Pairing Healthy Housing and Public Space

Jeff Foster is Principal at GGLO in Seattle. He's focused on housing and neighborhoods, and is always looking for transformational opportunities to build community. Jeff served as a co-lead in developing the Healthy Housing for All publication. GGLO projects have also been featured in the Assembly: Civic Design Guidelines and various CfAD case studies.

The Center for Active Design sat down with Jeff to learn more about his work, and discuss the value that comes from connecting affordable housing to vibrant public spaces.

We know quality, affordable housing is a boon to the health of the residents who live there. How can affordable projects incorporate public space amenities that benefit the broader community—to enhance physical, mental, and social wellbeing for everyone?

No project exists in a vacuum. When GGLO takes on a master planning project, we make sure urban design and public space considerations are a central consideration. How does the project interface with surrounding neighborhoods? How can we knit neighbors together, and connect residents to broader opportunities in the surrounding community? Vibrant community gathering spaces and multi-modal streetscape improvements are essential to achieving these goals.

The 10th Avenue Hillclimb in Seattle illustrates this perspective nicely. This vital public space overcomes topographical challenges to connect the Yesler Terrace community with surrounding neighborhoods – especially Little Saigon. This was a commitment Seattle Housing Authority made as part of the larger context of redevelopment. The Hillclimb intertwines stairs, ramps, and bike runnels to maximize accessibility for all community members. Seating, lighting, and public art make the Hillclimb a great place to socialize or take in the view.

What are some of the challenges you’ve come across in designing great public spaces for affordable communities? How do you overcome them?

Our greatest challenge, and aspiration, is to ensure our designs meet unique community needs. In many of the projects we’ve worked on, we’ve sought to move past potential language and cultural barriers to facilitate dialogue and build new partnerships. Community engagement is often required in Seattle area projects, but we aim to push beyond ‘ticking the boxes’, and make engagement an upfront priority.

Take Greenbridge in King County, for example. There were over 100 meetings with residents, neighbors, business leaders, public agencies, and the surrounding community. Creating a new master plan for this site meant having translators on hand at several key meetings so that we could genuinely listen to residents – in five languages (!) – about what was most important to them in the community. After all, what’s the point of creating a public space that doesn’t serve the people who live there?

Addressing community needs can require us to challenge the status quo when it comes to zoning and regulations. At Greenbridge, we found out that only a fraction of the residents owned cars—so why overbuild for parking when we could adapt more land to pedestrian trails, community gardens, pocket parks, and more? The team worked with King County to develop a unique Demonstration Ordinance, and we were able to validate the theory that a mixed-income neighborhood can dramatically benefit from dedicating less space to cars.

We know affordable projects can have very tight budgets. How do you address any pushback around the costs of healthy design features?

With health as a priority upfront, project design can adapt features that are likely required as amenities to do double-duty. On larger sites, bicycle and pedestrian amenities are a way to meet open or green space requirements and provide opportunity for residents to get outside and enjoy them. We have designed projects that include active/open stairs, bridges, rooftop amenities, etc. that help operators sell their project, and provide ways for residents to move around the buildings they live in.

We find that vibrant public spaces can benefit our projects and neighborhoods that they are in, making a mixed-income community more appealing to all residents of all income tiers. Investing in a great public realm also boosts surrounding property values, which has tremendous appeal to homeowners and market rate developers.

Mission aside, cost-effective solutions drive decisions. Health is an essential and recurring theme in all our community engagement processes and in our design work. Consumer demand for healthy neighborhoods is on the rise, and from a financial standpoint, the motivation to “build healthy” will continue to grow – it’s common sense.

Anything else you’d like to share? Perhaps another project to highlight?

It may sound surprising coming from an architect, but often the spaces in between buildings make great places. Certainly, they are symbiotic—a beautiful park or public plaza that generates local pride can be the catalyst to engender a sense of ownership in a neighborhood, and continue to make it a vibrant place.

We’re seeing this happen in Caldwell, Idaho, where Landscape Architects at GGLO worked with the community to design Indian Creek Plaza. This unique space is designed for year-round activity; a summertime splash pad becomes a ribbon for ice skating in the winter. With music festivals, farmers markets, and a local retail corridor, Indian Creek has created a new attraction that’s a draw for nearby residents as well as visitors from out of town.

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    Walking and Biking Path. 10th Avenue Hillclimb. Seattle, Washington. Photo courtesy of GGLO.
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    Walking trails around Greenbridge. King County, Washington. Photo courtesy of GGLO.
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    Open greenspace and playground in Greenbridge. King County, Washington. Photo courtesy of GGLO
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    Public plaza activation. Indian Creek Plaza. Downtown Caldwell, Idaho.