Winter-time view from our Copenhagen apartment's kitchen window.

Our Copenhagen apartment overlooked a beautiful courtyard.  As I washed dishes, I could watch neighbors and their children out in the community space – harvesting vegetables in the garden, playing in the sandbox, hanging laundry to dry, or servicing their bicycles in the storage sheds.  My own son, Orion, was only one-and-a-half, not old enough to play alone outside.  But I watched the older children tooling around in the courtyard and thought how perfect it was – the parents could be upstairs getting dinner ready or dishes washed while the kids were entertained with friends in a safe space separate from the public sidewalks where cars were not allowed.  Thinking about the American counterpart – the fenced backyard – I decided this was superior in many accounts.  It was much larger, people could share amenities, and there were built-in friends.  No need to schedule a play date for your bored child.  No need to drive to a neighborhood park.

Orion playing at the sandbox in our Copenhagen apartment's courtyard.

We were able to replicate that type of experience in a Bainbridge Island courtyard apartment complex.  Our apartment overlooked a wide grassy field with several large evergreen trees, lined by a walking path.  Now five years old, Orion met the neighbors before we did.  Every evening, kids would collect in the courtyard.  They would ride bikes around the path, play soccer in the field, or just run around.  Usually when I walked home from my bus after work, Orion would already be out playing with his neighborhood buddies.  I’d head upstairs to find my husband, Jason, making dinner.  From our living room, I could watch Orion play.  Sometimes I would ride my exercise bike while I watched him, other times I would help Jason with dinner.  It was great – Orion was entertained and we could get our chores done. Once he came in for the evening, we were able to have quality family time because we had already done our “To Do” list for the day.

Orion playing ball with neighborhood friends in our Bainbridge Island apartment's courtyard.

Then we bought a home.  It met a lot of our criteria.  For my husband Jason, it had southern exposure where he could plant a garden.  For me, it was within a reasonable walking and bicycling distance from school, the grocery store, the library, and my bus stop to work.  But it sits on a shared driveway with just a couple of neighbors scattered throughout a few acres and a busy road separating us from anything else.  It doesn’t feel like a neighborhood.  There were no kids to play with right outside the front door.

We moved in and I convinced myself that it would still be a good fit for Orion.  He could have room to play outside – in the woods on our property or kicking the soccer ball into his goal.  He could finally play his X-Box Kinect without us worrying that the downstairs neighbors would come unhinged.  My husband told me not to worry – Orion was getting to an age where he would want to have friends come over to play or sleepover rather than to gather for an impromptu game of soccer in the community green.  Our apartment was pretty small to have friends over.  The home had a lot of what we were looking for, so we signed on the dotted line and moved in.

It didn’t take long until Orion would come to us whining, “I’m bored.”  I’d be busy with my “To Do” list, but he wasn’t entertained outside with the neighborhood buddies.  I still had to get the chores done, so usually I told him to find something to entertain himself with.  All too often, he would have no ideas.  No, he didn’t want to play outside by himself.  That was lonely.  Couldn’t I play with him? Well, if I couldn’t play with him, then, could he play video games?  It was a difficult battle between my sanity and limiting his screen time.

We arranged for some play dates, but that took a lot of work.  You had to schedule it, have the house cleaned up, and then watch the children play and bring lots of toys all over your clean house.  It wasn’t very conducive to actually getting that “To Do” list done.

And play dates don’t solve the daily dilemma of the “Mom, I’m bored” reality.  Jason has started working nights, so Orion and I arrive home at about 5:30 pm after a full day of work and school.  It’s just the two of us, so I don’t have an extra adult to balance chore duty.  I do my chores– making dinner, cleaning the kitchen, paying the bills – while Orion does his homework and his chores.  But he usually finishes before me and then starts the “I’m bored” routine.  I line up more chores or recommend he find something to play with in his room.  He grudgingly obliges.

But I know from experience that this is a second-rate choice.  I think back to those evenings where I could watch Orion playing happily outside while I got my tasks done without any interruptions. That meant that when we came together at the dinner table in the evening, we were all ready for quality time.  Now we have more time together, but it isn’t as relaxed.  I feel stressed that Orion is bored, and a bit guilty that I can’t be there to play.  But I have stuff to get done.  Orion understands that, but still wants my attention.

