The study compared park systems across the 100 most populous cities in the United States, analyzing them across five categories: access, investment, amenities, acreage and equity.
Seattle Parks and Recreation, with over 489 parks, climbed from the ninth spot last year. The park system is the largest landowner in Seattle, and contains one of the few complete Olmsted park systems — named after the son of an early pioneer of modern landscape design — in the country, said spokesperson Rachel Schulkin. John Charles Olmsted, Frederick Law Olmsted’s stepson, was the primary visionary of the Seattle park system.
Seattle’s ranking is “a recognition that our parks are unique and truly impactful assets for our city,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell in a news release. “Seattle is a city of natural beauty, made even more special by the dedicated work of park partners and professionals.”
Within the study’s top 25 cities, residents were 9% less likely to have poor mental health and 21% less likely to be physically inactive than those in lower-ranked cities, according to Trust for Public Land.
Seattle scored highest (100 out of 100 points) in the investment category, which analyzed spending across all of a park system’s agencies and organizations.
Seattle Parks and Recreation spends $329 per Seattle resident each year on public parks and recreation, which is more than triple the national median spending of $108 per resident, according to the Trust for Public Land.
Seattle’s park system also ranked high in the access category, which analyzed how many residents live within a 10-minute (or half-mile) walk of a park. With 99% of Seattle’s population living this close to a park, the Emerald City scores among the highest in this category, with a score of 98 out of 100 points.
Seattle lost 255 acres of tree canopy between 2016 and 2021, according to a recently-released city assessment. Seattle’s canopy cover in 2021 was 28.1%, down from 28.6% in 2016. This means the city is actually further away from its goal of reaching 30% tree cover by 2037.
The study further noted that the canopy loss has not happened equitably, with neighborhoods most impacted by social injustice losing more than the citywide average. The report stressed that tree canopy cover plays a critical role in climate preparedness by lowering temperatures and reducing heat island effects. At the neighborhood scale, a 13% increase in tree canopy is associated with a .5-degree reduction in temperature, according to the report.
The areas seeing the most tree loss were parks and neighborhoods, the report found. Parks Natural areas contain 14% of the city tree canopy and saw a relative loss of 5.1%, which may be due to aging deciduous trees coming down naturally or being replaced by evergreen trees. Neighborhood Residential areas saw a lower relative loss of 1.2% – but this is a significant number since residential land comprises 47% of the city’s canopy. Tree loss here is likely due to a combination of development and other reasons.
In response to the study, Mayor Bruce Harrell issued an executive order that proposed, among other things, replacing every healthy, site-appropriate tree removed from city property with a minimum of three trees. The order also creates a fund to target new tree plantings in areas with low tree cover, especially historically underserved communities, and would expand which kinds of trees are regulated.
The Seattle Times in an editorial wrote that Harrell’s proposals are a good start and urged the City Council to now engage in a “focused effort and a dedication to come down on the side of trees in the perennial housing versus the environment debate [or] the city will not live up to its own values. Economically disadvantaged neighborhoods will pay the steepest price.”
City officials also recently signed a pledge to work together with tribal nations and community organizations across the state to expand tree canopy in cities. The pledge doubles down on Seattle’s commitment to plant and grow 8,000 trees on public and private properties and an additional 40,000 seedlings in natural areas in the next five years, according to a Seattle Times news article.
As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the founder of America’s landscape architectural profession, Frederick Law Olmsted, it’s hard to fathom how lucky we are in Seattle to have a nationally recognized system of interconnected parks and boulevards known as one of the best-preserved Olmsted designed park systems outside of New York and Boston.
In the late 1970s, the Buffalo Friends of Olmsted Parks (now the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy), in New York, recognized that their city was facing a crisis in their park system. They saw parallels between the park systems of Buffalo and Seattle, and as a result, in 1978, they reached out to Seattle as a part of their effort to build a network of people interested in stewarding Olmsted parks across the country.
In 1980, Seattle Parks Superintendent Walter Hundley and Seattle Parks Department Development Director Donald Harris traveled to Buffalo for an Olmsted Conference. There, they learned about the larger context and the historical significance of the Olmsted park system in Seattle. At this same meeting, attendees formed the National Association for Olmsted Parks (known as the “NAOP”) to increase the awareness of the Olmsted firm and its work across the United States and Canada. (See www.olmsted.org.)
