A Walk in the Park


The Pacific Northwest stands tall when it comes to preservation and natural beauty—so why were New Englanders called in to design the Emerald City’s parks?

Washington calls itself the Evergreen State; Seattle is nicknamed “The Emerald City”; even my elementary school, Maplewood Heights, conformed to the verdant nomenclature. Needless to say, we in the Pacific Northwest take great pride in our little ecotopia.

And yet, when it came time to design a park system, we had to call in a bunch of guys from Massachusetts.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm was like the Johnny Appleseed of parks, traveling the nation and leaving green spaces in its wake. Seattle’s city council fired up the Olmsted signal in 1903 after the acquisition of several tracts of land, and John Charles Olmsted (stepson of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted) arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. His goal was to create a system so robust that every citizen would live within half a mile of a park. And he also hoped to use our city as the proving ground for a nutty new invention of his, a little thing he called a “playground.” Though the idea of a neighborhood jungle gym was largely a foreign concept at the time, Olmsted’s integration of them into his Seattle city plan was hailed as something of a breakthrough in the burgeoning field of urban greenification.

“I do not know of any place where the natural advantages for parks are better than here,” said John Olmsted of the city. “They can be made very attractive, and will be, in time, one of the things that will make Seattle known all over the world.”

Volunteer Park

Volunteer is one of the few large Seattle parks that date back to the 19th century, having been purchased in 1876 for a measly $2,000. It was incorporated into Olmsted’s design, and is now considered the crown jewel of the Seattle greenbelt. Located atop Capitol Hill, the park contains both the Asian Art Museum and a lovely conservatory. And if you drop in on a summer afternoon, you may stumble across a performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, so coming armed with a picnic lunch is never a bad idea.

The park, by the by, was so named to honor those who volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War.

Seward Park

In the summer of ‘97 I was a teacher at an environmental day camp for at-risk youth. I was 26, as L7 as ever, and had just returned from the Peace Corps, so my grasp of contemporary inner-city preeteen vernacular was shaky at best. Still, I did my best, gamely describing Men In Black as “da bomb” and the children as “my peeps.”

Then one morning I was ensnared by my own web of deceit. We were packing the van in preparation for a visit to Carkeek Park, when I asked one of the girls if she could run back to the office and grab the paper plates.

“I already put the paper plates in the van,” Latasha informed me.

“Oh,” I said. “My bag.”

Latasha’s thunderstruck expression told me I had made a grave error. “My bag?” she asked incredulously. “Mr. B., did you just say ‘my bag’?!”

“Of course not,” I replied, scrambling to salvage my dignity. “I said, uhhh—” But I was stuck. Not knowing what the correct phrase should have been, I simply froze up, mouth agape. I’d been outed as a poseur by a kid one-third my age, and subjected to the most humiliating force known to mankind: the withering scorn of an eight-year-old girl who’d previously thought you vaguely cool.

It was a scarring moment. And yet if I had the chance to do it all again, I still would have taken that job, if only for one reason: Every morning I got to start my day in Seward Park.

Situated on the Bailey Peninsula, Seward Park is surrounded on three sides by the lovely Lake Washington and typically packed with dogs and rugrats. The loop around the edge of the park is almost exactly 2.5 miles, a perfect length for afternoon ambulation or evening jogs.

And it even features a garden of native plants, where you can learn the wonders of skunk cabbage. (It smells like garbage because it is pollinated by flies—fun fact!)

Lincoln Park

Lincoln Park, located in West Seattle, was beloved by the aforementioned day-campers for its heated saltwater pool, fed by Puget Sound. Olmsted incorporated Lincoln into his system in 1908—five years after his initial plan—and by then the whole ballparks-and-playgrounds idea must have been less controversial, because he went nuts with this one: It has several baseball diamonds, a football field, half a dozen tennis courts, a maze of trails for running or hiking, and even a handful of horseshoe pits. Despite all these attractions, the 135-acre park still has plenty of foliage, including cedar, madrone, and redwood trees.

Gasworks Park

Previously seen here, Gasworks is located just north of Lake Union and south of wacky, wacky Fremont. Though small in comparison to many other Seattle parks, Gasworks seemed enormous to me when I was a kid, owing to the towering remains of an old gasification plan that gives the greenspace its name.

The kite hill in the center of the park, with its bifurcated path that spirals up to the summit, looks like something right out of a Dr. Seuss book. And on its top is a beautiful analemmatic sundial.

Gasworks attracts an agreeable mix of Fremont hippies, techies from the nearby offices of Adobe, and families unleashing their kids on the play barn. Stop by on a summer evening and you’ll have a pretty good chance of seeing a wedding party posing for photographs, with the water behind them and the gorgeous view of the city as a backdrop.

The University of Washington Arboretum

Spread out over 230 acres and on the northern shore of Lake Washington, the Arboretum is about as idyllic a place as you can imagine. The park features both permanent and rotating exhibits, showcasing hundreds of species from all around the world. If you have even a passing interest in botany and find yourself in the Northwest, visiting the Arboretum is practically mandatory.

While there, check out the Japanese Garden, which features a tea house, a pagoda, and a host of traditional lanterns—not to mention a stunning display of Japanese maples and other Asian flora.

Ravenna & Cowen Parks

My wife (then girlfriend) used to live about seven paces from Ravenna Park, and we would go jogging through there several times a week. My favorite time to go was Saturday mornings, when a group of local LARPers (that’s Live Action Role Players, for you non-nerds in the crowd) would gather to whack one another with wooden swords and hurl wads of red tissue paper bags while bellowing “fireball!” Once, while running along a back trail, I noticed that many of the trees, logs, and rocks on the side of the path had notes taped to them. Eventually I stopped and read one. “DEAD ORC,” it said. “YOU FIND 10 GOLD PIECES.”

Occasionally we would round a bend in the trail and find a full-scale melee in progress around the running path. Upon seeing us, one of the combatants would shout “Reality!” and everyone would lower their weapons and step aside, allowing us to pass. (The idea of shouting “Reality!” during one of our staff meetings at work has occurred to me more than once.)

Cowen Park abuts Ravenna. To be honest, I’m not sure where one stops and the other begins, but I think Cowen is the open grassy area complete with a playground and Ravenna is the heavily wooden area surrounding the creek. Though a forest with a few trails may not conform to the standard notion of a city park, such “boulevards,” as Olmsted called them, were an essential component of his plan. He envisioned the parks as linked together by connecting parkways and greenbelts, with the system being an integrated whole rather than simply isolated islands of nature surrounded by city.

Due to their proximity to the University of Washington, both Ravenna and Cowen are typically populated with dog walkers and college students, not to mention the occasional Balrog.