October 7, 2004

Is Seattle ready for urban greensheds?

  • We need more green space and better connections to existing corridors, gathering spaces and parks.
    The Berger Partnership

    Graphic courtesy The Berger Partnership
    A system of connections — similar to tributaries, confluences and deltas — could create urban greensheds in Seattle. Click here for a larger view.

    Our geology has betrayed us.

    Surrounded by a weekend playground of alpine peaks and lush valleys, we regularly release ourselves into the region's forests to marvel at the poetic towers of the natural world. As much as any other experience, it is the shared joys taken in the ecological wealth of the region that defines us as part of the Pacific Northwest.

    Yet, as we come back into the city, we do not call on a similar connection to nature at our homes, neighborhoods and urban centers. It is as if the cleansing release of the natural world occupies one space, and the toils of the urban working world occupy another.

    The Olmsted legacy

    The dichotomous opposition of nature versus culture, wild versus urban, sells short the tremendous potentials for bringing nature into the city, protecting it and making it a part of who we are as a city and how we define ourselves as a region.

    To be certain, there are parks within Seattle that allow for that connection to nature. Many of these are part of the bold and brilliant open space legacy developed by the Olmsted Brothers at the turn of the last century. Washington Park Arboretum, Green Lake, Ravenna Boulevard, Seward Park, Sunset Hill Park, Leschi Park and the Lake Washington Boulevard — to name a few — allow for both an intimacy with and a detached appreciation of nature within the city just as the Olmsteds had planned it.

    The Olmsteds' vision of cohesion, immersion and interconnection was elaborately laid out in their plan for a Green Ring that connected neighborhoods to one another through an assemblage of green infrastructure in the form of parks, pathways and boulevards.

    Yet the Green Ring was never executed to its full potential. Though key parks and institutions were established along Lake Washington, Green Lake and the Puget Sound, a circumscribed ring never came to fruition, leaving a series of disjointed parks.

    While the Olmsteds brought open spaces to the well-heeled chattering classes of Victorian Seattle, the brothers were less meticulous in their visions for areas in the city where the working class lived. Thus elements of their plan feel unresolved; the planned linear connector across SoDo feels awkward when compared with the intricacies of Ravenna and Queen Anne boulevards and the downtown core appears utterly neglected.

    Interconnection, quality, distribution and identity

    Throughout the intervening years, the city was able to purchase more green space real estate. These parcels were often located in residential neighborhoods, but the most iconic additions occurred along the bays and peninsulas of the city.

    Today, places like Myrtle Edwards Park, Discovery Park (Fort Lawton), Gas Works Park, Warren G. Magnuson Park, Golden Gardens and Carkeek Park are incredible civic assets that can legitimately be called the jewels of our city, providing spaces to play games, touch the water and take a walk. But most of these spaces function as their own closed universe: an island in a sea of asphalt with few (often tenuous) connections to the broader archipelago.

    If interconnection is one issue, quantity of green spaces is a second. The Department of Parks and Recreations' 2000 report titled "An Assessment of Gaps in Seattle's Open Space Network" indicates that the entire system of "breathing room open space" within the city — parks, greenspaces, trails and boulevards — is deficient. (It is worth noting that the study included inaccessible greenspaces along steep slopes and near Interstate 5 in its open space tally, so the actual deficiency of publicly available open space is considerably larger than reported.)

    Despite the numerous benefits of expanded green space — ranging from improving public health to boosting economic development — the Emerald City has not taken on a focused systematic expansion of the "emerald" infrastructure for our city.

    According to this report, the dearth of open space is particularly pronounced in areas that have a higher, multi-family housing density — the urban villages. "Almost all urban villages have some deficiency in both breathing room and usable open space," it states.

    Confusion afoot

    Opportunities for urban greensheds
    Here are some ways to bring urban greensheds to Seattle:
    • Any proposed viaduct plan should accommodate transportation needs and provide a green corridor in the central city.

    • Zoning regulations should continue to be refined to allow density bonuses to create and preserve links to usable open spaces.

    • Within the Lake Union basin, expand the successes of Gas Works Park and the Burke-Gilman Trail around the entire shoreline. This work has begun at South Lake Union Park, but there are still plenty of opportunities to tie together the various pockets of green around the lake. Transportation corridors like Terry Avenue could link the lake to downtown.

    • Expanding the Burke-Gilman Trail is critical to transforming Ballard, as more compatible and appropriate uses such as infill development and expanded housing take root.

    • Similarly, as Interbay’s building stock becomes more mixed-use/residential, there are opportunities to expand existing open space while increasing development density west of 15th Avenue North, particularly at the ship canal.

