Seattle Center

305 Harrison Street
Seattle, WA

Submitted by: Orit Sarfaty

Seattle Center is an urban park and cultural campus.

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Why It Works

In the midst of bustling Seattle, where the density of city dwellers competes with the traffic from Interstate-5, there sits a spacious 87-acre park. Seattle Center both responds to downtown's need for green space and serves the entire region as a cultural campus for the arts, sports, and recreation.

Once the site of the 1962 World's Fair, the grounds are home to cultural offerings including nationally ranked theatres, opera, ballet, a sports arena, and several of the city's renowned museums. Additionally, free outdoor activities are available year-round. Visitors can defy gravity at the skateboard park; splash in the International Fountain; explore the botanical garden's native flora; attend outdoor Shakespeare performances at the Center's amphitheater stage; and reflect before public art sculptures present amidst lush greenery. And yet, with the diversity of attractions offered, it is not the park's vision to be all things to all people, overextended to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, Seattle Center has a clear vision to be the place where community is defined - continually and eagerly - in creative ways. The park is the number one tourist attraction in Washington State with 10 million visitors attending 5,000 events annually.

What Makes Seattle Center a Great Place?

You can see this park from every vantage point in Seattle. The Space Needle, at a height of 605 feet, functions as both the city's icon and the Center's totem pole, identifying the space from virtually anywhere in the city. Moreover, local visibility is enhanced through wide pedestrian paths and billowing signs around the park's edges.

A recent survey reported that the Seattle resident visits Seattle Center an average of 8 times a year, totaling over 4.4 million visits from local dwellers. The park’s landscape design and entryways are explicitly intended to bring every visitor within reach of all of its attractions. The campus is the home base for the Monorail, directly linking downtown with the campus through mass transit and bringing 2.5 million people to and through the campus daily. Six all-day and after-hours parking lots accommodate single car and bus transportation. Bus stops pepper the edges of Seattle Center. Situated in the midst of a dense residential area, the Center's sprawling entrances marked by open edges and multiple gateways welcome dog-walkers and daycare workers with children in tow, retirees and wandering neighbors, morning joggers, and evening strollers.

Welcoming a diverse population of 10 million visitors requires thoughtful design and an engaging personnel team. A fully staffed information desk directs guests to destinations in and around Seattle Center. Friendly employees from gardeners to security guards promote a welcoming environment. The park is well-lit, offers plentiful benches and boasts plush rolling hills for free-form recreation. Street furniture like ample waste bins and recycling receptacles as well as a conscientious maintenance staff keep the park clean. Public restrooms are safe, clearly marked, and frequently serviced. The campus and its resident buildings are all wheelchair-accessible. Baby-changing stations, telephones, TTY facilities, and cash machines help Seattle Center oblige the widest population. Moreover, covered open arcades and breezeways reflect the Northwest's way of life, where an outing in the park is unimpeded by inclement weather.

Seattle Center is designed with the ease of visitors in mind. Signs and maps, arrows and marquees all prominently feature current happenings and point visitors to the key attractions of the park. Design structures, independent of explicit signs, are successful in communicating what the Center stands for. Pint-sized chairs and tables convey to families that the Center House is kid-friendly. Playful tiles atop the Fisher Pavilion beckon couples to stand on the raised stage and admire the city views. Meandering paths draw guests into a botanical garden of native flora. A gently sloping edge invites children as well as persons with wheelchairs and strollers to play inside the mammoth International Fountain.

Seattle Center measures its success, in part, by its ability to engage people of different backgrounds. Toward that end, Seattle Center hosts a series of 12 ethnic festivals celebrating diversity in the area. As cultural groups - from Tibetan to Irish - gather to honor their traditions, Seattle Center's expansive landscape encourages outsiders to observe and participate in the activities of one people's celebrations. Additionally, the park presents weekly Senior Dances where community members swing, tango, and foxtrot to a live orchestra before an audience of food court patrons and curious onlookers. On the park's east side, teenagers test their limits at the Center's skateboard park. A public gallery features the changing exhibits of developmentally challenged community members.

