Note: This piece originally appeared on Sightline Institute’s website:


Our Copenhagen apartment was in an old neighborhood. It was on a commercial street full of shops, with buses passing every two minutes. Our street was lined with marvelous Danish bikeways that made the entire city our two-wheeled home. I had lived in a compact neighborhood in Seattle, so I was already sold on urban life.

But I discovered that Copenhagen, though far denser than Seattle, is also dramatically more friendly to children. Like much urban housing in the City of Cyclists, our apartment overlooked a green and spacious courtyard. Gated where it met the sidewalk and shared only with others in our building and adjacent buildings on our block, it had play equipment, benches, chairs, and barbeques set amid gardens, lawns, and full-grown trees. It filled the interior of our block; it was like having a park inside your house. (The photo above is the wintertime view of the courtyard from my kitchen window.)

Our courtyard made all the difference for me as a mom. I could walk downstairs and spend a quarter hour with my son on the courtyard’s play equipment, then pop back inside to avoid a rain shower or get a snack. I could look out my kitchen window in the very heart of the city and watch scenes of family life unfolding: a father hanging a hammock, a boy learning to ride a bicycle, a woman tending her garden, a clump of neighbors chatting while their children dug in the sandbox. I could picture my son growing older there, playing by himself in the courtyard as a toddler, throwing a ball with a friend as a school-ager, and as a teen, returning from the city beyond to this safe haven of green.

Google Earth aerial image of my Copenhagen neighborhood.

When I came back to Seattle, I felt deprived. I wanted a courtyard, but they’re rare in North America. Perhaps as a result, families with children almost all strive to live in single-family houses with yards. Urban lots (and therefore lawns) are expensive, so families often head far into the suburbs to find affordable, private outdoor space for their children. Perhaps that’s why urban areas have fewer children than suburban areas. In the city of Seattle, for example, families with children account for only 20 percent of households, while in the rest of surrounding King County, families with children make up 37 percent of households. This outward spread of families with children contributes to sprawl and long commutes; it also undermines community stability as adults move outward to have children and inward again as empty-nesters.

Still, I’m hopeful for the future of courtyards in our region. A few buildings here and there have them, and a national organization is promoting them under the name community greens. Community greens convert existing city blocks, turning underutilized places into community spaces. Private backyards become shared residential greens by taking down fences and designing the space to fit the residents’ needs. Community greens offer safe, accessible places for children’s play; increase community bonds, which improves safety and security as neighbors get to know each other; raise property values by turning often-neglected spaces into amenities; and make urban living more inviting and attractive to families with children.

Copenhagen_play_courtyard_500 copenhagen_courtyard_500
Old and New: A passive open space area in Charlotthaven (right), and the play area outside my apartment buildingin Amager (left).

In Copenhagen, many new developments continue to feature courtyard-style housing. Charlottehaven, for example, (pictured above) provides a variety of courtyard spaces including a basketball court, passive landscape areas with seating, and children’s play structures. In existing neighborhoods, Copenhageners are redesigning the courtyards of some older apartment buildings. In such areas, different apartment buildings are grouped around the block, but the courtyard of each building is fenced from the courtyard of the next building. Now, the renewal efforts are combining these piecemeal courtyards into larger, block-wide ones—the same strategy as community greens.

When parents I know talk about the limits of compact communities for young children, I nod with understanding. And I wish they could experience Danish-style courtyards as I have. Once you’ve lived in a building wrapped around a park, a fenced yard just seems second best.

Thanks to Dara P. O’Byrne for the use of her 2006 University of Washington Master’s thesis Reversing the Trend: Strategies to Make Center City Seattle Livable and Attractive to Families with Children.


One of the reasons we helped found Streets for All Seattle is because of the need to make sure that kids have places to play in the city. That’s what makes this video from England so heartwarming; if you close it, they will play.

Playing Out from Paul Gilbert on Vimeo.

h/t Copenhagenize


Yesterday, Great City joined a number of other leading civic voices to call on Seattle’s state legislative delegation to provide more local, mode-neutral transportation funding mechanisms. You can read the letter below:

December 21, 2010

Dear Seattle’s Legislators—

Thank you for your diligent work in representing our community’s interests in Olympia. As you move forward into the 2011 legislative session, one of our top priorities is creating a more diversified, local, mode-neutral transportation funding toolbox.

The imperative for sustained public investments in our in-city transportation system is growing daily. We know that funding for mode-neutral transportation infrastructure and transit service brings more jobs, more business, and more resources to our City, but our economic future is being hamstrung by a lack of adequate funding tools. That is why we are seeking your help; we are looking to the legislature to provide local authorities with more funding tools.