Hundley and Harris understood that, moving forward, Seattle needed to invest in restoring, preserving and protecting its park system’s unique and historic character. They recognized that the elements of the system that made it astonishing when it was originally designed and built also made it a priceless resource for Seattle’s future generations. Realizing they wouldn’t be able to do it alone, they engaged the community to develop an awareness of Seattle’s remarkable park system and an appreciation of its history, and to find others interested in joining in this educational and advocacy effort. In 1981, a core group of volunteers came together to form the Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (known as “FSOP”).
The Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Seattle’s unique Olmsted landscape heritage and raising awareness of the Olmsted philosophy of providing open space for all people. FSOP volunteers work closely with Seattle of Parks and Recreation and other public agencies and community groups to provide independent review of projects in Seattle’s interconnected system of Olmsted designed and inspired parks and boulevards.
FSOP has worked a lot with Washington Park Arboretum over the years. For instance, we partnered with the Arboretum to advocate for Master Plan project funding from the State 520 mitigation process and also worked with the Arboretum partners on the development of the Loop Trail. The Loop Trail work included daylighting large sections of a degraded urban creek channel and providing extensive native plant restoration. When the lamp posts along Lake Washington Boulevard needed to be replaced in 2012, we helped the Arboretum secure historically appropriate lighting to preserve the Olmsted character of the parkway. Most recently, we helped fund an Olmsted Legacy project scoping study re-envisioning Crabapple Meadow as a welcoming, year-round event and celebration space. A concept drawing produced by Seattle Parks and Recreation during the study will help the Arboretum in its plans to revitalize this area—designated as part of the old nursery in the original 1936 Olmsted Brothers design—into a functional, ecologically sound, and aesthetically pleasing garden.
As the FSOP moves into 2022, the group continues to advocate for and provide education about the nearly 80 Olmsted legacy parks and boulevards in Seattle, as well as landscapes throughout the Pacific Northwest, including the grounds of our Washington State Capitol in Olympia. This work is guided by Olmsted’s principle of using plants—especially native species—in an environmentally sustainable way, as well as continuing to ensure that maintenance and expansion are done in a way that takes into consideration the equitable distribution of, and access to, Seattle’s Olmsted envisioned park and boulevard system. We will continue our collaborative efforts to restore and protect these amazing landscapes and the beautiful vistas of our natural surroundings that they reveal.
• “Olmsted in Seattle” by Jennifer Ott and the HistoryLink staff
• Andy Mitton, Project Lead / Landscape Architect at Berger Partnership
We had the privilege of connecting with Kathleen Conner, who recently retired as Seattle Parks and Recreation Planning Manager. Here’s what she had to say about her 20-year tenure.
Tell us about your start with Seattle Parks?
In early 2001, Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) was hiring a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Planner. In my past jobs I had worked on capital project plans and long-range plans that included park and recreation elements, so I thought the job looked interesting.
What positions and types of responsibilities did you have over the years?
I was the CIP Planner for many years, and prepared studies and the Asset Management Plan, and developed the capital budgets for major maintenance projects. As a Senior Planner, I led many long-range planning efforts, including several Parks and Open Space Plans, led the effort to procure SPR’s asset management and work order software system, and became the liaison for historic preservation. In the past six years, I have been a Strategic Advisor and the Planning Manager managing SPR’s Planning Team. In 2018/19 I was on special assignment to the Superintendent’s Office to lead the preparation of the Strategic Plan.
Of course, there’s an Olmsted connection! When/how did you first learn about Olmsted parks/principles?
In the mid-80s, my first job out of graduate school was for the city of Portland, Maine. The Olmsted Brothers had prepared plans for the Eastern Promenade, Western Promenade, and Deering Oaks Park in Portland, so it was something that the Planners and many community members knew about and valued them as extra special parks. At the same time, my in-laws lived right outside of Boston, so I spent a lot of time in Boston and Cambridge enjoying the parks on my visits there.
How did you first learn about and become involved with Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (FSOP)?
Beginning in 2001, I learned about FSOP because I brought several project plans in Olmsted parks to FSOP for design input. In 2003, around the time of the centennial celebration of the Olmsted legacy in Seattle, I was assigned to become the liaison to FSOP and on other historic preservation and city Landmark’s efforts. Luckily, Donald Harris (current FSOP board member) passed the torch to me, and I learned a lot from him along the way.
You’ve also been involved with the National Association of Olmsted Parks (NAOP), how did come together what was your role?
There were several Seattle members of NAOP who thought it would be good to have a member of the Advisory Council who worked on parks planning, budgeting, and capital projects, and could provide a “boots on the ground” perspective on proposals and issues.
What do public parks mean to you?
Parks are places of respite and enjoyment for everyone. They are a key component of Seattle’s livability and provide not only social benefits, but also health and environmental ones. SPR is committed to ensuring that we have an equitable parks and recreation system and is working daily to increase access to quality parks and recreation services.
