Block Notes

Block Notes

By Sara Jacobs

“A touch of wind on the cheek, the lingering kiss of Lake Union. This is a love letter to the places, people, and moments that make up South Lake Union.” (as seen on a sign in South Lake Union window, 24 Feb 2016).  

I get off the bus and walk three blocks to Lake Union Park. Opened in 2010 on former Navy land, Lake Union Park captures the view of north Seattle and Lake Union. The park feels awkwardly leftover despite sitting between the lake’s prized waterfront and the rapid gentrification of the South Lake Union neighborhood. Situated as it is in one of the most sought after corners of increasingly expensive Seattle, I can’t help but notice the irony of the park’s underused, overdesigned lawn. Yet it feels like the right type of public space to accompany the new, Amazon-driven development along nearby North Terry Street: imposing in its passive, monofunctional efficiency.

This project considers borders — in identity and place — through an experiment in critical-reflectivity on what it means to be a landscape architect in a rapidly gentrifying city. To do so, I follow the Lake2Bay, a proposed linear urban park that would connect Lake Union to Elliot Bay, from its starting point in Lake Union Park to where it connects with Elliot Bay at Olympic Sculpture Park. The path moves through three distinct neighborhoods: South Lake Union, whose rapid transformation into a tech hub has come to represent Seattle’s current gentrification woes, the tourist space between the Space Needle and the waterfront and the unkempt, post-industrial area with a visible street population that sits in between them. The path capitalizes on two of Seattle’s most distinguishing traits: its love affair with the outdoors and recreation, and the symbiotic relationship between technology and development that is driving the city's growth. Seattle is an ecotechnological landscape, its sense of place reflected in a desire for both pristine nature and technological innovation (1). In this context, landscape is at best an agent capable of bridging borders, contributing to the livability and well being of the city. At worst, it draws new borders, becoming a tool in the service of privatizing economics.

Graffiti covers a land use planning sign announcing more high-rise condominiums in front of a fenced off, block-sized ditch. Development feeding off technology feeding off development. Lined with cars and chain link fences, the block is a hole; a piece of cleared land, decaying while it waits for the new luxury condos to rise. The only grass I see is peaking from under the chain link fence. On the next block, thousands of workers bustle in and out of the new Amazon headquarters.

Over three and a half miles long, the Lake2Bay will convert city streets to greenways that incorporate pedestrian, bike and bus traffic. Walking the route proposed for this urban design project takes forty-five minutes. This sensory ethnography of that walk considers whether the proposed Lake2Bay, as a synecdoche for Seattle’s current accelerated development, highlights or dismantles urban materiality as experienced through a bodily sense of place (2). Experienced through the materiality of the ground and sky, landscape is one method of urban connection. But what and whose histories, places, and aesthetics does it serve? As I walk, what boundaries of self and of place, experienced as both citizen and designer, do I cross? What borders do I perceive, redraw, or erase?

Leaving Lake Union Park, I cross to the south side of Mercer Street and everything changes. I am in it now – South Lake Union, the neighborhood whose current reconstruction has come to symbolize the uneven development of Seattle. As I walk, the street becomes narrower and the buildings taller. The new cobblestone paving looks like it belongs in an outdoor mall, and it makes me wonder how many cars drive these blocks. Following the example of the office workers, I walk in the middle of the street. I’m surrounded by white men in casual suits, and the only people of color I notice are two women selling tacos from a small cart.

The new Amazon headquarters, which will be home to 60,000 workers, abuts North Terry Street as it moves perpendicularly away from Lake Union Park. The Lake2Bay follows nearly the same route, continuing on North Terry before turning west on Thomas Street. Thomas Street is an industrial looking alley of low lying and windowless buildings. As the Lake2Bay continues on Thomas Street, it nears Highway 99/Aurora Avenue, before turning south on Broad Street at the Space Needle and Seattle Center. From Seattle Center, the path continues on Broad Street before ending at the Olympic Sculpture Park on Elliot Bay. The Lake2Bay proposal was developed, at the urging of the city of Seattle, by a citizen / stakeholder group in 2013, resulting in a unified vision of public space for what is now a fragmented area between the Seattle Waterfront and South Lake Union (3). The path will connect some of central Seattle’s most iconic landmarks, including Seattle Center, Myrtle Edwards Park, the Olympic Sculpture Park, and Lake Union Park, with emerging public spaces, finding a way across the borders that currently separate them. Its goal is to relink the neighborhoods through landscape-scale urban design.

Three blocks from where I started, I am deep into Amazon’s development of the neighborhood. Two women in bright yellow waitress uniforms and red paper hats stand on the corner passing out bananas. A sign reads, “Free bananas, not just for Amazon workers, but for everyone.” Is this Amazon’s most significant contribution to the neighborhood?

The sidewalk is crowded, but moving. There is no reason for me to visit this place, the public street only an extension of the neighboring office buildings. A group of food workers are crowded together, laughing near a food truck parked at a building’s entrance.

Borders are the moments and spaces where a sense of place, the subjective feeling of locality, changes (4). On the scale of the city block, a shifting sense of place emerges through walking and photographing as a “rhythmical [practice that] brings our bodies into conversation with the environments we move through.” (5)  Walking measures space and time against the rhythm of the body. The materiality of the ground, the paving and the torn up concrete can reveal the changing character of a neighborhood. On one block a man is washing newly laid pavement; two blocks to the west, the concrete is piled in crumbling stacks. The physical changes in the landscape mark who is allowed and what activities are encouraged. The materiality of the ground reveals a different way of measuring the imagined and physical barriers that are part of our experiences of place.

