The Alaska Junction in West Seattle: A 15-minute City?
Updated: 1 day ago
Murals along the side of Easy Street Records & Cafe, a classic West Seattle business.
Have you heard of a 15-minute city? It’s a neighborhood where almost anything you need is available to you within 15 minutes of your home by walking, riding a bike, or using transit.
It means combining living, working, entertainment and other functions within individual neighborhoods, instead of segregating them out into separate business districts, arts venues, “pill hills,” commercial office parks, and residential areas.
In cities, like Paris, which is embracing multiple 15-minute cities, the need to drive a car is greatly reduced. This, in turn, reduces CO2 emissions, and frees up space currently dedicated to automobiles. That space is used for more greenspace, and safer places to walk, cycle and socialize. All of which is good for the environment, public health, and business.
The environment benefits because the air is cleaner, a lower concentration of heat-interacting gasses is emitted, and there is more room to plant trees and shrubs, which help reduce the “heat island” effect. Fewer cars means less toxic runoff into rivers, lakes and the ocean.
Public health is improved because people walk more. Walking is the first line of defense against obesity, studies show. Mental health is also improved because people feel less isolated. One of the things we learned during the pandemic is how something as small as waving to a friend from across the street can lift our spirits. Walking to do errands makes it more likely for people to see friends - and make new ones.
Although it may seem counterintuitive to some people, businesses in pedestrian friendly neighborhoods make more money than those catering to cars. To see how striking the difference is, take a look at these maps from Strong Towns. You’ll see four cities in different parts of the US, with the same results. You probably know from your own experience that, when you are driving through a business district, you don't see much besides the cars around you, cyclists and pedestrians. When you get out and walk, then you see new businesses that have just opened, or ones that have been there for years, but because you were driving, you never noticed.
The Alaska Junction business district is centered around the intersection of SW Alaska St. and California Ave. SW. People started calling it the Junction almost a century ago, when there was a streetcar junction at this location.
How does the Alaska Junction figure into the 15-minute city story?
Well, it might surprise you to know that this idea was taken seriously here in the mid-1990s. Shortly after I moved to West Seattle, the city began formulating its Comprehensive Plan, which designated “Urban Villages” throughout the city. One of those was the Alaska Junction. I answered the call for volunteers to help shape the plan for our village and served on the Parks & Open Space Committee.
At the time, the Junction was run down - businesses were boarded up, sidewalks broken, streets were dirty – not a place you’d be excited to call home. I was glad for an opportunity to have some part in making it a better place.
The Urban Village concept, as it was explained to us, meant creating a thriving neighborhood where people could live, work, shop and enjoy recreation. New apartment housing would be added, so more people could live close by and walk to work. This would prevent urban sprawl. The need to use a car would be greatly reduced because everything would be close to home.
In other words, the Junction would become a 15-minute city.
A lot of good came out of that planning process. The sidewalks were repaired, trees were planted, green spaces were enhanced, there were improvements to transportation and pedestrian safety, the streets and sidewalks were cleaned. Businesses began to open in old, abandoned storefronts. In just a couple of years, the Junction had a thriving business core.
But a major failing of the plan was that it did not provide for affordable housing. No one foresaw that by the end of the 1990s, housing prices would go through the roof, and then keep going. When new apartments were built within walking distance of the Junction, they were too expensive for people working in the Junction to afford.
Most jobs in West Seattle, not just the Junction, are low paying retail, administrative, or food service jobs. For years, those workers have been moving further and further out to find affordable housing, which means they have to own a car and drive every day.
They aren’t walking to work.
Meanwhile, people who can afford to live in West Seattle have to leave West Seattle for the jobs that pay well enough for them to afford living here. The result, until the West Seattle Bridge was closed, has been mass-migration twice a day. Thousands of people left West Seattle for work. And thousands of workers drove into West Seattle to work – with the whole pattern repeating itself in reverse at the end of the day.
This seems like a very good time to reimagine our Urban Villages. Not just the Alaska Junction village, but throughout West Seattle. The Admiral Junction, Morgan Street Junction, Westwood Village, yet to be determined part(s) of the Delridge neighborhood, and more.
We learned a lot from the pandemic. We learned that many office jobs can be done well remotely. The traditional 5-day a week commute to the office might never return, in favor of a hybrid system of partial office and partial remote work. We learned who our essential workers really are, and that we need to do a better job of recognizing their value, and providing better support for their lives.
Let's harness what we've learned and create a better life for everyone. What it will take is understanding that we have to fix at least two things:
Attracting good paying jobs to West Seattle so people don't have to commute.
And add a third:
What led to the successes in the Junction in the 1990s, was meaningful citizen participation. Top-down planning doesn't work. Getting grass roots input and involvement does. Sweden's Street Moves is an example.
I plan to write more about these subjects in the coming weeks. In the meantime, feel free to comment on the idea of a 15-minute city.