First, scroll straight to the bottom to see the photos (I really like these) if you don’t want to read this long-winded introduction, but I think this background gives these photos context.
In February, I worked on a community health assessment project in Kent, Wash., one of the most diverse cities in the state, if not the United States. Located in South King County, the suburb community of 92,400 residents is a lot like other suburban cities that are now the melting pots for immigrants and recently arrived residents to the United States. During my visit to Kent a day ago, I saw Sikhs, Somalis, Latinos, Ukrainians, Burmese, a diverse mix of South Asians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and more, and that was just at a local lake where I was photographing a swim race.
Today, more than 130 languages—from Afrikaans to Yoruba—are spoken in the Kent School District, the 4th largest in Washington State. Kent has become a prototypical “melting pot suburb.” Nationally, minorities now represent 35% of all U.S. suburban residents. And many new suburbanites come from abroad. According to a 2010 report by King County, a full fifth of King County residents identify as “foreign born,” and many are choosing to locate in South King County communities like Kent. Today, only 56 percent of residents are white, the rest all other minorities, the largest being Latinos/hispanics.
In terms of urban design, Kent is like many other exurb or suburb towns—entirely and slavishly devoted the internal-combustion engine. Decades of development in Kent have created pockets of cul de sac streets and multifamily units, as well as a pattern of major thoroughfares 4-6 lanes wide, literally preventing people from moving safely across the street or getting out by foot or bike. It’s incredibly hostile to anyone who isn’t in a vehicle, and unsafe (lots of deadly crashes here). A prevalent design feature is the strip mall, which caters to the car. One is Benson Plaza, at a main intersection in the city’s East Hill on SE 104th Ave, which reflects the city’s true diversity. Punjab Sweets, owned by local leader Harpreet Gill, is de facto hub on East Hill for many south Asian residents and many other residents. Harpreet also helped launched Kent’s annual International Festival. If you visit Kent’s East Hill, be sure to stop in her shop and buy some Indian sweets. (They also serve dinner.)
The photographs were taken at Benson Plaza on Aug. 17, 2012. I’ve never eaten Indian pizza. I may have to go back and try one.
I saw a note, posted on a Facebook page commenting on my article, that I did not capture the actual population of Kent. Mea culpa. Following an annexation in 2011, the population is more than 120,916 (2011 estimate, U.S. Census Bureau). Interesting comment about my blog too–by someone who appeared unhappy with it. I actually said almost nothing about Benson Plaza, and relied on pictures. I actually was talking about several things, like Meridian Lake, where I saw a lot of local residents enjoying a hot afternoon. It was a very diverse place. And most of my comments focused on the built environment, which arose through decades of planning decisions that encouraged growth in King County and neighboring areas north and south. In fact, I was making a point about strip mall developments, which are dominant in Kent, Auburn, Seattle, and hundreds of other cities for that matter. This construct is a byproduct of decisions to build communities that cater to our economy’s reliance on cheap hydrocarbon-based energy. Planning for a more sustainable future, now that we have built that infrastructure, is a very very very hard thing to do. And I like Indian food. It brings back good memories of my travels there in 1989/90.