These new revenue options might include the following:

  • Tax Increment Financing;
  • Motor Vehicle Excise Tax (MVET) for County and Regional transit;
  • New Transportation Benefit District tools such as a parking stall tax, local gas tax, carbon fee, engine displacement fee;
  • Capital and Transportation budget-based matching funds to pay for infrastructure in Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) zones;
  • State gas tax-based funding for local Complete Streets projects; and
  • Local share of tolling revenue from state transportation projects;

We believe that these are exceptionally important legislative opportunities that will spur economic development and job creation in designated growth centers. But these investments go beyond monetary returns, helping us advance Washington State’s business, labor, health and environmental leadership.

Thank you for your commitment, time and kind attention. We look forward to working with you on these matters in the coming session.


Brice Maryman, Great City

Kate Joncas, Downtown Seattle Association

Chuck Ayers, Cascade Bicycle Club

Morgan Ahouse, Washington State Chapter
of the Sierra Club

Lisa Quinn, FeetFirst

Rob Johnson, Transportation Choices Coalition

Josh Kavanagh, UW Transportation


The following is a post from Cheryl dos Remedios,  an artist/advocate and member of the Great City Board. Any opinions expressed here are Cheryl’s, and do not represent Great City. As an organization, Great City has not taken a position on the tunnel, nor do we plan to since that space in our civic dialogue is already well represented. If anyone would like to post any commentary on the tunnel process–regardless of your position–we are happy to make this blog available to you as we believe that honest, fact-based dialogue is important to a strong city. If you would like to contact Cheryl directly, her email address is:

Constructing a tunnel on Seattle’s waterfront will permanently alter the historic character of Pioneer Square. Whether you are pro-tunnel* or anti-tunnel, here is some information that might be new to you:

· The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has identified 13 buildings with historic significance that may be damaged during construction, including several that have direct ties to the Seattle arts community (see list below). This project is incredibly risky. Why? Because this would be the biggest bored tunnel ever.

· Many Seattleites are dreaming of an open waterfront. Please know that the same 4-lane road is being planned along the waterfront with –or- without the tunnel. In fact, the tunnel generates more traffic on the waterfront than the surface street/ transit/I-5 option (that’s the option that the citizen advisory group recommended 2 years ago in consultation with WSDOT before Gregoire, Nickels and Sims pulled plans for a bored tunnel out of a back room)

· The tunnel will more than double traffic in Pioneer Square because there are no exits into downtown. The traffic numbers are 50,000 a day at the southern interchange without tolling, with an additional 40,000 autos once tolls kick in. Currently, autos can exit on and off the viaduct at Seneca, Columbia, Elliot and Western. But once the tunnel is built, Pioneer Square becomes the south portal in-and-out of downtown. Many people will drive through Pioneer Square just to avoid tolls.

· For over a year, WSDOT has been aware that the volume of traffic in Pioneer Square “would not be acceptable” but offers no alternatives. The amount of traffic – combined with the scale of the interchange itself – would permanently alter the character of this historic district. In addition to the giant portal, likely changes include constant streams of traffic on previously quiet streets, no street parking, elimination and damage to trees, damage to buildings from traffic vibration, etc.

· My favorite oxymoron is “value engineering.” This is what happens when the State runs out of money and all of the promises they made regarding aesthetics and other culturally important values get cut. All that’s left is the mega-engineering. This project has a high likelihood of being “value engineered.”

What to do?

There are a handful of historic preservationists who are diligently responding to the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (S-DEIS), but your stories are equally important.

Why do you care about Pioneer Square?

WSDOT and the mayor, SDOT, and the City Council members** need to hear from you. Please write today. Your letter can be as short as “Protect Pioneer Square” or as long as you’d like. Both types of messages are needed.

If you can get your comments in during the public comment period for the SDEIS – that would be great. The deadline of Monday, December 13, 2010 is looming. If this date passes – yet this is the first time you’ve heard about the threat to Pioneer Square – just note that fact in your email.

Want to do more?
Please share this information with other artists, musicians, architects, landscape architects, gallery owners, club owners, theater people, film makers, historic preservationists, etc.

Thanks so very much for your help in getting the word out!
Cheryl dos Remedios

Cheryl dos Remedios is an artist/advocate and member of the Great City Board. Great City has not taken a position on the tunnel.

* If you are pro-tunnel, I’m betting that the tunnel WSDOT has designed is not what you have in mind. Please engage in this process so that we can get a better design at a lower risk.

** If the link doesn’t work, please cut-and-paste these addresses into your email:,,,,,,,,,

Buildings at Risk:
At least twelve buildings that are located within the Pioneer Square Historic District or listed on the National Register for Historic Places may be damaged during tunnel construction:

1 Yesler Building — 1 Yesler Way
Maritime Building — 911 Western Ave
Federal Building — 900 First Ave
National Building — 1000 Western Ave
Alexis Hotel/ Globe Building — 1001 First Ave
Arlington South/ Beebe Building — 1015 First Ave
Arlington North/ Hotel Cecil — 1015 First Ave
Grand Pacific Hotel — 1115 First Ave
Colonial Hotel — 1123 First Ave
Two Bells Tavern — 2313 Fourth Ave
Fire Station #2 — 2334 Fourth Ave
Seattle Housing Authority — 120 Sixth Ave N.

