Thursday, April 24, 2008

Urban Design Experts Consider Tacoma

This week the City of Tacoma has been fortunate to host two of the leading thinkers in Urban Design and Planning.

On Tuesday Danish Architect, Lars Gemzoe of Gehl Architects provided suggestions to the City Council, City staff and the public on how Tacoma can enhance its public spaces, particularly Tollefson Plaza. Gemzoe and his firm promote a people oriented design philosophy. They believe that creating a quality environment for people is paramount and must be considered before anything else in order to achieve a lively and sustainable public realm. In their planning efforts Gemzoe and his firm first considers the people that will use the space, next they consider the space itself and lastly they design the buildings. This philosophy and the “12 Quality Criteria” they advocate are crucial to successful public spaces.

In regards to Tollefson Plaza, Gemzoe suggested that the City start by looking at the Plaza from the larger perspective of how and what it connects to; paying special attention to a potential connection with the Thea Foss Waterway. Additionally, Gemzoe emphasized the need to activate the Plaza’s edges with well designed buildings that will frame the space and provide “eyes on the street.”

On Wednesday author and urban advocate, James Howard Kunstler spoke to a packed house at the Theater on the Square. In his lecture Kustler described his perspective on the global energy crisis, which he refers to as the “long emergency.” According to Kustler, this energy emergency can not be resolved, as many believe, through technological innovation. In the second half of the lecture Kunstler moved abruptly from oil to urban form.

In his thoughts on what makes a desirable urban environment Kunstler described strategies for activating urban spaces by paying thoughtful attention to the design and use of adjacent buildings. Similar to Gemzoe, Kunstler recognized that currently Tollefson Plaza is framed entirely by transportation uses. Promoting more active uses along some of the edges of the Plaza has the potential to draw more people to the space.

The advice of both experts is timely, as the City and citizens of Tacoma are currently faced with tough decisions about the form and function of our downtown. The decisions we make today about Tollefson Plaza, downtown parking and the Thea Foss (just to name a few) will have long term ramifications for how Tacoma evolves.


  1. perhaps they could use the old rail line to link tollefson to the water with a trail. Also the ramp/stairs being built near the esplande will help open up access. Either way you still have to walk under the freeway, which is a problem. Maybe more lights down there would help...

  2. Kunstler also said to stop planning for parking infrastructure - like parking garages. That may not be what the Downtown Merchants and the BIA have on their plate, but it's what he said.