Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Retaining Walls and Curbsides: meet the people

Dana Pierce

The University District is home to a variety of different people and activities that occupy its urban fabric; the buildings as well as the spaces in-between the built environment. Among the variety of shops, marketplaces, alley ways, and streets is a mixture of curbside localities that serve as a sort of transition between the more private zones and the larger public arenas. These in-between elements enable more people to better engage with their urban surroundings and gain a greater appreciation for the uniqueness of the city.

The streetscapes in the heart of the University District are home to a variety of curbside conjunctions defining both the public- private partition as well as the public’s interaction with the private line. Some examples along the University Avenue and adjacent streets include trees, car parks, bank kiosks, and bus stations. On 15th avenue, the sidewalks are wider than adjacent streets and occupied by a series of bus stations rather than retaining walls. The enclosed, street-facing bus canopies act as a buffering agent between the street and the sidewalks, melding the latter into the shops, engaging the consumer with the market.

On the corner of 45th and Brooklyn a unique retaining wall enables a prime ad-hoc landscape surrounding the University of Washington Tower, formerly the Safeco Tower. A large courtyard space cushioned from the street by well-kept garden beds held up by a stepped retaining wall. The use of the sidewalk edge seems predefined, as well as the designation of the courtyard as a private space, however the story of the site told by observation and documentation illustrate a different story. This seemingly ordinary space, defined over time by a variety of users and passersby, reveals its complexity as an ad-hoc urban arena with an array of different functions unapparent upon initial observation.

Although the use of this sidewalk edge seems predefined as a retaining wall with limited functions, it is actually more frequently used in a greater variety of ways than the larger courtyard space. The implication of the courtyard as a private space deterred most pedestrians from using its large display of tables and benches for their intended use and encouraged the ad-hoc improvisational use of the retaining wall as such instead.

The need for a table, bench, counter, or for some a climbing ramp, was non-negotiable. The assumed inability to use the courtyard meant an inventive means of meeting these essential needs on the Brooklyn block of 45th street, and the retaining wall the accessible tool of choice. This seemingly ordinary space, defined over time by a variety of users and passersby, reveals its complexity as an ad-hoc urban arena with an equally diverse number of functions.

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