Following old, half-buried train tracks, I turn from Terry Avenue onto Thomas Street. The change is visceral; from the low buildings to the jumbled, graffitied paving, Thomas Street is the foil to sanitized Terry Avenue North. I walking past food trucks and the shells of windowless warehouses. Time reveals itself in the tram tracks, which are partially covered by three different eras of concrete. This street is quieter and wider. I can see the sky.

I pass the last clean building as I near Aurora Avenue. A building worker is power washing the new pavement; when I pass him, the ground becomes older and more torn. I am out of South Lake Union, but the street still feels like it’s under construction. Orange construction tape from yet to be started projects blocks the sidewalk. It is difficult to maneuver in this space, but wanting to stay on Thomas Street I am forced to hop from side to side in order to avoid the construction areas.  

Understanding place involves understanding the self; there is “no self without place, and no place without self.” (6) As I walk I notice the changes from one block to the next. Like the body, the city is no longer static, becoming “opened to fluidity and transitivity.”(7) I ask myself, “what role do I play when I advocate for change in the urban fabric?” To experience a sense of place, I need to put myself in place in the city, searching for the “the interplay between the city as place and the assorted mobilities (and imaginaries) it fosters.”(8) How does my body walking through this space – one side pristine and kept, the other side derelict and displaced – reflect the tension between public good and public access? Why do I feel most out of place in the place I most helped to create?

I am at Aurora Avenue, and in two blocks rubble and decay have replaced order and wealth. This border is not subtle: the sidewalk is filled with garbage piles and broken concrete. I try with difficulty to imagine the South Lake Union office workers in this place, in the same way I try with difficulty to imagine a homeless man in South Lake Union. Both neighborhoods are growing and expanding. Which will eat the other?

I encounter a closed road, blocked by cement trucks. I put my head down and maneuver around a group of construction workers. I am only a block from the Space Needle and four blocks from Amazon headquarters, but it’s just me and the Jersey barriers.

The map I am constructing of the ground and sky shows the rationality between the material and social qualities of the built environment. How can I recover landscape to engender urban change that is aesthetically, socially and economically just? In the three neighborhoods that the Lake2Bay wants to bridge, it is difficult to see how the path would be anything more than an easier route between Lake Union and Olympic Sculpture Park. Maybe that is OK. Maybe it will improve public health and well being through contact with nature.(9) Or maybe it will become a catalyst for more development, feeding South Lake Union as it grows further into Seattle.  

I cross onto Broad Street and I am at Seattle Center. The sky opens and I crane my neck to see the top of the Space Needle. Tour groups mill around, yet no one crosses back onto Thomas Street, back to the rubble piles and homeless men. The intersection of Thomas and Broad Streets is a threshold between the advertised city and the city that is increasingly invisible. The Lake2Bay would erase this perceived but undrawn line, as though the five blocks that separate the Space Needle from South Lake Union don’t exist.

I follow Broad Street away from the Space Needle. After the closed buildings of Belltown and South Lake Union, the sky feels so big here. I look down and notice the worn designs that pattern the paving. This is a nice place to be, even if underused and under-connected.  

The materiality of South Lake Union and the enthusiasm for the Lake2Bay shows how landscape is increasingly desirable when it is a tool for creating and catalyzing urban places. The uneven development of Seattle’s urban center complicates the responsibility and role of landscape architects as participants in urban change and history. The Lake2Bay’s publicity in the context of South Lake Union could be viewed as an extension of that area’s ideals of corporate driven development. Unchecked, the desire to build healthy cities may prioritize the economy of parks over the building of equitable places.

Finally, away from Seattle Center and down the hill. Soon the street is narrow again, the buildings tall, and the ground used. The paving seems to change with every building. I am out of breath; the hill is steep. Up and down Broad Street. This area is full of apartments, but the street is always empty.

I finish my walk at Olympic Sculpture Park. The landscape here is well-maintained, well-designed, well-funded and full of people. Unlike Lake Union Park, the sense of this place is diverse, complex and specific.

Walking brings my focus back to flows — of people, of space, of economy — that continue to move with or without me. My body fills the space between the ground and the sky, the void created by the cityscape. Experiencing the Lake2Bay as a network of flows, I can begin to consider the myriad of ways in which landscape, itself a collection of material and sensory paths, is made.


(1) Pink, Sarah. (2009). Doing sensory ethnography. Los Angeles; London: SAGE; Klingle, M. (2007). Emerald city: An environmental history of Seattle. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

(2) Martin, M. C. (2007). Crossing the line: Observations from East Detroit, Michigan USA. Qualitative Social Work, 6, 4, 465-475.

(3) Lake2Bay Coalition, (2014).

(4) Cresswell, Tim (2014) Place: A short introduction (2nd Edn). New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

(5) Yi’En, Cheng. (2014) "Telling Stories of the City." Space and Culture 17, no. 3, 211-23.

(6) Casey in Kemp, S. P. (2010). Place matters: Towards a rejuvenated theory of environment for direct social work practice. In W. Borden (Ed.). Reshaping theory in contemporary social work: Toward a critical pluralism, p. 119.

(7) Hall, Tom. (2009) "Footwork: Moving and Knowing in Local Space(s)." Qualitative Research 9, no. 5 (2009): 571-85, p. 573.

(8) Hall 2009, p. 574.

(9) Frumkin, Howard. (2005) "Guest Editorial: Health, Equity, and the Built Environment"; Environmental Health Perspectives 113, no. 5: A290-291.

Sara  Jacobs is a practicing landscape architect and lecturer in Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington, where she is also a PhD student. Her research considers the ways environmental knowledge is materially produced and visually represented within urban ecological design. She holds degrees in landscape architecture from Harvard University and in architecture from the University of California, Berkeley.