Any favorite moments or memories?
The Olmsted Centennial was an amazing place to kick off my more official role with FSOP. The park tours led by FSOP Board members have been really interesting and fun. I was very happy that Seattle’s Olmsted system was placed on the National Register (multiple-part documentation) due in large part to the significant contributions of FSOP members. Over the 18 years I was connected with FSOP, I have enjoyed meeting and working with many dedicated volunteers on the Board. Their deep knowledge about Olmsted principles and advocacy helped to improve many projects.
Your last year was interesting, what has been like working the last year during the pandemic?
I was able to work at home, and once I learned all the new communication software tools, it worked out well. Plus, having an amazing Planning team and other SPR colleagues was really helpful. I definitely missed in-person connections and meetings, though.
There have been some pretty big challenges working on Parks & Recreation’s Strategic Plan; updating and planning for the next increment of Park District funding, what does that involve?
The 2020-2032 Strategic Plan for Seattle Parks and Recreation took about two years to develop working with SPR and city staff, the Park District Oversight Committee, and the Board of Park Commissioners, and the public. As you know, we had several task forces do deeper dives on key issues, including the Olmsted Park and Boulevard System. We appreciated FSOP’s efforts on the Olmsted one.
A lot has changed in Seattle/the world since early 2020, and staff is working out the details to check in with community later in 2021 on the Strategic Plan priorities to best serve the public. I hope that you will continue to be involved in the planning for the next Park District funding.
Are you willing to tell us what your favorite public park is, and why?
It is hard to choose my favorite one, but Discovery Park is at the top of my favorites. I love that there is an Olmsted Brothers’ plan for Fort Lawton (now Discovery), and the variety of elements that were envisioned for the Park. It is almost like a miniature city with beautiful views of Puget Sound and was based on a cohesive design for a natural and built environment. I really enjoy seeing the water views, getting to the beach, walking through the forest, seeing birds and wildlife, and viewing the historic buildings on my frequent park visits. The new play area, tennis and pickleball courts, and the Environmental Learning Center are also important assets for the Park, as well. A fun fact related to my personal history is that my Dad spent a couple of weeks at Fort Lawton awaiting a ship to take him to Japan for his military service.
What do post retirement look like for you?
I hope to travel as soon as possible. New Zealand, Australia, and South America are high on my list. I plan to audit some classes at UW starting in the fall. I also will be involved in community service in some capacity, to be determined.
Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks is very pleased to lend our voice in support of the Be’er Sheva Park Capital Campaign. This project will create a beautiful and welcoming beach at the park, in the Rainier Beach neighborhood. It will also fulfill part of Olmsted’s vision for shoreline access in this neighborhood.
Community-led and designed, this decade-long dream is ready to be built, but additional funding is needed. Seeking both large and small contributions, the goal for Phase 1 is $1,000,000 by April 30, 2021. Approximately 60% of that goal has been reached to-date, with possible additional grants pending. We invite you to make contributions through this link and encourage others to add their support as well.
This community project is led by Rainier Beach Link2Lake Open Space Steering Committee, whose fiscal sponsor is the Seattle Parks Foundation.
FSOP is particularly excited about this project, not only for its improved waterfront access for an underserved neighborhood, but also for how closely it mirrors Olmsted’s vision, described well over a century ago. In 1908, Olmsted recommended a shoreline parkway be extended south from Seward Park to an expanded park at this location, which he later described as having “very notable landscape advantages.” Additionally, the Rainier Beach Link2Lake’s broader vision to create a pedestrian-friendly green corridor along Henderson Street, which would connect the park to lightrail and the Chief Sealth trail, traces Olmsted’s proposed parkway route connecting the neighborhood to Beacon Hill and other park boulevards. As Olmsted noted in his 1908 report, all these improvements would be “exceedingly valuable” for “making the lives of the people of the neighborhoods better worth living.”
Please consider giving your support for Be’er Sheva Park, especially as we look forward to 2022 and the national ‘Celebrating Parks for All People‘ effort of the Olmsted200 bicentennial.
Please note: following is a letter, written by Park Commissioner Tom Byers and addressed to Mayor Durkan and the City Council, addressing homelessness in Seattle’s parks. We at Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks support his recommendations. We greatly appreciate his phased, balanced approach to providing shelter and resources, as we do not condone park sweeps that fail to offer lasting and attainable alternatives.
Indeed, the original Olmsted vision for parks was imbued with principles of social reform: public parks were intended as democratizing and humanizing spaces, for the common good, where everyone is free to gather.