Daytime activities for families and seniors give way to evening attractions at the Center's multiple cultural facilities. Seattle Center is crucial to the entire Puget Sound region in supporting a wide breadth of performing arts establishments under its umbrella. Wagner's Ring Cycle draws international acclaim when the Seattle Opera performs it. August Wilson's plays travel to Broadway only after eliciting approval from audiences here. Seattle Children's Theatre has set a precedent for presenting works that do not talk down to its audience.

Seattle Repertory Theatre, Intiman Theatre, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, Experience Music Project, the Seattle Supersonics and Seattle Storm basketball teams – all of these nighttime performances ensure that the campus is populated from the dewy hour of morning Tai Chi to late-night post performance discussions at the Rep. Individuals enjoy the park from daybreak till past sunset. Parking lots are occupied throughout the day, as are the eating establishments.

Finally, children have a blast at Seattle Center. The park reaches the young through children-specific festivals, events, educational programs, and design facilities. Seattle Center is home to Center School, a public alternative high school, with a focus on the arts and community engagement that only a campus of such diverse interests can offer. Additionally, Seattle Center Academy places the region's most renowned performers and artists in the classroom to teach intensive summer sessions to almost 300 junior high students. Pacific Science Center engages the curious child in fun explorations of chemistry, archeology, and biology. The Chess Foundation instructs inner city kids in the fundamentals of a centuries-old game Whirligig, a five-week festival for young children, expands toddlers’ imaginations with larger-than-life carnival rides sized just for them. Lastly, the International Fountain is an interactive sculpture, where scores of children eagerly splash into projectiles of water springing forth from a musically synchronized giant fountain.

Perceptions of the park range from the place to walk the dog every morning to a focal point of interest for international tour groups. The result of the 5,000 events the Center holds annually is a visitor tally of 10 million people.

Seattle Center's design and management fosters both spontaneous and organized socializing. Skateboarders congregate over swooping cement half pipes mesmerizing spectators nearby. Street performers entertain ambling visitors. Unknowingly, squealing kids playing in the fountain delight onlookers with their shrieks and laughter as they get caught in sprays of sudden rushing water.

Unlike other cultural venues, Seattle Center places diverse events on the same plane, equating hockey games with the same value as a ballet performance. Purposely, the staff at the park endeavors to intermingle with participants of divergent events. Leaving a performing arts event, a visitor will share a path through the park with a sports fan just leaving a basketball game. The enthusiasm both display broadens their respective definitions of entertainment. Outdoor stages and free performances enhance the junction between different people from different walks of life. In a ticket-less free setting, people are more likely to intermingle and become exposed to a broad spectrum of viewpoints.

Seattle Center has served as the cultural hub of our community since the early 1800s when Northwest Indian tribes gathered on this site for potlatches. Since the Center's creation in 1962, Seattle has looked to the park as a place where people have sought to gather. The only truly public space of its stature in the downtown area, Seattle Center was the focal point of the area's memorial service to Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. More recently, the park's originally scheduled three-hour vigil immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th evolved into four days of silent observance. In that time, the International Fountain became a garden sprouting with flowers of sympathy from the hundreds of thousands of people who descended to the site. Nearby police cars and fire trucks were deluged with handmade cards and American flags.

Besides its uncanny ability to inspire unprompted mingling, Seattle Center's structure and programming consciously aim to achieve community. The park sponsors career fairs for women in trade and people over fifty, among others. Additionally, the campus offers an indoor food court with an array of different restaurants, as well as open space for kids to safely roam, studio space for artists, office space for nonprofit organizations – even a giant chessboard for anyone to tackle. In addition to the cultural festivals it coordinates, the Center helps plan, in addition to other events, a weekend-long children's festival and a citywide slumber party, where hundreds of kids and adults don pajamas and together watch outdoor movies on the lawn.

Meaningful connections among visitors are fundamental to Seattle Center. This objective is primary to its vision statement, one stating that the Center "exists to delight and inspire the human spirit and bring us together as a rich and varied community." Respectful visitor representatives, a sweeping landscape, accommodating street furniture, clear and multiple signs and maps, focused planning – these are manifestations of Seattle Center's unceasing goal to be the Nation’s Best Gathering Place.

Contact Info:

Christine Goodheart
Alma Plancich
Mark Hinshaw

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