This shows that the merry-go-round and big toy are later add-ons to the park.

Phone polesThis sculpture's pattern seems vaguely reminiscent of an Asian textile pattern. It was made by a famous local Asian American artist. I guess that makes it Asian American?

4) Asian

Hing Hay Park PagodaThe pagoda at Hing Hay Park was built in Taiwan and shipped to Seattle. The setting is perhaps a bit abnormal, but certainly this is an Asian element.

TreesOne aspect which should be explored more is plant life. Some Chinese (pictured) and Japanese (cherries on Main) trees are used along streets. But as you saw above, their installation with American gratings and steel supports dampens the impact of unique species.

(excerpts of email from August of 2002)

Here are some examples of Asian urban street elements.

I'm sure you can think of better examples from your travels or experiences. My examples tend to be heavy on Japan, because that's what I know best, but I don't at all intend that only Japanese elements be incorporated.

There are two elements from Vietnam that I've been able to pick up on. This photo shows whitewashing on the bottom of trees. [Apparently this was done to provide relection for headlamps. I've seen it in historic photos from the US when street space was ill-defined.] The other element is utility poles. Here's one that's not as attractive. Some of these old photos show nicer ones in Hanoi. They're still around, I just can't dig up a newer photo right now.

Incorporating street signs from various countries (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Philippines, etc.) might be a fairly inexpensive addition. Maybe we could work with our sister cities' transportation departments and have them ship us a few? Here are some Japanese street signs. It's probably just because they're not familiar to me, but I often find foreign street signs to be silly and refreshing. [for more street sign ideas, see my entry ID Signage]

This website has a number of series of photographs that were taken on walks around Tokyo and a few other Japanese cities. #9907, "From Nakano Shinbashi" for example has a number of interesting street elements. In the second picture, with the puddle, you see a pavement feature separating the sidewalk and roadway; it's just a minor improvement over the striping they normally use. The fourth picture shows a cement utility pole, common to Japan. The fifth has the speed limit written on the street; I wonder if Kobe transportation officials would send us their painting templates? The 8th has a sidewalk railing - they come in a variety of designs, but railing are very common in urban areas in Japan. As you go through these pictures, remember that the photographer intended them as art, so there are lots of bad examples of streetscapes as well :)

I like this page alot too. I'm not just interested in seeing all of the different trees in Tokyo, either. I think it's interesting to see all of the different ways that they are included in the pedestrian environment. The plane trees in Ichigaya have distinct supports (at least they would be distinct and unique in Seattle). The satozakura in Yotsuya are part of a triple layer of protection from automobile traffic (good for Dearborn?). The keyaki on Omotesandou are surround by a relaxed fence with flowers, much less harsh than the ground presentation of Yotsuya.

This page has a number of interesting concepts too.

In the Seattle Center City Urban Design Plan I was kind of disappointed that we decided it was enough to just have "International Art" in the International District. Wouldn't it be better to have something that was "international" but at the same time played on the water themes (blue space) of the design plan?

For example, here are some nice pictures of Miyajima in Japan. Obviously we can't build a temple, I'm just thinking of it as a conceptual backdrop. On a more mundane level, I can remember several major differences in the collection of water in Tokyo streets. In urban areas you see the concrete-slab covered gutters. But in suburban areas I remember narrow channels that carried runoff in the (seemingly ever-present) rainy season, lined with benches and huge sakura trees.

I'm not yet fluent in the history of the neighborhood, but wasn't Japantown prone to floods in the past? Can we somehow incorporate that?

I like the idea of gateways to the neighborhood. Personally I think it would be nice to have a variety of gates, each signaling a different entrance, maybe with the same gate on either end of a street. Everyone has a good image of what a typical Chinatown gate might look like. This page has a couple of good Japanese Tori; I especially like the lined up ones on the left.

Again, I hope that's useful. I've only recently taken an interest in urban design, so I hope I don't sound presumptuous. If you know of any good pages with interesting photos of Chinese, Korean, Filipino, or other Asian cities I'd be very interested to look through them.

Posted by Rob Ketcherside at June 22, 2005 9:14 PM
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