Last week, I heard Ross Chapin speak about cottage communities and his new book Pocket Neighborhoods.  These neighborhoods are places where houses are clustered around lanes or courtyards.  He talked about how neighborhoods have changed since he was a child.  Growing up, he dubbed his childhood as “free range,” where he and the neighborhood kids would explore their community without much adult supervision.  He remembers homes that fronted the streets with large front porches and kids played on or near the street.  Homes then began to be reconfigured.  Subdivisions featured large cul-de-sacs and garages dominated the streetscape.  Families began orienting their outdoor lives around their backyard.  Homes turned away from the street.

As Chapin noted during his presentation, homes have also grown dramatically in size between the 1950s and 2000s, a time when the average household size dropped from 3.38 to 2.59.  In 1950, the average home was less than 1,000 square feet.  In 1970, the average jumped to 1,524 square feet.  But in 2007, the average home ballooned to 2,521 square feet – basically swallowing the 1950 and 1970 home in one bite.

Cluster housing is a different model than the typical suburban home.  You have less private space inside your home, because cottages are typically less than 1,500 square feet.  But you have common spaces shared between a cluster of 4 to 12 homes.  The common area includes landscaped open spaces but also a community room where there may be a shared workshop, storage, and other amenities.  Even though the homes are small, they are typically designed to maximize space and light.  Privacy is considered when placing windows so families don’t feel that “fishbowl” effect.  Private yards abut community spaces with adequate separation so that you can sit on your deck to relax, barbeque, or watch the kids play without feeling exposed.

You could write a full blog (or book) on the details that make successful courtyard and cottage housing communities.  But here, I’d like to focus on this type of housing – whether it’s a multi-family apartment community or a single-family neighborhood – as a great model for families.  And I think they work particularly well for small families like mine.  Families with only children are climbing – about 1 in every 5 families has just one kid.  In 2009, nearly 1/3 of children lived in single parent households, families that may prefer more community support and less square footage in their home.

Parents and children out in our Bainbridge Island courtyard.

The saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  While every community can provide this, I think that well-designed neighborhoods can make it easy.  When we moved into our apartment, Orion suddenly had a dozen new friends.  As we watched him from the walkway, Jason and I connected with parents.  We could call on them for last-minute babysitters.  We shared dinners together.  We celebrated birthdays in the community green.  The bonds we have with these families have outlasted our time in the apartment community.  Many of the families we met there are still good friends.

For Orion, he suddenly had a slew of kids to adapt and learn from.  He played with kids several years older and younger than him.   I like to think of it as pseudo-brothers and sisters.  I remember that some of the older kids would watch over Orion and the new Kindergarteners on the bus when he started school.  And I loved watching him tenderly share a toy with the younger children.  I think this helped him become the social, outgoing boy he is now at age 7.  He does not shy away from trying new activities.  He confidently strides into situations that I would not have at his age.  I’m not saying this is entirely because of where we lived, but I think it played a role.

I don’t regret the home we settled in, but I am keenly aware of what we are missing.  As we plan for new homes in communities, I hope more thought goes into neighborhood design.  I think less backyard fences and more community amenities would lead to a greater quality of life in American towns and cities.  Neighborhoods, when designed well, can become villages where our kids grow up.


If you were around here in the 90′s, chances are you have some fond, colorful memories of Seattle Mariners Manager Lou Pinella. Pinella was the architect of many an unexpected Mariners’ win–big-bat slugfests seemed to go into double digits on both halves of the scoreboard in the Kingdome, but the really fun surprise wins were the non-stop action of what “Sweet Lou” introduced to Seattle sports fans as “Small Ball.” It wasn’t about burying the other team in home runs, it was about a well-timed pinch hitter’s bunt, getting the guy over, the sac fly. Today’s round up of recent transit headlines reminds us a little of that approach. It’s not about the home run totals, it’s about getting that “W” up on the scoreboard. In transit investments, much like a tie ball game at the Dome, it takes time, guts, and doing all the little things right.

Here in Seattle, Mayor Mike McGinn is expected to announce today that the planned half-mile Streetcar extension for the north end of Broadway will receive $1.75 million federal grant.

The Seattle Times’ Mike Lindblom is keeping score:

“When a planned $1.25 million in city funds are added, the $3 million total should be enough to fully design a potential $25 million track… [and a] 10-foot-wide bicycle lane separated from traffic.”

In Minneapolis, traffic engineers are breaking out of the silos of the status quo with a new $1.1 million multi-agency collaboration to update signal timing for better light rail service and potentially create an environment where cars flow more freely as well.

