The Line Between Public and Private

< Back
Melani Baker

On Vine Street, between Western and Elliott, in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle, a community group called Growing Vine Street has transformed a city block into an urban watershed oasis. This block, known as the Cistern Steps, is a series of terraced plantings designed to clean rainwater as it travels through the city. I call the Cistern Steps an “oasis” for several reasons. One is aesthetic. Amidst the heavily built environment of Belltown, these green terraced plantings echo an English countryside garden or the emerald rice fields of southeast Asia. This project’s native plants are also a haven of food and shelter for local wildlife. Not to mention the vital function of cleansing the rain that slicks off our Seattle city streets, providing water as a desert oasis does. I was immediately taken with the beauty and function of the Cistern Steps, until I noticed one very odd feature of the design.

The Cistern Steps are steps, meaning that people in wheelchairs, parents pushing strollers, or anyone else traveling by wheels cannot use this city block. I quite honestly didn’t know that it was legal to have a public city block with an inaccessible sidewalk. What about those dips at sidewalk corners to allow everyone to cross our city streets? Where was that same logic in designing the Cistern Steps? Here is a community-based project, built on a public city block, that is not accessible to everyone in the community. It got me wondering: what is the line between public and private?

I was here today with my Urbanizing Environmental Education class to examine the natural and social forces that shape contemporary Seattle. However, this walk around Belltown sparked in my mind a reading from my Urban Ecology class on the history of Seattle, and the tension between public and private which has plagued the city of Seattle since its beginnings.

Nascent Seattle’s shorelines were valuable to many groups of people: to Indigenous people and early white settlers for the shellfish beds that provided sustenance; to shipping businesses for trade routes; to railroads for level grades for their tracks; to landowners and small businesses as prime real estate. As Washington transitioned from a federal territory into a state in 1889, laws about who had claim to these shorelines changed. Any navigable waters up to the regular high tide line were deemed public, and any land above that line was opened up for private ownership. This unleashed a slew of court cases where individuals tried to claim land and the courts tried to establish what was land, what was water, what was public, and what was private.

This blurry line between public and private was not only negotiated in physical spaces. In a growing city like Seattle in the 19th century many ventures – from railroad construction to digging a ship canal – were heralded as public projects that would bring business, industry, and growth to the city. However, did these projects benefit all members of Seattle’s public, or did they benefit a private set of business and land owners? This is a question we should all be thinking about right now, as Seattle goes through yet another growth spurt. When expansion of business is marketed as a public good, we need to ask who that growth benefits, who it hurts, and who it displaces from their homes.

Back to Vine Street in Belltown. One block uphill from the Cistern Steps, in another stretch of the Growing Vine project, a “No Trespassing” sign sits planted amongst sword ferns, shrubs and stormwater pools. A “No Trespassing” sign on a public city street should make us all start thinking: what is the line between public and private?


Melani Baker is a graduate student in our Urban Environmental Education program.