April 10, 2003

Another scenic century

  • Seattle looks back at Olmsted from the centennial horizon
    Special to the Journal

     Volunteer Park
    Courtesy of Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks
    Vintage postcard of Volunteer Park showing the original landscape design, the water lily pools and the pergola by the Olmsted Brothers, circa 1913.

    At the turn of the last century, Seattle civic leaders had the wisdom and foresight to begin preserving the city’s spectacular natural landscape while providing access to green space and recreational opportunities for all of its residents.

    In 1903, the city hired the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm to design a comprehensive system of parks and boulevards. The resulting plan, a mingling of graceful design and natural features, laid the groundwork for a hundred years of park development and a city of a half a million people.

    In 2003, we have reached both of these milestones.

    Courtesy of National Parks Service
    Photo of John Charles Olmsted taken during a visit to Portland in 1903.

    “The vision shared by the Olmsted brothers and our early city leaders created the basis of the incredible parks system we have today: places where people can relax, play and get away from the bustle of the streets and the modern world,” said Mayor Greg Nickels. “As we celebrate the centennial of the Olmsted plan, our challenge is to preserve the legacy, and to establish a vision for the next 100 years of park planning and design.”

    The Olmsted plan

    The visionary call for the Olmsted plan was all the more remarkable when you consider that Seattle was still a fledgling city with an abundance of forested wilderness just at the city’s edges. At the time the plan was produced, the city was just 50 years old. The Denny party had landed at Alki in 1851. Washington became a state in 1889. In 1903, Seattle had fewer than a dozen parks, including Volunteer Park, Woodland Park, Kinnear Park and Denny Park, the city’s first park, established in 1884.

    Yet city leaders understood that Seattle would grow, creating an acute need for urban forests and green spaces. In 1902, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer began to publish large editorial features pushing the ambitious goals of the new Board of Park Commissioners.

    The articles featured dozens of civic and business leaders calling for funding and creation of more parks and boulevards. Professor Edmond Meany told the P-I, “The Queen City’s great need is more beauty in streets, parks, public places and homes. Let us show the world that in the midst of our popular growth, we can produce the nation’s most beautiful city.”

    Celebrating the Olmsted Centennial, 1903-2003
    In celebration of the Olmsted Centennial, the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, Seattle Parks and Recreation, the Seattle Parks Foundation and more than 50 other community organizations are sponsoring a year-long series of events, including walks, tours, work parties, exhibits, concerts and lectures. It’s an opportunity for community members and professionals to learn about and celebrate Seattle’s Olmsted legacy and its contribution to the development of Seattle’s urban landscape.

    Two highlights of the year’s events include:

  • Monthly walking tours of Olmsted parks sponsored by the Seattle Parks Foundation. See

  • Traveling Olmsted educational exhibit at at Meadowbrook Community Center, April 8-22; at South Lake Union Armory Building, April 22-May 5, and various other locations throughout the year.

    For more information about Olmsted Centennial events, go online to
  • The park commissioners knew of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr., the pioneering landscape architect who had designed Central Park in New York City and parks systems in other American cities, including Boston and Louisville, Ky. By 1900, Olmsted had retired, but his sons, John C. Olmsted and Frederick Olmsted Jr., were carrying on the landscape designs and philosophies of their father.

    The Olmsteds relished the chance to come to a city as young and resource-rich as Seattle. “I do not know of any place where the natural advantages for parks are better than here,” said John C. Olmsted in 1903. “They ... will be, in time, one of the things that will make Seattle known all over the world.”

    The Olmsted plan was astonishing in its breadth and connectedness. The plan created a green swath of 37 parks and boulevards stretching from Woodland Park, along Ravenna Boulevard, through the University of Washington campus and Washington Park to Lake Washington Boulevard and Seward Park. Today, the I-90 floating bridge also connects Seattle and its parks to the “Mountains to Sound Greenway,” a major east-west expanse of green spaces and mountains.

    A new plan for open space in the downtown area developed by CityDesign calls for a “Ring of Blue” — a walkable circle of existing parks and open spaces with water views that are linked with emerging “green” streets. The name refers directly to the Olmsted “Ring of Green” and draws on the legend and the legacy.

    It’s also notable that the Olmsted philosophy not only focused on the physical beauty of the landscape, natural resources and vistas, but also on the vital relationship between parks and people. Our parks are not only places of refuge, recreation and relaxation, but also sites for family and community gatherings and celebrations.

    “This is the democratic nature of parks,” says Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent Ken Bounds. “As Seattle has become more diverse and integrated over the years, parks have been prime locales for different races, ethnicities and backgrounds to meet and get to know each other, which is what a community is all about.”

