Exploring the intersection of public space and homelessness


Episode 5: Leslie Smith

In many cities and town’s there’s often a neighborhood where poverty is concentrated. At certain times in their histories New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, San Francisco’s Tenderloin and Los Angeles’ Skid Row bore this dubious distinction as the synonyms for chronic, intractable, concentrated poverty and were held up as exhibit a as a built indictment of urbanism in general.

Seattle’s Pioneer Square could easily have been on that list of neighborhoods, yet today’s visitors to the center of the neighborhood—at Occidental Park—would be astonished by the diversity of public life. Whether food trucks or foozeball, ping pong tables or public basketball courts the space is simultaneously filled to capacity, yet graciously accommodating to new arrivals.

For communities wrestling with how to manage public space in the face of a rising tide of people experiencing homelessness, Pioneer Square’s story is one instructive for what it did and did not accomplish. Rather than ignoring, the community confronted. Rather than divesting, the community invested in relationships and each other, and, critically, rather than excluding, they committed to inclusion.

The success of the neighborhood’s public spaces certainly rests on many people’s shoulders, but Leslie Smith’s shoulders may be the first amongst equals. As the Executive Director of the Alliance for Pioneer Square, she has helped transform Occidental Park into the destination that it is today. and her lessons, candor and insights are instructive for anyone trying to understand how to empathetically engage in the process of transforming urban space into welcoming place for everyone.