A Banista smiles from behind a cart packed with crates of bananas. “Take one,” the signage says and sure, I grab one. The Community Banana Stand, set up by Amazon in two locations in and around South Lake Union two years ago, offers free bananas to everyone: Amazonians and non-Amazonians, brogrammers and non-techies. My visit is to an unassuming two-wheel cart with wood panels, parked between Meeting Centre and Doppler, two of about three dozen office buildings Amazon occupies. The generosity of giving out 4,500 bananas per day is at odds with a few things. The unethical and pesticide-intensive Dole and Chiquita brands seem to have been served in the past (not my choice of a ‘healthy’ snack) although on the day of my visit the supplier is One Banana, a certified Fairtrade trader. The ‘Community’ Banana Stand is a top-down operation – it appeared out of nowhere “originally conceived by Jeff Bezos”, and may disappear without any community input. Given its location in the heart of the Amazon campus, it is not a surprise that it doesn’t attract people who desperately need food.
Much like the Banana Stand, Amazon’s urban campus is contradictory. Its 40,000 employees – up from 5,000 in 2010, and 55,000 anticipated in the next decade – have boosted retail, real estate and food business. Amazon has put $5.5mil into a new streetcar line and donated a fourth car, to be part of the bigger public transport network. South Lake Union before Amazon was a car-oriented, grey suburb largely with on-ground parking, warehouses and industrial buildings with 677 residents in 1990. It now has all the usual elements expected in a good walkable public realm: bike lanes, bike racks, sculptures, benches, integrated landscaping, street trees, awnings, footpaths with different treatments…So why is it that this public realm doesn’t feel authentic? In the new private and public spaces still being rolled out in the neighbourhood, it is hard to find features or shops that are uniquely Seattle, a public realm appropriated by the local community, or a place for diverse Seattleites not just those in tech. (Locals talk about the city’s soul in this thread)
South Lake Union's public realm is walkable, bikable and green, but missing diversity of people, community appropriation and unique features.
The Community Banana Stand offers free bananas to the locals.
Amazon's new office, three glass biospheres, features about 40,000 plants.
Urban or suburban campus?
Little information is available regarding displacement of the existing businesses and communities in South Lake Union. The locals tell me there would have been some sort of consultation, but if so, it is hard to find any remnants of them and the past in the public realm. As I walk past blue-badged workers, I realise that on the surface I blend in – I am young, Asian and likely to pick up lunch from one of the 35 food trucks (although I would be part of a small female workforce at Amazon or in tech). Now in the biggest company town in the US, Amazon occupies 19% of A-grade office space in Seattle, equal to the next biggest 43 companies’ square footage combined. Google and Facebook have joined the neighbourhood. South Lake Union’s daytime demographics reflect a typical tech company’s workforce – no children, homeless or elderly people are seen; and the retail and food scene caters for high-income earners. Seattle’s non-tech workers are feeling the impact of a housing shortage and getting priced out. Tech companies are not to be solely blamed, considering other factors such as Wall Street investors, but their link to affordable-housing and homelessness crisis is at the centre of Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2) debate . 10,730 homeless people currently share the city – the third largest in the US – and a state of emergency was declared on homelessness in 2015.
Is it better for tech companies to be part of the city’s fabric than to be in an isolated suburban campus? Yes. On so many levels, from the perspective of workers’ well-being, environmental footprint, spillover economic growth beyond tech and the kinds of collaboration and social interaction that physical proximity affords. This is considered generally a good deal also by the cities, although some are choosing not to offer hefty tax incentives or participate in the HQ2 bid. But thinking about the quality of life for marginalised communities, less evidence can be found regarding how the growth ultimately ‘trickles down’ to benefit them in the long run.
Pike Place Market, a public market, is a major local and visitor attraction in the heart of Seattle.
The Amazon (social) impact
Amazon has a few great projects and initiatives that are rewriting their philanthropy strategy. It supports FareStart, a social enterprise that trains and hires people with barriers to employment, and provides food to vulnerable citizens. Spaces for five eateries, accessible by the general public, have been donated and furnished by Amazon. To tackle homelessness directly, Amazon is also building homes for 65 families -- Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter, was given a former motel as a temporary shelter last year, which will eventually be redeveloped. Instead of being displaced, the residents will be rehoused in Mary’s Place Family Shelter, which will occupy 47,000 sq. ft. of space integrated into a new office building. Last year, Amazon helped ‘The University of Washington with a $10 million donation towards development of a new, state of the art Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) building’; and continues to partner with various technology NFPs such as Girls Who Code, CoderDojo and Code.org.
It will be interesting to see how Mary’s Place patrons get involved – so I would hope -- in the shaping of their homes and the built environment around them. Will there be any services, shops and public spaces that reflect their needs and values? Other tech giants are looking into the public realm too. Apple has recently claimed the term Town Squares to call their privately owned public spaces and Facebook is building their own ‘village’ – will the public realm remain truly public?
To belong to a community
Marginalised communities outside of the tech neighbourhoods are at risk too. Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), a community development organisation, was formed in 1975 to revitalise and preserve the neighbourhood whose community members mainly are from low-income and non-English speaking backgrounds. MaryKate Ryan and Julie Neilson of the team understand the ins and outs of the place. With only 4% home ownership rate, a sense of security is not easy to establish, leaving residents at a constant fear of being displaced. ‘Belonging’, however, has a lot to do with being part of a community rather than just the physical design of a place, Julie says. SCIDpda’s work involves the acquisition and management of affordable housing and commercial property, coupled with social services. SCID is currently one of four neighbourhoods earmarked for $6.5 million investment by the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI). (Open pdf Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis)
I hear similar insights from Rania Qawasma, an architect and author of This is Home, a book aimed to guide recently resettled Arabic-speaking refugees with small but important bits of information. We share our own culture-shock stories settling into our respective countries: Rania in the US from the Middle East, and myself a South Korean migrant to New Zealand. What seem like simple know-hows now, we weren’t so familiar with back then – using the garbage disposal, (not) talking to random children in the public space without their carer’s subtle permission, or knowing when to water the lawn.
We often overlook how capable people are in setting their own paths. They just need the right resources and support. At the Tiny House Village, one of seven encampments set up for the homeless by Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a resident was taking his shift monitoring the site. When asked what he would like to see improved, he replied, “there is a good community here, I wouldn’t change anything.” I left the beautifully set-up Village in the hands of Seattleites who, with housing sorted, at least for now, have self-organised into a community. Surely improving their lives, and those of the most vulnerable, must be the priority for the city’s growth, not an afterthought.
Chinatown is one of the neighbourhoods where residents are at the risk of displacement.
SCIDpda residents set up a vegetable garden in an underutilised space across the street from their apartments.
A boy punches the air while running out from the SCIDpda apartment courtyard.
Tiny House Village is home to a community of couples and singles.
Tiny House entries are beautifully personalised with pot plants and an owl.
This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change.