The Amazon impact on marginalised Seattleites

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 Alaskan Way Viaduct will come down to make way for a new public realm.


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

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.


Many thanks to these organisations:


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. 


Shifting gear: the end of Calgary’s oil boom

Climate criminal, sprawling city, cowboy town – Calgary is not exactly known for walkability or human scale design. In the 70s, its oil and gas industries sent the city’s economy skyrocketing, bringing with them well-paid jobs, continual population growth and houses that sprawled. Some 87% of Calgarians live in the suburbs today. Driving through a generous 8-lane ‘avenue’, only about 15 minutes southwest of the city centre, it is a bizarre sight – even the blocks surrounding a train station lay relatively flat, with a couple of 3-storey retirement villages, a shopping centre and a Park and Ride carpark. 15 minutes on the train would get me to the heart of downtown for CAD$3.25​​.

In some aspects, this is the kind of utopia that many Australian communities aspire to: live in detached houses with large backyards, have plenty of street/mall parking and no traffic jam, while being close to the city centre and amenities. I was born a ‘masterplanned neighbourhood baby’ in a dense part of Seoul, grew up in a Christchurch suburb and moved up and down the inner-outer suburb spectrum in the US, Vietnam and Australia. I admit that as I age, I appreciate the quiet and greenery of my current suburb somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, which I would have abhorred even three years ago. Inner-city living – despite many proven health and happiness advantages – isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially in cities like Calgary where there is plenty of land, cheap fuel and not enough amenities in the city centre to allure residents.

But Calgary is changing. This is a city slowly shifting that deeply embedded suburban culture that spans across Canada. From political directions to community actions, and from large precincts developments to small benches, I was in Calgary to witness who is playing what roles. (see map: change in population)


Political leadership to fight sprawl

Calgarians for a long time didn’t have many lifestyle choices: live in a house in the suburbs, or live in a house in the suburbs. Now faced with a fast-growing population, the new Mayor Naheed Nenshi wants to shift the citizens’ mindset and support growth that creates ‘a financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable future’. In this article, he explains a new off-site levy bylaw to discontinue the subsidy of the cost of off-site infrastructure and encourage denser living.

One large development project taking place in the city centre is East Village (EV) led by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), an arms-length subsidiary of City of Calgary (City). CMLC was created in 2007 to lead the City’s urban renewal projects, following reports of corruption involving developments. Established as the city’s first neighbourhood in the 1900s, East Village for decades suffered from disinvestment and a high level of crime, but now is undergoing a major change. The government bought back 70% of the land over time and claims ‘since 2007, CMLC’s commitment of $357 million into infrastructure and development programs has so far attracted $2.7 billion of planned development expected to deliver $801 million of Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) for the City of Calgary, our sole shareholder’. I spoke with the staff at the EV Experience & Sales Centre about what kind of a community they are trying to create. The staff say the condos are likely to attract professionals, families and empty nesters downsizing. Currently there is no supermarket, insufficient critical mass to support a new school, or things to do generally in the neighbourhood. But 40km-long cycle and walking paths along the stunning Bow River connect suburbs northwest to southeast, and the City Hall C-Train Station is a few minutes away. Perhaps not a big deal in cities like Sydney, but there is even a high-rise apartment block without carparking (and is selling for less than those with, at c200K for a one bed). This neighbourhood may just start a new trend — people choosing not to own cars.

1East Village Model
A model of East Village is displayed at EV Experience & Sales Centre.
2Container mall
East Village Junction, a temporary container mall is set up in East Village behind the New Central Library. The containers include Lululemon, an ice cream shop and a CMLC East Village Ambassador.
2East Village riverwalk
Along Bow River are walking and cycle paths.
3East Village
East Village is changing. In the background the brown building is Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre.


