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Sustainable Destination: Seattle - Trip Report From a City That Takes Risks

By Shannon “Miko” Mikus, Winner of LAF’s 2013 Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes

Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, suggested that, “If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” Seattle, Washington is a very unusual city because it does take risks, and this seems to be at the heart of its sustainable nature.

A sustainable city does more than implement curbside water infiltration and set up a complete streets program. Seattle does these things, but it does them because its people understand these actions in a wider context that accomplishes more than just supporting eco services. People in Seattle take risks and think sustainably, so sustainable things happen, proving that taking the risks is the foundation of serving a community in perpetuity.

Visiting Seattle was more than I had hoped for when I entered LAF’s Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes last year. As a father and MLA student at the University of Georgia, finding the time and means for a trip like this is a huge challenge. My small risk led to a dream get-away and fantastic educational opportunity to see some of Seattle’s top landscape architecture projects with the designers themselves.  

After arriving at SEATAC airport under overcast skies, my son, Tanner, and I  took the Link transit to the Sheraton Hotel, then walked to REI and bought rain jackets — just in case. We noted that Seattle’s comfortable walkability and biking mania, coupled with a wide variety of people, art, music, technology, and businesses, made the city feel like our hometown of Athens, Georgia on steroids. Few other cities encourage intellectual risk-taking to this degree, on this scale, mixing arts, design, business, and science while somehow binding it into a “community”.

On the second day, our distinguished tour guides Nate Cormier from SvR, Deb Gunther from Mithun, and Ken Yocum from the University of Washington showed us sites that demonstrated what Seattle is famous for: innovative streetscapes like Bell Street Park, Debbi and Paul Brainerd’s IslandWood outdoor learning school, and Richard Haag’s light touch on the lush, vibrantly green native forests in Bloedel Reserve. The guides’ intimate understandings of social, historical, ecological, and design factors made the tours revealing and meaningful. To me, this day made it clear that Seattle has been, for many decades, a place whose people revere the land and find strength in being a community and that strength allows them to take risks in defining what actions must come next.

seattle1Touring the Gates Foundation Headquarters landscape

Jennifer Guthrie and Julie Parrett started our third day in Olympic Sculpture Park, explaining the history of the park’s conception, in which Seattle families wanted to give something exceptional back to their city. The idea of giving back resonated throughout our trip. Bernie Alonzo joined us at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Headquarters (Gustafson Guthrie Nichol) and explained that the LEED Platinum facility is located in what used to be a low, boggy backwater. When the Gates family started their charitable foundation, they chose Seattle as its headquarters, resolving to set a high standard not just for their organization’s work, but for their facility. Bernie pointed out choices that show thoughtful design and patient execution like paving design, vegetated water features, materials, and incorporating site history. 

Bob McGarvey from Northwest Playground Equipment Inc., joined us for a delicious lunch at the Plum Bistro.  We talked about American playgrounds and risky play (my Master’s Thesis subject), and discussed the landscape architect’s role in sustainable cities. As stimulating as the discussion was, I was not ready for the eye-popping display we experienced next.

Tanner loves penguins, and Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo has the world’s best penguin habitat, in my opinion. Monica Lake (Woodland Park Zoo) and Jim McDonough (formerly of Studio Hanson/Roberts) showed us the unique features like the multi-stage, naturally filtered, geothermal controlled, close-loop, no waste aquarium system! These, along with superb attention to detail and program (Biscayne Group), set a new standard. Getting to touch a penguin chick made this the best zoo visit ever! Monica told us to watch for the tiger exhibit that would be starting construction next year.

seattle2Tanner, Miko, and Richard Haag, FASLA at Gas Works Park

Truly moved by the zoo experience, we followed Seattle’s hills down to Lake Union for our final tour. Since my first year at UGA, I have wanted to talk to the designer of Gasworks Park. Richard Haag does not disappoint. It was a privilege to hear him tell the stories of the teams that were built, the issues that were confronted, and the risks that were weighed on both sides. Standing on Kite Hill watching the throngs of happy park-goers, knowing that toxic waste and ancient bacteria were slowly battling beneath our feet, it struck me that Seattle is a city that “grows” people who want to do what is right on scales that affect and respect something bigger than themselves, and who take risks to strive to serve whomever will come next. That is sustainability.

My deepest thanks go to the Landscape Architecture Foundation, the distinguished tour guides, and all of the sweepstakes sponsors: Gustafson Guthrie Nichol, SvR Design Company, Mithun, EverGreen Escapes, Northwest Playground Equipment, Landscape Forms, Sheraton Seattle Hotel, and IslandWood.

LAF’s 5th Annual Sustainable Destination Sweepstakes raised over $10,000 to support the foundation’s research and scholarship programs. Miko Mikus won the grand prize: a one-of-a-kind trip to Seattle with tours of 7 acclaimed landscape architecture projects led by the designers themselves. He took the trip in late May 2014.

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