January 21, 2021
Dear Mayor Durkan and Members of the City Council,
At least five times a week I take a long walk in one of our wonderful city parks. The exercise, fresh air, and occasional wild-life sightings help to clear my head and maintain some semblance of physical and mental health during these dark times. I am not alone. On this morning’s hour-long walk in a cold rain, I passed sixty-four others in the park, the vast majority of them women and small children. On days when even a trace of sunshine breaks through, the numbers are much higher.
The pandemic has made many of us more aware of how important our park system is, not only for our well-being as individuals, but to our sense of community. We value the parks as Seattle’s common ground, open to everyone, no matter their circumstances.
But today that is no longer true. There are many Seattle neighborhoods in which our fellow citizens don’t have the life-sustaining access to parks that my neighbors and I enjoy. Some neighborhoods didn’t have enough parks to begin with, and the limited park space they have has been taken over by tent encampments.
Ironically, our elected leaders enabled these occupations of our parks in the name of social justice. Their reasoning, as I understand it, was that Gov. Inslee’s order to “shelter in place” during the first days of the pandemic meant that homeless individuals who were then living in the parks should be able to remain there undisturbed. There was logic in that viewpoint last spring, but it has long since evaporated. Ten months into the pandemic, the city has failed to make tangible progress towards establishing temporary and long-term solutions to the housing crisis, allowing city parks to become the best option for hundreds of unhoused individuals to seek shelter. Indeed, the number of individuals living in parks has appeared to increase as the economic effects of the pandemic become more severe. Over time park encampments have mushroomed tenfold with newcomers who cannot claim they are simply sheltering in place.
Our Park Superintendent estimates that roughly 12 percent of our city’s parks have encampments large enough to discourage or prevent use by other park visitors. Many neighborhood park advocates believe the percentage is much higher. Most of those parks are in densely populated areas, where most residents are enduring the pandemic in apartments that don’t have back yards. Those families and individuals are dependent for fresh air and exercise on the parks nearby their homes, parks that are now filled with the tents of our unhoused neighbors who have few places to go besides public parks and lack access to essential services that are critical to maintaining public health during a global pandemic.
For those of us who believe in social justice, the current policy of benign neglect is a double-barreled failure. It is neither just nor progressive to deprive families and individuals of their ability to use their parks as they were intended to be used. Nor is it just and progressive to leave the people in those tents — some of whom are suffering from physical disabilities, mental illness, and addictions — to sleep in tents through a long and rainy Seattle winter.
Social justice demands we do better on both counts. It will not be easy. We did not come to this predicament overnight, and we will not find our way to higher ground quickly or cheaply. But for the good of the entire community, we need to find our way. Here are some steps toward that goal:
The Mayor and Council must overcome their past differences and work together to implement a strategy to end the epidemic of homelessness that is jeopardizing everything else we are trying to achieve as a community. It has been several years since homelessness was declared an emergency by a previous Mayor, yet most Seattle residents still do not perceive that City Hall has any coherent plan to meet the challenge, and the tents in the parks seem to be evidence that no such plan exists. We need a strategy that mobilizes all agencies of the city, and the community as a whole, to achieve the goal of restoring homeless individuals and families to full participation in the life of the community and preventing others from becoming homeless. The Mayor must identify a leader who will be in charge of implementing that strategy and hold that leader accountable for making progress. The Council must provide the necessary resources to enable city agencies to play their roles effectively.