    • We should consider the episodic stepping stones that tie the city together. For example, there are nearly 140 street ends and nearly two-thirds of these publicly owned spaces are in some stage of abandonment, disrepair or neglect.

    • In the southern portions of the city — areas that the city considers to be the least deficient in their open space connectivity — there are opportunities to expand existing green spaces. For example, the green spaces of the revamped housing developments at NewHolly, Rainier Vista and High Point could prove to be critical confluences in a system of urban greensheds.

    There is also a lack of identity within and between the open spaces of the city. Though downtown sewer grates double as informative and charming wayfinding devices for our granite garden, any sense of connection between one greenspace and another is left to conjecture by the uninitiated.

    With few exceptions, there are no grand entries into the city's green spaces, nor are there maps at key junctions demonstrating how to connect, on bike or on foot, with other civic green spaces. Without a sense of entry to a network of green spaces and a series of wayfinding devices with which to navigate, the logic of the Olmsteds' plan, or any plan, will remain obfuscating to its users.

    The four problems facing our open space system are: quantity, interconnectedness, distribution and identity. We can overcome these deficiencies through an integrated plan that expands open space from the city's grand edges and iconic parks inward through a dendritic network of green infrastructure that leaves no home more than a five-minute walk from a web of interconnected green corridors, gathering spaces and expansive parks.

    The urban greenshed solution

    Much as ecologists think in terms of watersheds, Seattle's urban planning and development communities must begin to think of our vegetated infrastructure as urban greensheds comprised of interconnected tributaries, confluences and deltas.

    Just as a stream's tributaries weave into one another, siphoning water from disparate points into a central channel, the tributaries of the urban greenshed bring people from Seattle's vibrant neighborhoods to the larger spaces within the open space network. The well-planned implementation of these corridors would bring countless recreation opportunities to underserved areas, increase property values and act as a constant visual and psychological reminder of the connection to a network of safe, easily accessible urban open spaces.

    As these various tributaries flow together, their junctions would form confluences, providing episodic wayfinding markers and creating links to the surrounding neighborhood. These spaces, unique in their individual character, could provide a more extensive opportunity to get absorbed in the natural world, or, at the urban villages, could mediate between "nature" and "culture." For example, along Vancouver, B.C.'s publicly owned waterfront trail, there are a series of nodes that act as neighborhood gathering spaces, reflecting an urban character, yet connecting with the natural world and providing a release from the stimuli of the city.

    The sense of visual and psychological release felt at the tributaries and confluences is even more pronounced at the mouths of the greenshed: the deltas. These are the grandest open spaces in the city, and, in many ways, these points of diffusion are the easiest to acquire and maintain. Large-scale public interest, indomitable natural assets and a prominence of place make these locations natural sites for parks and open space.

    Existing open space stock like Gas Works Park, Warren G. Magnuson Park, Myrtle Edwards Park, Discovery Park, Golden Gardens, Alki Beach and Seward Park would each serve as deltas in this network of urban greensheds.

    The benefits

    From a human perspective, the benefits of this open space system are tremendous. As a report published earlier this year by the Wallace Foundation summarizes, and many reports and studies substantiate, urban parks can be "valuable contributors to larger urban policy objectives, such as job opportunities, youth development, public health and community building."

    The benefits are also ecological, improving the connectivity between forests in the city. This connectivity would increase wildlife habitat, improve salmon stream health, and would forward the objectives set forth in the mayor's Green Seattle Initiative announced earlier this year.

    Seattle's government, its citizens and the development community need to step forward and be aggressive about protecting, improving and expanding our stock of green spaces. The emerald infrastructure within our city increases property values, improves habitat, creates publicly accessible vistas, ameliorates the negatives of dense development strategies and provides a respite for the mind and the body.

    With the existing stock of Olmsted-legacy greenspaces adorning our city, we need to draw our green infrastructure away from the edges, toward the city's core, into the neighborhoods and urban villages in which we all live. By extending these rivulets of green space into the city, we can bring a host of benefits to areas that have been traditionally underserved, particularly the urban villages, while simultaneously improving the total quantity and cohesion of the city's open space network.

    By protecting and improving each parcel, we begin to understand the joys of our green spaces, but by celebrating a renewed network of connected green spaces, we will create a verdant legacy for our city that will be remembered for generations to come.

    Tom Berger, ASLA, is the founding partner and senior design principal for The Berger Partnership. Brice Maryman, LEED AP, is a project designer at The Berger Partnership interested in integrating ecological and urban design strategies.

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