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Can Seattle successfully evolve without its own Stanley Park?

Jul 09, 2009

We are excited to have guest blogger Knute Berger, Crosscut’s chief Northwest native and author of Pugetopolis, to kick off the Seattle vs. Vancouver Parks discussion. Among many other thought-provoking blog posts on Crosscut, he wrote an excellent piece on The Great Urban Debate.
by Knute Berger

Every Seattleite who visits Vancouver envies Stanley Park: beautiful woods, trees and trails, a wonderful perimeter pathway, amenities like restaurants and tribal totem poles. Like great city parks, it offers both retreat and activities. Who wouldn’t want one in their city?

Seattle has approached parks differently. We have no big central park, but the elements of one have been dispersed throughout the city: a zoo in Woodland Park, an Arboretum and tea garden in Montlake, waterfront walkways at Lincoln Park, Discovery Park, Seward Park and Green Lake. Much of this is threaded together by Olmsted-designed boulevards. It seems to me that Seattle has de-centralized the urban park and made many of its neighborhoods park-like.

In the 1990s, Seattle battled over creating a big central park at South Lake Union with land to be donated by Paul Allen. Proponents of the “Seattle Commons” argued that it would fix a long-standing central park deficit in Seattle and help spur development. Opponents argued that it was too expensive, too much of a benefit a single developer (Allen), and some questioned the need for a Stanley-like Park. From the top of the Space Needle, you can see at least three U.S. national parks. In other words, who needs central park when your city is adjacent to world-class protected wilderness and recreation areas?

So my questions are, does Seattle need a central park? And how would Vancouver have developed, for better or worse, without one? Is a central park’s main value now that it is a magnet for dense development? And lacking a central park, what should Seattle do, if anything, to make up for that?

Obviously, the days of acquiring a large Stanley Park tract are gone, short of a neighborhood-leveling Katrina-like disaster or a dramatic Detroit-like depopulation of the urban core. Is this truly a significant loss, or can Seattle successfully evolve without its own Stanley Park?


  1. Having lived in Portland, OR, which features some very large parks (Forest Park) within city limits, I’ve observed that parks are most attractive when they’re conveniently placed. Size is a secondary factor. The most popular park in Portland is the McCall waterfront park because it’s extremely accessible. I wouldn’t worry about the lack of a central park in Seattle, but rather developing new parks as places people will naturally want to go.

  2. We found out by watching the debate that Seattle has the smallest density of children for a west coast city. One reason for this is a lack of space to raise an urban child. I desperately want the city invest in a safe, large scale inter-urban park where I can raise kids. I was so disappointed when the south lake union project did not get underway.

  3. iheartseattle

    I think Knute makes a really good point. As my friend puts it:
    New York is a city with a world class park and Seattle is a world class city in a park.