One additional building that is a Seattle landmark but not listed in the NRHP:
Watermark / Colman Building — 1107 First Ave.

The 2 buildings most likely to experience damage (and be torn down):
Polson Building at 61 Columbia
Western Building at 619 Western

Here’s what the Western Building website has to say:
“The Art Building of Seattle – Celebrating 100 years! More than one hundred artists work from studios in this six story building. 619 Western is one of the largest artist studio enclaves on the west coast if not the world. It has been a workspace for artists since 1979.”

And what does the S-DEIS have to say about the Western Building? “Mitigation measures to protect the building may not prevent the need for demolition to avoid the possibility of collapse.”


Kaid Benfield (director, Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth for the National Resources Defense Council; co-founder, LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system; co-founder, Smart Growth America coalition and author of Once There Were Greenfields and other books) has called for a reexamination of how we talk about Smart Growth, which begs the question: What does Smart Growth mean to you? There are official principles, of course, established when the term was coined, but do you have your own definition?

Via Verde affordable green housing, Bronx, NY (courtesy of Jonathan Rose Cos.)

It’s time to update the definition of “smart growth”

It has been a dozen years or so, fifteen at the most, since a broad but committed group of advocates and organizations coalesced around a shared set of beliefs that, borrowing from then-Maryland-governor Parris Glendening’s landmark legislation, we called “smart growth.”  The phrase suited the movement because it emphasized that we were not opposed to population and economic growth, but we felt it was important to accommodate it in a smarter way:  one that reduces the environmental, economic and social costs of unchecked suburban sprawl and brings investment and opportunity back to communities that had been left behind in the building boom on the fringe of our cities and metro areas.

I’m still for that and, if you’re reading this, chances are that you are, too.  But what about the particulars?  Have we learned anything in the last decade and a half, and are we sufficiently applying what we have learned?  I would say yes, and no, respectively.  I’ll get to that in a minute but, first, let’s look at where we’ve been.

Capitol Hill, Seattle (by and courtesy of Eric Fredericks,

rural Frederick County, MD (by and courtesy of Kai Hagen)

Of all the attempts to define what the content of smart growth should be, the one that has had the most publicity and staying power has been the set of ten principles crafted in the late 1990s for the Smart Growth Network (NRDC is a co-founder).  They are expressed as imperatives, the things we should strive for in pursuit of a smart growth agenda:

  • Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
  • Create walkable neighborhoods
  • Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration
  • Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
  • Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective
  • Mix land uses
  • Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty and critical environmental areas
  • Provide a variety of transportation choices
  • Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
  • Take advantage of compact building design


via New Urban Network


From Communities Count here’s an update on health and community information for November 2010.

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently called an end to what is now known as the Great Recession. After several quarters of retraction, the economy started to grow again –albeit slowly – in June 2009. Yet, the collateral damage from the recession is far from over, leaving many Washingtonians uncertain about what the future holds. What’s evident is this – our economic landscape has fundamentally changed, as has our collective well‐being. Several economic indicators are moving in a direction that threatens King county residents’ long‐term economic security.

The Communities Count data update for November 2010 shows:

 Large increases in poverty for children and working‐age adults
 Drop in median income from 2008 to 2009
 Unemployment remains high compared to pre‐recession levels
 Visits to food banks rising
 Personal bankruptcies continue their steady increase
 Home foreclosures in 2010 are outpacing foreclosures in 2009



Image from

Many have said that the recovery will be the beginning of a new economy, different from the one that created the bubble. The Brookings Institution speculates on the opportunity before us to shape that economic development for the betterment of all:

What if there were a new economic engine for the United States that would put our people back to work without putting the government deeper in debt? What if that economic engine also improved our international competitiveness, reduced greenhouse gases, and made the American people healthier?

At a minimum, it would sound a lot better than any of the current offers on the table: stimulus from the liberals, austerity from the conservatives, and the president’s less-than-convincing plan for a little stimulus, a little austerity, and a little bit of a clean-energy economy.

The potential for just such an economic renaissance is a lot more plausible than many would imagine. At the heart of this opportunity are the underappreciated implications of a massive demographic convergence. In short, the two largest demographic groups in the country, the baby boomers and their children—together comprising half the population—want homes and commercial space in neighborhoods that do not exist in anywhere near sufficient quantity. Fixing this market failure, unleashing this latent demand, and using it to put America back to work could be accomplished without resorting to debt-building stimulus or layoff-inducing austerity. At least for the moment, Washington has an opportunity to speed up private investment for public good and launch what could be a period of long-lasting prosperity. It is a market-driven way to make the economic recovery sustainable while addressing many of the most serious problems of our time: the health care crisis, climate change, over-reliance on oil from countries with terrorist ties, and an overextended military. …More


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