Jennifer Ott. Olmsted in Seattle: Creating a Park System for a Modern City. Seattle: History Link and Documentary Media, 2019. Illustrations. 144 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-933245-56-0.
Reviewed by Mark Luccarelli (University of Oslo)
Published on H-Environment (May, 2021)
Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)
Landscape and the Sense of Place: Olmsted in Seattle
Olmstead in Seattle is a book of local history and an account of the implementation of the comprehensive park plans of 1903 and 1908. The partial implementation of these plans occurred in the face of narrow self-interest and public lethargy during a period of rapid urbanization of what would become a major North American metropolis. The book is also a narrative of the civic associations in Seattle whose dedication to public improvement made the implementation of the plans possible, exemplifying the golden day of American civic humanism—an expression of Renaissance civic ideals and rising citizenship. Jennifer Ott is a local historian who has been personally involved in local preservation projects. Her book captures the rationales and plans of an era when a pioneer outpost began to think of itself as a city in its own right, in need of both a signature and a pedigree. The resulting book is beautifully illustrated with photographs, planning maps, architectural drawings, and archival materials.
In 1903 Seattle's Board of Public Works commissioned Olmsted Brothers of Boston, the firm founded by John Olmsted, nephew and inheritor of Frederick Law Olmsted’s legacy. Frederick Law Olmsted was the founder of American landscape architecture and his landscape parks were for a time the most celebrated facet of American urban development; it is an achievement still relevant in light of our current pursuit of green infrastructure and environmental sustainability. His influence on the public has been so great that his understanding of a park as a landscape garden, reflecting picturesque design features and a pastoral landscape, has arguably become naturalized in American English. During his career in the nineteenth century, Olmsted designed over one hundred parks from New York and Brooklyn to Buffalo and Chicago. His parks were pastoral enclaves, dedicated to contemplation, health, and social improvement; the public character and civic idealism of the park became much clearer through the work of his successor, John Olmsted, the primary figure in Ott’s book.
When John Olmsted arrived in Seattle in 1903, he undertook a survey of the city and its environs. He found an expanding port town just emerging from frontier conditions; signs of logging and resource extraction were still evident in the surrounding landscape. In Ott’s account, the development of residential neighborhoods in Seattle was less a matter of escaping high densities (as was often the case in large cities in the East and Midwest) than a matter of finding refuge from commercial activities that made for “disorder and disarray” (p. 15). In part, this is a story of the search for residential amenity that has underwritten American suburbanization and development of periurban areas as garden cities and new towns. But as Ott demonstrates, the quest for landscape amenity, or “livability” as it is often termed in planning discourse, was, like the efforts of mid-twentieth-century regionalists, also a search for visual order.
Olmsted developed his uncle’s architectural palette of parkways and landscape parks into a typology of green spaces that constituted not merely a set of parks but also a park system. The goal, as Ott puts it, was a “diverse, intertwined mix of parks and parkways” for capturing the “remarkable natural beauty within the city and visible in the distance” (p. 49). The typology consisted of woodlands; “greenwards” (characteristic pastoral-picturesque blending of open lawns, treed margins, and beds of plants); and of course playgrounds that should be embedded among lawns, paths, and plantings. The result was a balance between athletic fields and playgrounds, on the one hand, and “contemplative spaces such as overlooks, lawns or waterspaces,” on the other (p. 43). The aesthetic of a pastoral landscape, which serves as a broadly accessible public place and into which social activities are embedded, had already been developed in Frederick Law Olmsted’s plans and writings. What made the Seattle plan different was its ambitious attempt to extend park landscape into the city itself as a focal point for street planning and architecture. It came at a price: the initial five hundred thousand dollar bond approved by the voters meant that John Olmsted had to make choices. He sacrificed plans for a large Seattle Central Park for a plan that created smaller parks linked by streetcar lines and a planned parkway system (presumably carriageways). The fundamental idea was to integrate natural scenery and parks into the fabric of the city, to embed the urban structure with green space for both recreational and public purposes—to make the landscape part and parcel of the urban design. In 1906 Olmsted designed the grounds of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition that integrated picturesque park panning with City Beautiful design motifs complete with stately Beaux Arts buildings that reflected a heritage of civic humanism.
The book grounds the Olmsted firm and its distinctive vision of landscape urbanism to the early development of Seattle, but the principles of Olmsted park planning were overwhelmed by the vast postwar agglomeration. Even the memory of the Olmsted legacy had been lost. What had been called the Olmsted park system in the 1910s and 1920s became the Seattle park system in the postwar years. Recovering the Olmsted legacy was a decades-long project that was a civics project in itself.
It was difficult for me as a reader, who has never been to Seattle, to evaluate the impact of Olmsted’s plans on Seattle—that is, on the city as a whole. It would have been useful for a concluding chapter to summarize Olmsted’s achievement. What percentage of Olmsted’s plans were actually enacted? This is never clearly stated, though it appears from the provided maps that the goal of linking central Seattle to the parkways and parks did not succeed. Questions of pedestrian (and bicycle) access are not discussed—and one is left to wonder how people accessed these parks.
Despite these shortcomings, Ott’s book is an important document in the story of American urbanism. She documents and celebrates the Olmsted park system as a cultural landscape worthy of preservation, and also notes the stress on the parks created by the massive urban agglomeration that began in the 1960s. At the same time these limitations are acknowledged, we should consider the relevance of Olmsted’s Seattle project to ongoing discussion of urban and environmental planning. This may be safely expressed as a question: should human-centered norms and concerns with design, amenity, and the built environment be considered in relation to contemporary efforts in environmental planning (such as “greenways,” “urban nature,” or “rewilding”) and if so how?
American cities have long been enterprises shaped by business leaders; less often have they been influenced by the actions freely undertaken by civic-minded citizens. It is something of achievement that local government and civic groups could have established the Seattle park system. It is also significant that Olmsted and his successors could, with some success, adapt a pastoral design of landscape to shaping cities. It speaks for landscape as a work of architecture that like great buildings furnishes a city with places of special interest, that imaginatively and aesthetically places the city within the surrounding natural landscape. The Olmsted legacy has truly been one of the few successful interventions into the market system that dominates American city building and indeed American life.
. Hans Baron, The Crisis of the Early Italian Renaissance: Civic Humanism and Republican Liberty in an Age of Classicism and Tyranny, 2 vols. (1955; rev. ed., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966).
. Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century (New York: Scribner, 2000); and Theodore S. Eisenman, “Frederick Law Olmsted, Green Infrastructure, and the Evolving City,” Journal of Planning History 12, no. 4 (2013), 287-311.
. On regionalism and garden cities, see the history of Lewis Mumford and the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). Roy Lubove, Community Planning in the 1920s: The Contribution of the Regional Planning Association of America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964); Carl Sussman, ed., Planning the Fourth Migration: The Neglected Vision of the Regional Planning Association of America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1976); Mark Luccarelli, Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region: The Politics of Planning (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); and Mathew Dalbey, Regional Visionaries and Metropolitan Boosters: Decentralization, Regional Planning, and Parkways during the Interwar Years (Boston: Springer, 2002).
. Charles E. Little, Greenways for America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); and Steffen Lehmann, “Growing Biodiverse Urban Futures: Renaturalization and Rewilding as Strategies to Strengthen Urban Resilience,” Sustainability 13, no. 5 (2021), https://doi.org/10.3390/su13052932.
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Mark Luccarelli. Review of Ott, Jennifer, Olmsted in Seattle: Creating a Park System for a Modern City.
H-Environment, H-Net Reviews.
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