    No less important than the plan itself, was the willingness of Seattle residents to tax themselves to implement the Olmsted vision. In the six years after the plan was adopted in 1904, Seattle voters approved four bond issues totaling $4 million, an astronomical sum at the time. In the middle and late 20th century, Seattleites approved several other major taxes for parks, including the Forward Thrust bond issue in 1968 that brought in $65 million for Seattle parks, and the $198.2 million Pro Parks Levy in 2000.

    These investments have enabled Seattle to implement most of the Olmsted plan. Seattle now has one of the most fully realized and best preserved Olmsted park systems in the country.

    Preserving the legacy

    As we move into the 21st century, we face the challenge of preserving our Olmsted legacy while establishing a vision for the next 100 years of park planning and landscape design.

    This is an especially difficult task given the current economic climate and the growing density of city neighborhoods.

    Today’s parks and boulevards retain the essence of the Olmsted philosophy, but our parks system is much larger — more than 400 parks and 6,000 acres — and more complex. Specifically, there is more competition for the same spaces. “People love their parks and sometimes love them in different ways,” says Bounds. “In addition to traditional park activities, we have a lot of new uses such as dog off-leash areas, wetlands, daylighted creeks, lighted sportsfields, P-patches, and more.”

    We are meeting these challenges and extending the Olmsted legacy in a number of ways.

    Recent levies — the 1989 King County Open Space Bond Issue, the Community Center Levies in 1991 and 1999, and the Pro Parks Levy in 2000 — have helped us make vital investments in parks, facilities, trails and boulevards, and in the acquisition of new park land. Many of these projects are enhancing the Olmsted park system. The 2000 Pro Parks Levy, for instance, has more than $31 million to acquire precious and sorely needed new park land.

    Parks Web sites
    Seattle Parks and Recreation:

    Seattle Parks Foundation:

    Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (Olmsted Centennial and Conference info):

    The city of Seattle continues to engage and work with community groups on many improvements in neighborhood parks. With funding from the Neighborhood Matching Fund and other grant and government sources, and the hard work of thousands of volunteers, we are building new play areas, restoring wetlands and renovating shoreline parks.

    The newly formed Seattle Parks Foundation has tapped into another important source of funding: the private sector. The foundation has already made a major difference by raising more than $2 million in its first year and a half.

    The foundation is leading the design and development for South Lake Union Park, 12 acres of waterfront located on the south end of Lake Union. The original Olmsted plan recommended that a park be developed at South Lake Union, so it is appropriate in this centennial year that South Lake Union Park is focus of a major design project by Hargreaves/Mithun to take advantage of the water views and urban access.

    The park design is a key element in Mayor Greg Nickels’ development vision for the entire South Lake Union neighborhood.

    National Olmsted Legacy Conference: April 30-May 4
    Registration is under way for the National Olmsted Conference, April 30-May 4. The Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and City Park Alliance host the National Association for Olmsted Parks conference in Seattle, the keynote event of a year-long celebration of Seattle’s Olmsted Centennial.

    Design professionals and park advocates will gather with national and local park design experts for the Olmsted Legacy Conference “Learning from the Past, Inspiring the Future” to explore ways of preserving and enhancing our landscape heritage and examine methods of extending the Olmsted vision of a comprehensive system of parks and boulevards into contemporary urban planning.

    Thursday, May 1, will be a day of lectures, workshops and tours, led by local and national experts, with an evening reception and keynote lecture by Jane Holtz Kay, author of “Asphalt Nation” and “Lost Boston.” Presentations, workshops and tours will continue on Friday and Saturday, with additional tours on Wednesday, April 30, and Sunday, May 4.

    The late registration deadline is April 15. For more information about the conference, registration discounts and volunteer opportunities, go online to or call Kari at (206) 332-9915.

    The foundation has also funded projects that have transformed neglected and potholed schoolyards into safe and creative children’s play areas; restored the Volunteer Park lily ponds, and renovated the nation’s first man-made climbing rock.

    Last fall, the Seattle Parks Foundation received the largest donation for park purposes in the history of the city: $1.3 million. This money is being used to acquire and develop a new park, Homer Harris Park, in the heart of one of the city’s most underserved areas.

    Although the challenges can be formidable, we don’t lack for opportunities. Among the most significant are the development of South Lake Union Park, Sand Point Magnuson Park and the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. There may be another amazing opportunity for park development related to replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

    In the future, with the prospect of even tighter government budgets, we will have to be even more creative in the ways we fund and design parks, such as “lidding” freeways and reservoirs, and reclaiming industrial and military land for parks space.

    Through it all, we are fortunate to have the guiding vision of the Olmsted park plan.

    David Takami is a public information officer with Seattle Parks and Recreation. Nancy Keith is executive director with Mountains to Sound Greenway.

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