Potentially Attractive Amenity

An Urban Space Without Us

In his provocative book, The World Without Us, Alan Weisman imagines what would happen to the planet if humans were to disappear. Fortunately, this has yet to happen—despite some of the really dumb things we do—but there is a city block in downtown Seattle where you can begin to see our city without us. As one might suspect in an environment as bountiful as ours, a forest of verdure with tall trees and abundant shrubbery has begun to replace the concrete jungle.

The block sits between Third and Fourth Avenues and Cherry and James Streets. Long the site of the City’s Public Safety Building, it became prime real estate for a wilder existence when the building was razed in 2005. Although designed by one of Seattle’s legendary firms, NBBJ, the PSB was later described as “this rather bland expression of governmental bureaucracy.”  

After liberating downtown of this exemplar of bland, the city sold the lot to Triad Development, which planned a 43-story building and another large public plaza. By 2015, Triad had yet to build, a victim of bad timing and pesky banks. Two years later, Triad sold the property to Bosa Development, which has proposed a 57-story tower and yet another plaza.

What’s amazing and wonderful about this unbuilt-upon-block though is that it is being taken over by vegetation: blackberries, butterfly bushes, European weeping birches, and our native cottonwood, to name those I could see. The tallest tree is a 50- to 60-foot tall cottonwood with shiny, heart shaped leaves; other trees nearby are in the 20-30 foot range. These trees’ small, lightweight seeds would have been wind travelers, riding the complicated currents that eddy and surge around the surrounding towers. (On the sidewalks adjacent to the block grow red oaks and sweetgums, neither of which seem to have taken root in the open space.)

I have not seen animals visiting this location but suspect that birds and rodents have taken advantage of the food and habitat to establish a home base. Some were probably also availing themselves of a lack of predators in their midst, such as raccoons and coyotes (which surely must dwell in downtown Seattle, even if they don’t make it on the Woodland Park Zoo’s carnivore spotter page). Of course, the high walls wouldn’t stop peregrines, red tailed hawks, and other avian predators from feasting.

Although most of the species I could see were non-native, and in fact are considered to be invasive (and superbly adapted to infiltrate spaces such as this), I still find reason to rejoice in this little spot of wildness in the heart of the city’s urban core. Perhaps the best thing we could do for this location is simply to not build that massive tower and plaza (which will feature non-native plants anyway). Instead, let nature take her course. Keep the block enclosed and think of the space as an experiment in entropy. If so many plants—in particular the native cottonwood—are thriving in just 15 years, imagine what we’ll be able to see if we continue to leave it alone.

I don’t expect my vision for the future of this block will come to fruition but I do think it would be good to allow more places in urban landscapes to have less management. Some of my favorite green spaces in Seattle, such as Carkeek Park and certain sections along Thornton Creek, are areas where plants and animals are allowed to live and die naturally; no one comes in to clean up a broken off limb, fallen over tree, or decaying corpse. I certainly understand that we cannot do this in most locations but a city with more spaces devoted to the natural cycle of life and death is one that is better for all of its residents, human and more-than-human.


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Readers respond - I got a fun note regarding gulls and clams. “This is a serious problem for flat roofed buildings. Our condo sewer air intake, vent stack, got plugged by clam bombs that missed the roof and landed in the air intake pipe, plugging them up. And as well, all that seagull poop results in chemical trash not healthy for the various layers of a torched flat roof. A seasonal ally in all of this are the eagles eating baby seagulls off of the nests of our roofs. Natures drama does not disappear just because we moved in!”