That kind of local collaboration to make everything work better is just what cities need to thrive, and it is just a microcosm of the interagency coordination we’re thrilled to see at a national level.

Speaking of one of those federal agencies, US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was in the Phoenix area recently to announce  an even bigger grant for the Central Mesa Light Rail Extension, an accomplishment orchestrated in part by Michael James who you may remember from our Brown Bag Lunch with Mayor McGinn last month. Michael is a Seattle-area native who managed the planning and environmental process for the Central Mesa light rail transit extension before returning to Seattle to take a job at SDOT. LaHood talks about the attributes of this project that helped it get that “W” on the federal funding scoreboard:

When I visited Mesa last Friday to announce a $75 million grant through the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment (New Starts/Small Starts) program, I saw a community that can’t wait to expand its transportation choices…  As FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said, “Extending the popular Central Mesa light rail line will open more doors to economic opportunity and spur new development, while reducing congestion in one of the Arizona’s fastest-growing regions.”

We know that investments in public transit are good for residents and good for the economy. As we’ve seen right next door in Phoenix, building transit creates jobs right away. And when routes are up and running, transit reduces our dependence on oil; helps build strong, sustainable neighborhoods; and opens up new economic opportunities that will pay dividends for generations to come.

Meanwhile up in that cosmopolitan international city to the north, architectural flights of transit fancy are out of vogue. Today’s fashionable transit investment is utility. That city’s new Evergreen Line signals an end of the era of high design and architectural commissions for individual stations, which began and ended with the Millennium Line – each station costing about $10 million.  Price Tags calls such commitment an unaffordable extravagance in the era of private-public partnerships. We’d close with a baseball reference here, but its Vancouver, not Toronto…

Here’s hoping we continue to see more examples of the many little things getting done to keep us rolling towards a future of better transportation alternatives.


We’re excited about tomorrow’s Brown Bag Lunch to hear from Cascade Bicycle Club about the opportunities they see for Seattle in the ongoing update process for the Bicycle Master Plan. Across the country and right here at home, smart folks are creating those opportunities, and measuring the economic value of cyclists.


This is geared more towards rural America, but from Utility Cycling comes a great video on the economic development potential of Bike Tourism.

And, from Mother Nature Network we learn that recent data shows that even though consumers who bicycle to a local store may spend the same, per visit (as those who arrived via public transportation or a car), the bicycling consumer visits the same store more often, thus increasing overall receipts.

Post-sharrow Seattle

It is encouraging, then, to see some great investments coming online here at home.

  • Via the Daily Journal of Commerce’s SeattleScape Blog we learn the West Thomas Street Pedestrian and Bicycle Overpass is now open and has been host to a steady stream of users in both directions, “despite the wet streets and ominous clouds, looking very pleased. It’s a good bet that nearby office workers will do the same on work days.”
  • Up in North Seattle, there’s the new Linden Avenue Complete Street, which features a separated cycle track. According to the Cascade Bike Blog, one of the first people to see it (a member of the “hesitant majority”) exclaimed: “I would actually bike on that!”
  • Jumping off that news, Seattle Bike Blog reports that construction is well underway on the main structure of the UW Station biking and walking bridge over Montlake Boulevard. (SBB has more on that Linden cycle track, too, including photos, as well as an update on something called a “Bike Sneak,” intended as a safer way to cross the Streetcar tracks going into the ground through Little Saigon.)

It stands to reason that asking cyclists to chart their own course through busy city streets won’t translate into a huge share of folks choosing to get out of their car. As we’ve discussed here, research proves its not the safest way to include cycling in a city’s transportation mix, either.

What women want

The Atlantic Cities has a nice summary of “research that lays out some of the reasons why women stay off bikes.”

Women want things like more, better cycling infrastructure, supportive communities of cyclists that look like them, and for cycling for transportation overall to be a safer, more convenient experience.

Certainly relevant here in Seattle, where we want more gender diversity among cyclists. Recent research shows that women make up less than 30 percent of the riders on Seattle’s streets. And we’ve noted on this blog before that “Both women and men are using separated bicycle lanes at more equal rates, whereas roads without separation (even the same road before redesign) are used predominately by men.”

Some argue, however, that we have farther to go towards gender equality in a world where women are laden, more so than men, by obligations of both work and family, necessitating the multipurpose trips ill-served by bike.

