Top Prize Awarded to Community Design Workshop Students

Written by Laura Paskin
Photography by Michael Cardwell, AICP
November 9, 2016

Urban Planning Professor Marie Wong accepted the 2016 award in the student category from the American Planning Association/Planning Association of Washington (APA/PAW). The joint urban planning award for the Washington and Oregon chapters recognizes the accomplishments of the 32 students who participated in the Community Design Workshop course project “Stairways of Seattle.”

Wong’s Design Workshop class provides professional training to students interested in urban design and planning. The class operates as a private consultant, in this case to two City of Seattle departments. Typically, a one-quarter course, the Stairways of Seattle project spanned three quarters. Students received 5 credits for their work; there was no cost to the City of Seattle.

Prior to this project, a database inventory of Seattle’s public stairways had never been completed, and the number and condition of the stairways were unknown. Under “contract” with Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods and Department of Transportation, Design Workshop students examined and catalogued all 549 of Seattle’s public stairways, including conducting physical surveys and providing detailed descriptions. They photographed and measured the details of the stairways to provide descriptive information and minimize subjective judgments on design quality or condition. Students also researched newspaper articles, historic photographs, city ordinances, funding, design and development history, and construction related to the stairways.

The result of the 30-week project was a three-volume report presented to the City of Seattle in June 2015. The report includes a comparison of stairway programs, policies, and design enhancements that have been implemented in cities such as Portland, San Francisco, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Vancouver, British Columbia.

With the report as a guide, the City of Seattle will prioritize $4.5 million in funding over nine years to improve stairways and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to John Buswell, Manager of Roadway Structures, Seattle Department of Transportation, “We held the Seattle University Students to a high standard and reviewed their report to ensure they met all of the agreed deliverables. In all cases, they exceeded our expectations.”

“This project demonstrates an outstanding application of qualitative research methods in conducting a planning reconnaissance study,” Wong noted. “The project was completed within the specified time frame and addressed all components that were requested by City of Seattle staff. This is exactly how a private consultant would work.”

In describing the award, Steve Pilcher and Lloyd Skinner, APA Award Committee co-chairs, wrote, “Although there are two accredited planning programs in the state of Washington, it is Seattle University’s Public Affairs program that continues to produce interesting and excellent submittals to the APA/PAW Joint Awards program. . . .  The students were held to the same quality standards expected of private consultants, providing them with valuable experience and ensuring a quality product."

This is the third time that Wong’s Design Workshop won the planning award in the student category. The previous awards were for “Seattle Prism Lights” and for “Ghost Signs of Seattle” (see article and video here).

Photo above: Marie Wong with Lloyd Skinner, APA Award Selection Co-chair