Professional efforts to create great urban places have a lot to learn from unifying regional events that cut across silos of culture, age, income, or neighborhood. Such events need not be limited to rebuilding after a superstorm or earthquake—they can be as simple and spontaneous as one city's celebration of its first-ever Super Bowl championship.
In Seattle on Wednesday, I learned some surprising lessons along a four-mile parade route downtown. An estimated 700,000—more than the city's population of 635,000—welcomed the Seahawks home, without major incident. The event created imagery of a successful, shared community, worthy of any city-makers' dream.
1. Spontaneous, authentic "placemaking" with a purpose is often best. Attendees along the route waited through a late parade start in subfreezing temperatures. Spirited, orderly demonstrations were rampant, all rooted in a shared anticipation of the team's appearance, which united the crowd.
2. A robust, multimodal transportation network is key. From before dawn, it was clear that this was not a normal day. Buses, light rail, ferries, and cars all had varying degrees of trouble getting to and from downtown. Those who could walked to viewpoints from adjoining neighborhoods. It was not perfect, but the lesson is simple: without regional transit in place, attendance by much of the team's suburban fan base would have faltered in the face of limited parking.
3. A varied crowd of all ages makes a difference and can enhance a downtown core experience. Officially, most regional school districts did not allow for a holiday. In Seattle, attendance policy issues were delegated to individual school principals. Across the region, some schools reported illness call-ins—for both students and teachers—as high as 25 percent. Accordingly, the crowd composition was remarkably diverse, and projected the remarkable aura of a potential once-in-lifetime experience.
4. One-time events can help crystallize potential alternative uses of urban spaces. From remade intersections and elevated vantage points to a suddenly walkable, segmented parade route, Seattleites were granted substantial insights into how existing spaces might be remade, without significant infrastructure expense. Traffic lights appeared obsolete above assembled crowds at key cross-streets. Temporary play spaces opened up in gaps within lines of spectators. Sales surged in adjacent and nearby local business. Rare downtown visitors were given an alternative glimpse of downtown potential.
5. We are more convertible than we think, and can avoid the politics and process that often inhibits great ideas. Finally, while curmudgeons might complain about traffic delays, impacts to parking, long lines and certain business disruptions, the celebration was largely free of major incidents, injury, or crime. A center-city environment shared its spaces in the optimal fashion often sought by urban businesses, politicians, and residents, all without any of the usual endless debate and delay. For a day, I saw almost everyone happy, excited and with a common focus. Even if it was about professional football, that's really what good "urbanism" means.
Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.