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  • 02.09.16

What If Seattle Put A Park And Affordable Housing On Top Of This Highway?

The highway goes out of sight, where it won’t bother anyone. On top: things the city really needs.

When a new freeway bulldozed through Seattle in 1962, it cut the city in half. The government wanted to build a cap on top, to help reconnect neighborhoods, but couldn’t afford it. Now, a team of architects may have figured out a way to feasibly turn up to 10 lanes of traffic into a place where people actually want to spend time.

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In their design, a two-mile-long park would cover Interstate 5, rising as it gets closer to downtown, and new projects that the city is already planning to build elsewhere—such as affordable housing, extra convention center space, and a new arena—would be nestled underneath the park (but still on top of the highway). Pedestrian paths and bike lanes would link up disconnected streets, and the cap would help cut noise and air pollution.

Patano Studio Architecture

“This space is just so underutilized,” says architect Christopher Patano, director of Patano Studio Architecture. “This two-mile stretch of Interstate 5 that we’re talking about putting the park on is the most valuable piece of real estate between Vancouver and San Francisco. And right now it’s just the canyon through downtown.”

Capping freeways isn’t a new idea—Seattle itself built Freeway Park over another part of I-5 30 years ago. But it’s becoming much more common now. “It’s actually a movement that’s gaining a lot of traction across the world,” Patano says. “A lot of cities are waking up and asking themselves, why do we have this noisy, polluting thing going through where everybody lives and works?”

In L.A., the city is considering lidding part of the 101 freeway. Minneapolis is talking about covering I-35. Dallas built Klyde Warren Park over a downtown highway; the Big Dig in Boston covered Interstate 90. Munich plans to cover part of the autobahn. And there are dozens of other examples around the world.

Patano Studio Architecture

Of course, it’s an expensive proposition. But the Seattle team believes that the fact that their design includes multiple projects simultaneously makes it feasible. “It’s not just a park, and it’s not just eliminating the freeway,” says Patano. The architects looked at everything currently happening around the city—such as an extension of the convention center that is already underway—and designed something that tackled as much as possible.

“Almost every part of the project we describe, all that complexity, those are all projects that are going to happen,” he says. “The convention center’s happening, the arena’s happening, public housing has to happen, the freeway has to be rebuilt because it’s at the end of it’s useful life. They all have to happen. So instead of each of these as one distinct problem, we can wrap our arms around all of them together. I think what the result could be for the city is this amazing public space.”

It’s a shift from the way projects usually happen. “I think the way old-school architecture firms have been thinking is that, ‘Well, that’s just too complicated—you’ll never solve that, so why try?'” he says. “We looked at the complexity as the actual opportunity for this project.”

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Patano Studio Architecture

After sharing the proposal—a grassroots idea that the architects started developing on their own time—the city has said it is interested in talking more. The architects plan to raise money for the team to fill in all of the details of the design, from engineering to landscape architecture. The next step is a push for a change in regulation. Just like developers have to provide public amenities if they want to shut down a street, the team thinks a similar approach could be used to force improvements in the freeway when transportation agencies begin to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure.

“It’s like, okay Washington State DOT . . . You want to run a freeway through downtown Seattle? We want to reserve the air rights to put a park on top of it,” Patano says. “I think the smartest thing that the city and supporters can do is reserve the right to build a park on that stretch of land.”

It’s something he thinks needs to happen quickly, since the freeway is due for repair, and other projects, such as the arena, are already in planning. “Now is the time,” he says. “Either the proposal happens now, or the city’s going to change enough where it’s not going to happen.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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