What do you think? “Build it and they will come,” or “break the glass ceiling.” What needs to happen before cycling becomes a reasonable option for more women?


Also: New West Seattle bike advocacy effort, Cascade Bicycle Club on the broader bicyclistic future of Seattle and more!

This Thursday, we welcome our friends at Cascade Bicycle Club to our Brown Bag Lunch at GGLO–Cascade will be providing an overview of the Bicycle Master Plan Update process. We meet at noon at GGLO’s Space at the Steps (1301 1st Avenue, 1/4 of the way down Harbor Steps)-bring your lunch and your insightful questions!

There is a lot of action and interest in bicycling as a solution to congestion, economic development and environmental challenges, both here at home and around the country.

Speaking of the Bicycle Master Plan; also Thursday, a new advocacy group is busy organizing their first outreach event for West Seattleites who feel like the peninsula is behind the rest of the city in safe, continuous bike routes. The fledgling group of a dozen hopes to rally Southwest residents behind the alternative transportation needs of their neighborhood throughout the plan update process.

So how are we doing as a city that cycles? To begin to answer this question, Cascade recently partnered on the creation and installation of an automated bike counter. Installed within the last week, this will give transportation planners and advocates alike a better handle on real bicycling mode share in one main corridor.

Meanwhile, The Atlantic Cities has a post with the surprising assertion that “transportation engineers have long… counter-intuitively argued that you’re actually better off learning to ride alongside cars than having your own bike lane.” Readers of this blog are likely to be un-surprised, however, to learn what research can now prove: “A major city street with parked cars and no bike lanes is just about the most dangerous place you could ride a bike…”

…Your chance of injury drops by about 50 percent, relative to that major city street, when riding on a similar road with a bike lane and no parked cars. The same improvement occurs on bike paths and local streets with designated bike routes. And protected bike lanes – with actual barriers separating cyclists from traffic – really make a difference. The risk of injury drops for riders there by 90 percent…

As for the economy, which continues to be a focal point for all of us as campaigns hurtle towards election day, Sustainable Cities Collective has nine reasons why cyclists and infrastructure spur organic growth.

How do you see rethinking our car-dependant, spread-out, North American development legacy changing how we live and get around in Seattle? Can everyone, from an 8-year-old child to her 80-year-old grandmother, one day have the freedom to safely bike to get wherever they need to go? Join us Thursday at noon at GGLO as we explore a two-wheel path to that vision.


Don’t miss our special Brown Bag Lunch tomorrow at SvR featuring former Parks Superintendent Ken Bounds. Bounds will join us at noon to present the Seattle Parks Foundation’s Sustaining Seattle’s Parks report, including the new Metropolitan Parks District solution proposal to long range operations and maintenance challenges.

Reminder: special location!

SvR Design, 1205 Second Avenue

As we’ve seen, parks can drive economic development, enriching a community both financially and aesthetically. And, there’s been some more great recent commentary and content in the urbanist interwebs looking at the value of, and support schemes for, urban green investments.

A recent Next American City post took a look at the value of urban trees, something we have discussed here and at a Brown Bag lunch over the summer, with a round up of various benefits of more mature trees compared to new plantings (as we know, even when controlled for socioeconomic conditions, well-treed neighborhoods experience less crime than their treeless peers) and the post includes the particularly impressive stat on air quality that tree trunk size 10 times larger produces an ecological benefit that is 70 times larger than a younger sapling.

A 2002 study by David Nowak, with the USDA Forest Service, examined how trees affect local and regional air quality by altering the atmosphere of urban environments. What he found was that large, healthy trees greater than 77 centimeters (30 inches) in diameter remove 70 times more air pollution annually than small, healthy trees less than eight centimeters (three inches) in diameter… (Keep Reading and be sure to click through to Next American City to see the impressive chart on the stark performance comparison)

The Architect’s Newspaper recently looked at the various ways New York City is considering funding the operations and maintenance of a parks system in an extraordinary phase of growth:

“There is no one model that works; it’s not one size fits all. There can only be one Central Park Conservancy,” said Benepe. The parks commissioner advocates for entrepreneurship, saying that funding alliances arise organically to creatively meet the needs and conditions of each park. In the city’s recent park projects, that spirit has had a decidedly development-friendly bent. Brooklyn Bridge Park and Hudson River Park, both waterfront sites with complex programs incorporating recreation, leisure, and environmental remediation, have gone the way of rents, not altruism…

