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DIY Initiative Addressing Lack of Seattle Sidewalks Becomes a City Pilot

It will take 1,800 years to outfit the entirety of Seattle with sidewalks, so the city is taking a different approach.

Crosswalk in Seattle

Three fourths of the city of Seattle has sidewalks, like this block in the Magnolia neighborhood, but a full 26 percent lack them. (Photo by SDOT Photos / CC BY-NC 2.0)

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It will take 1,800 years to outfit the entirety of Seattle with sidewalks. That figure is so startling it’s hard to believe it’s true — but 45,000 blocks, or about 26 percent of the city, have no dedicated space for pedestrians. The cost of building a new concrete sidewalk, according to the Seattle Department of Transportation, ranges between $350,000 and $800,000 per block, and the city can only afford to build 25 blocks per year. The result, according to a 2018 article in Crosscut, is an 1,800-year timeframe.

To understand why Seattle lacks this much pedestrian space, you have to go back to 1954, when the city annexed 10 square miles of unincorporated King County to expand its northern border. King County did not have the same sidewalk development requirements as Seattle, and the city never prioritized building them.

That’s starting to change, thanks to a DIY-project launched by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. Last year the safe streets nonprofit piloted a project to slow and divert traffic in Licton Springs, a North Seattle neighborhood once part of unincorporated King County. The concept is called Home Zones and is meant to create “living streets” that can be shared between cars and people. This year, following the creation of Licton Springs’ Home Zones plan, Seattle’s City Council allocated funding for an official Home Zones pilot led by the Seattle Department of Transportation. After a summer of community outreach, the city is gearing up to put it into place.

“Home Zones have been implemented around the world in different fashions,” explains Gordon Padelford, executive director of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. “We’re taking a neighborhood that’s bounded by arterial streets and putting in things like speed humps, diverters and other traffic calming devices to make it unappealing [for cars] to cut through. That way the neighborhood is returned to the people who live there.”

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways chose Licton Springs because the community had already unsuccessfully lobbied the city to build speed humps to slow traffic on neighborhood streets. With a grant from AARP, the nonprofit held meetings and walking audits with those community members to come up with a DIY safe streets plan.

The greater vision of Home Zones, according to Padelford, is installing a combination of speed humps, traffic diverters, wayfinding signage and public artwork — lower-cost options in lieu of sidewalks. “We’re trying to find solutions that have a bigger bang for their buck,” he says.

The work in Licton Springs earned the attention of Council Member Debora Juarez, who represents North Seattle. The City Council ultimately allocated $350,000 in its 2019 budget to implement Home Zone pilot projects through Seattle’s Department of Transportation.

SDOT hadn’t created a neighborhood-wide traffic calming plan since the late 1990s. Facing limited funding and increasing need, the agency realized “the most strategic way to address traffic calming is at a neighborhood level,” according to Shauna Walgren, who oversees traffic calming for the agency.

SDOT identified 20 neighborhoods in North and South Seattle lacking adequate sidewalk infrastructure. The agency drafted Home Zone plans for four neighborhoods before selecting two, based on criteria like lack of sidewalks, traffic concerns and community engagement. SDOT hired Seattle Neighborhood Greenways to carry out engagement in the northwestern neighborhood of Broadview and southwestern neighborhood of South Park.

In Broadview, a summer of community outreach resulted in proposals for speed humps, a cost-effective walkway, adding mandatory right-turn restrictions to prevent cut-through traffic, and gateway treatments into the neighborhood. The proposal also includes conveyance swales with the cost effective walkway to absorb stormwater — a huge need for a neighborhood without formal drainage.

In South Park, community engagement is ongoing with a focus group scheduled for early November. One concern is the lack of accessibility for disabled residents, according to Seattle Neighborhood Greenways community engagement coordinator Peaches Thomas, who oversees engagement with community member Cesar Roman. Residents have been “very receptive” to the planning process, she adds. “There’s a huge understanding of the need to be involved with safety in the community.”

Turning the DIY project into an official pilot is taking longer than organizers hoped, and even with city support, it isn’t fully funded. “The line item in the budget didn’t include enough money for all the things to be built,” Seattle Neighborhood Greenways engagement coordinator Robin Randels says of the Broadview proposal. “The [Department of Transportation] proposed a partial plan including speed humps, a couple of gateways and a right-turn island, and the rest is to be funded by neighborhood grants.”

Randels and Padelford expressed concerns about the time it’s taking to implement the pilots. “In my mind, in order for it to be an effective installation, it needs to happen all at once and it needs to happen rapidly,” says Randels. “We want this model basically dropped into other neighborhoods, and there are so many neighborhoods that need it.”

A “Home Zone” plan for Seattle's Broadview neighborhood (Courtesy Seattle Neighborhood Greenways)

The current timeline for Broadview implementation is to install speed humps on three streets in the next few weeks, the right-turn-only restrictions by the end of this year, and the cost effective walkway and conveyance swales next year, after the community approves the design.

Walgren stresses that Home Zones development needs significant community outreach. “This community involvement lengthens the design process, but the outcome is a more engaged community,” she says.

SDOT’s funding, design and construction process is also distinct from a DIY initiative.“For 2020, we’ve already prioritized projects in 2019,” Walgren explains. “Then we might have a whole year of design before construction.”

As the pilot progressed, SDOT wanted tools for street improvements in one place and easily accessible to the community, so the agency is developing the Home Zones Toolkit expected to be released in 2020. SDOT also created a “Cost Effective Walkway Catalog” outlining low-cost pedestrian upgrades that stand in for sidewalks.

The idea, Walgren says, is to create a backbone of traffic calming improvements and then support the community on DIY initiatives. The toolkit will offer suggestions for DIY work like community murals at intersections (like this) that reflect the neighborhood’s cultural identity, alongside info on community approval and possible funding sources.

Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, for its part, is planning a new round of DIY actions, like creating more signs to identify Home Zones areas.

The organization is also advocating for increased Home Zones funding in the 2020 city budget. If more sidewalks aren’t on the horizon, advocates at least want support for lower-cost alternatives. “We’re trying to remind politicians this is a really cost-effective solution to Seattle’s lack of sidewalks,” Padelford says, “And it ought to be continued for another year to see if it’s an effective solution.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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