The existing social network

As is the challenge with many large redevelopments, East Village is at risk of displacing existing marginalised communities. They include residents in senior housing, affordable housing and Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, the largest homeless services centre in North America that serves a thousand people a month. These existing buildings will stay untouched by the renewal, however, I anticipate the kind of a place East Village is envisioned to be are more likely to serve the new demographic, as rendered in promotional photographs that feature condos with rooftop gardens, markets and artisanal breads. No physical displacement doesn’t mean no impact. How does the renewal improve the lives of the marginalised people? Studio Bell, a new national music centre, just opened its doors and the CAD$245-million New Central Library is under construction. Who are the new amenities for?

In the city centre there are already existing networks of homeless communities. The Mustard Seed, a homeless services provider, offers basic services, housing, employment and spiritual care. I visited one of the sites they own a few blocks from East Village, where Bill Nixon, Director of Community and Spiritual Care, and Boris Lesar, Clinical Director, shared their mission, successes and challenges. The 12-storey building doesn’t look too different from other apartments from the outside, but the inside is designed as a one-stop support centre. On the ground and first levels are computer training labs; employment services; spiritual services; carers, counsellors, psychologists and doctors on shifts in private rooms; a communal kitchen where residents can cook, share and freeze meals; and recreational spaces. A pharmacy is moving in soon. The upper levels are ‘sober’ apartments with a communal space on each floor. The idea is to provide wrap-around support for the residents many of whom fled from bad situations and suffer from trauma. The social network is a significant factor that determines well-being – the resident’s relationships with the carers as well as other residents provide the safety net to focus on other issues. Boris is passionate about training young university graduates to be compassionate and empathetic, and cites a study that shows homeless people don’t feel welcome in hospitals. (I found one such study here)

4Murdoch Manor
Residents in East Village’s senior housing enjoy the sun in their garden, also accessible by the general public.
The Mustard Seed’s one bedroom unit is neatly prepared for the next resident.


Community values in the public realm

The locals tell me there is no other neighbourhood better known for social cohesion than Sunnyside/Kensington. There lives a community that is self-organised and active – they stood against a new train line splitting up the neighbourhood, have several SPIN farms (Small Plot Intensive) where local produce is traded or sold, and dot the streets with pieces of handmade book shares and benches. The 40m x 160m blocks mostly have a mix of 3-storey flats and small detached houses. Without garages dominating the street fronts, coherent, diverse and interesting streetscape is formed with front porches, gardens and balconies. This kind of public realm, where it is evident that the community is emotionally invested in the neighbourhood they live in, doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. There are local champions leading the movement.

Alla Guelber, a local resident and a community organiser, takes me on a walking tour where my questions all point in a similar direction centred on motivation and logistics. How did this movement take off particularly in this neighbourhood? How is the City of Calgary letting go of the control over the public realm? A set of movable tables and chairs placed on the footpath (and not chained!) look simple, but there must have been a step-by-step trial through which the permission to do so was negotiated. Will they be left overnight? Who will be responsible for safety issues? Will the furniture be certified by a qualified person? In this neighbourhood, ordinary citizens are leading change via small pilot projects, and showing the rest of the city what a welcoming, walkable and green neighbourhood can look and feel like. As the signs for gentrification start to emerge here, it is the locals like Alla – who organise Jane’s Walks, cultivate underutilised lands and identify opportunities – who will help protect the place’s social heritage.

The outer suburbs with large plots, double/triple garages and massive roads will never have the character of Sunnyside or East Village. They will continue to be more exclusive than the inner suburbs of Calgary that now have the opportunity to densify and be inclusive of the existing communities as well new ones. Some people will always prefer to have more space and privacy than to be part of a tight-knit community, and that should be a choice left for the individuals to make at appropriate environmental costs; some will make different choices at different stages of life.  The demise of suburban living however, is when it is designed as a bubble in which the residents become or choose to become oblivious to the pain and sufferings of fellow denizens who share the city, and the planet.

Young people hang out in a temporary public space created by volunteers and an arts organisation.
8moveable furniture
Movable furniture is left outside for all to enjoy outside of trading hours.
An artist from Alberta Printmakers Association works on a utility box in Sunnyside’s main street.
A resident shares books, flowers, and exhibits a lego world in Sunnyside.


Many thanks to these organisations:

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.