Closer to Seattle, one city is considering a levy to infuse their parks with much needed funds:

Proposition 2, the parks maintenance, restoration, and enhancement levy, will raise $2.35 million annually in dedicated funding to restore parks maintenance, provide lifeguards at Houghton, Waverly, and Juanita beaches, and continue forest and habitat restoration and stewardship through the Green Kirkland volunteer program… (via For Kirkland supports dedicated funding to take care of city | Letter – Kirkland Reporter)

What is the best path forward for Seattle? Check out the Seattle Parks Foundation’s recent report and join us to learn more about the Metropolitan Parks District proposal, tomorrow at noon at SvR. Bring your lunch, and your insightful questions!


Shortly after his election, President Obama promised the end of business as usual in transportation, housing and environmental planning. The three corresponding federal agencies storied legacies contained few examples of collaboration or even correlated investments. Think of new highways to nowhere, new affordable housing developments just out of range of planned transit projects, and none of them considered against the climate-disruptive spectrum of different human settlement patterns.

Announced in Seattle at the National Smart Growth Conference by HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson and DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, the inter-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities seeks to transform these important areas of federal investment for the 21st century.The Puget Sound Regional Council’s Growing Transit Communities has been working hard to implement that vision locally. Here’s your opportunity to be a part of the solution. Join the upcoming workshop (below) and get your hands dirty in housing, transportation and environmental policy. Click Here to Register Now.

Implementation Strategies Workshop

Tuesday, October 30, 2012 – 3-6 PM – Seattle Center Northwest Rooms

The Growing Transit Communities Partnership’s Oversight Committee, two Steering Committees and three Corridor Task Forces will convene a joint workshop event to discuss implementation strategies to promote equitable transit communities.

The event will include an unveiling of the final results and recommendations of the Transit Community Typology by the Center for Transit Oriented Development. In addition, Equity Grant Program recipients and Growing Transit Communities subcommittees will present on their lessons learned and recommended actions.

The workshop format will encourage discussion and information-sharing among participants to help inform the Corridor Action Strategies that the Partnership will adopt in Spring 2013.
  • Dena Belzer, President, Strategic Economics, representing the Center for Transit-Oriented Development
  • Josh Brown, Commissioner Kitsap County, President, Puget Sound Regional Council and Chair of the Growing Transit Communities Partnership
  • Tony To, Executive Director, Homesight; Vice-Chair of the Growing Transit Communities Partnership, Chair of the Equity Network 
Interested members of the public are encouraged to attend.
Please contact Sara Schott Nikolic for more information.

As they say, you’re either a part of the problem, or a part of the solution.

A recent Grist post illustrates a troubling trend in the 4th estate, where new research indicates the science behind sustainability may be getting short shrift.

According to a new analysis of data released last year, American newspapers are far more likely to publish uncontested claims from climate deniers, many of whom challenge whether the planet is warming at all and are “almost exclusively found” in the U.S. media.

Ambitious projects move forward, however, to literally change the way our modern world is built around us, and transform the fundamentals of future development.

Sustainable Cities Collective pays a visit to London’s newest landmark, a ₤30 million building created to encourage discourse on sustainability issues and to showcase potential solutions.

“’The Crystal’ is a new initiative funded by Siemens and built on former industrial wasteland in London’s Royal Docks, at the heart of the city’s Green Enterprise Zone.  Comprising of a state of the art conference centre, flexible working space, meeting rooms, and a public exhibition surrounding the environmental issues faced by modern cities, the venue is being touted as the first of its kind.  Opening to the public in October, the exhibition uses interactive displays and multi-media information panels to highlight some of the problems global cities are facing; from managing fresh water supplies, to how cities are built and how we get around them.  And whilst promoting some of the engineering solutions being dreamt up in Siemens laboratories, the venue is not afraid to shy away from the facts of burgeoning urban population growth and the competing demands being placed on our increasingly fragile eco-system.  An immersive cinema display that focuses on the accelerating global population in which the participants stand inside – and become part of – the screen is particularly hard hitting.

Closer to home, a recent student-authored Capitol Hill Seattle post takes a look at what has gone into the making of the $30 million Bullitt Center, “an investment that the developers believe will pay for itself over the course of the building’s estimated 250-year life span, a dramatic increase over the 40-year life span of buildings constructed today.”

Here’s hoping that the advancements reflected in these new buildings become commonplace in the next generation of our built environment.

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