The city government must also renew its commitment to restore our parks so that all Seattle residents can use them for the purposes for which they are intended. As part of its comprehensive strategy, the city government should announce its intent to phase out the tent encampments and then enforce the long-standing regulations that have prohibited camping in the parks. The phase-out of the park encampments should be accomplished through the following measures (some of which are already underway, but under-resourced):
Active outreach and engagement with residents of the encampments
Referral to shelter and affordable housing as available
To the extent existing shelter or housing resources are insufficient, establish sanctioned encampments at non-park sites where appropriate sanitation and human services can be provided. First priority should be sites owned by churches, public agencies, or non-profit organizations that are willing to “sponsor” an encampment and assist with outreach and linkages to health and human services
Until better options can be created, upgrade the sanctioned encampments with the types of facilities provided in refugee camps and state-sanctioned farmworker housing during the cherry harvest. That translates into OSHA tents, mobile restrooms and shower facilities
Rapidly develop more “tiny-house villages” like those described here. The tiny-house villages are a big step up from tent encampments. They provide shelter, heat, and electricity in the individual units, and access to shared restrooms, showers, and kitchen facilities. The units also provide security for residents and their belongings because they can be locked by the resident. The importance of this feature is described powerfully in this short video. The existing villages in Seattle are managed by the Low-income Housing Institute (LIHI) and operate under a detailed code of conduct that each resident agrees to abide by. Each village has an advisory committee composed of neighbors to ensure they are well-managed. During her first year in office, Mayor Durkan stated she intended to create 1,000 units in tiny-house villages. About 380 have been developed to date
Invest in the primary health, mental health, and addiction care services available in the community and strengthen the connections between the providers and residents of the sanctioned encampments, shelters, and tiny home villages
Expedite the production of permanent supportive housing
Substantially increase funding for employment programs that help homeless individuals. A leading example is the Seattle Conservation Corps, which is operated by the Parks Department and employs and trains homeless individuals to complete park improvements and other public works. The Corps has an excellent track record of helping individuals regain their place in the community, but its enrollment has been limited to 60-70 per year by budget concerns. In light of the damage that has been done to the park system in the past year by cuts in the maintenance budget, plus the freeze on hiring temporary workers during the summer, now would be an excellent time to expand the Corps by recruiting some of able-bodied and resilient people living in the shelters and tents and deploying the Corps to repair the damage that has been done to the park system during the pandemic. The Corps could also help with construction of tiny-home villages
These actions can be paid for, at least in large part, by avoiding costs the City is incurring to mitigate the impact of the encampments on the parks (garbage collection, sanitation, etc.); the cost of the police presence necessary during “sweeps”; and other costs associated with allowing people to remain homeless (911 calls, emergency room visits, etc.) The expansion of the Conservation Corps and other measures to restore and enhance the park system could be funded by a modest increase in the levy rate of the Metropolitan Park District, which can be done with five votes of the Council and the approval of the Mayor.
These are the obvious first steps to meet the twin crises evident in our parks. A more complete list of actions will need to be created, and it must be forged by those most affected: by the families and individuals in the city neighborhoods who have been unable to use their parks for their intended purposes; by individuals who have experienced homelessness; by advocates for the mentally ill, and chemically addicted; and by the dedicated individuals who are working to reform the systems that have badly failed to protect both our parks and those who have pitched their tents within them.
Tom Byers, Member, Board of Park Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee
Co-signers: Andrea Akita, Jessica Farmer, Kelly McCaffrey, Members of the Board of Park Commissioners and Park District Oversight Committee; Dennis Cook, Even Hundley and Jessica Vu, Members of the Board of Park Commissioners; and Dewey Potter, Member of the Park District Oversight Committee
Friends of Seattle’s OlmstedParks (FSOP) is proud to announce that Olmsted in Seattle has been named a finalist for the 2020 Washington State Book Awards. In addition to introducing readers to John Charles Olmsted’s plan for a park system, Olmsted in Seattle recounts the interplay of policy, politics and city development that led to hiring the Olmsted Brothers and examines how our park system has evolved since then.
The Washington State Book Awards, now in their 54th year, are presented by the Washington Center for the Book, a partnership of Seattle Public Library and Washington State Library. The awards honor Washington authors and will be judged by a panel of librarians and booksellers. Olmsted in Seattle is one of five books nominated in the “General Nonfiction” category. Winners in each of eight categories will be announced on September 25.
FSOP congratulates author Jennifer Ott and HistoryLink on this nomination! Jennifer Ott is an environmental historian and assistant director of HistoryLink. She served on the board of Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks and was board president from 2011-2015. Ott’s other books include Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Lock and Ship Canal, co-authored with David Williams, and Seattle at 150: Stories of the City Through 150 Objects from the Seattle Municipal Archives, for which she was head editor. She is a member of the Volunteer Park Trust steering committee and an advisory board member with FSOP.
Seattle Parks and Recreation took emergency measures to remove an infected tree on W McGraw Place, part of Queen Anne Boulevard, on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The Parks Dept. briefed FSOP on the need for the emergency removal Tuesday afternoon and received approval from the Landmarks Board early Wednesday.
The tree, a mature Norway maple (Acer platanoides) was infected with a spore, Cryptostroma corticale, which when airborne can become a human health hazard. The tree removal crew wore special protective gear during the removal process.
The spore grows under the bark of the tree, and as the bark falls away the spore is released to the air. More information on the pathogen can be found in this article.
Seattle Parks will replace the tree with a young tree of a different species yet to be determined. Approximately 23 additional trees along the boulevard are being assessed and may need to be removed and replaced as well. FSOP will be involved in both processes.