Building Nature: Topics in the Environmental History of Seattle and Spokane

A Curriculum Project for Washington Schools

Developed by
Matthew W. Klingle
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest
University of Washington Department of History

Curriculum Packet PDF


Table of Contents

I. Introduction: Two Cities, Two Environments

II. Trading Nature: Economic Hinterlands of Seattle and Spokane

III. Constructing Nature: Urban Planning and Design in Seattle

IV. Reclaiming Nature: Flattening Hills and Digging Waterways in Seattle

V. The River City: Planning and Design along the Spokane River

VI. Conclusion

VII. Suggested Activities

VIII. Timeline of Pacific Northwest Environmental History

IX. Bibliography and Outside Resources

X. Document Index

I. Introduction: Two Cities, Two Environments

In the minds of many, Seattle and Spokane are cities where people move to so they can be closer to nature, not removed from it. Seattle stands astride a narrow strip of land between Lake Washington and Puget Sound, ringed by the Cascade Range to the east and the Olympic Mountains to the west. Spokane lies along the Spokane River with a series of falls in its middle, embraced by the Palouse Country to the south and the Rockies to the east. Spokane and Seattle are places where the outdoors sits (or seems to) at the urban doorstep. When visitors come to town, Seattleites take them to Discovery Park or the Space Needle, always for a view of the surrounding mountains that, even when hidden by clouds or fog, are one measure for what makes the city great. Spokanites take visitors to Spirit or Hayden Lakes, on a drive through Spokane Canyon, or to the former Expo’74 Fairgrounds to see a spectacular river flow through the center of town. Residents of both places tell themselves and their visitors with pride that no other city can boast of such beauty so close to town.

Nature is more than scenery, however. It is part of Seattle and Spokane, although today’s buildings and highways seem to mask the natural environment and the role it played in the history of both cities. Nature comes into the city in the form of the produce in local farmers’ markets, fish that line grocery stalls, or lumber stacked behind hardware stores. Nature also enters urban life through power lines carrying the energy of the Columbia or Skagit Rivers, or the pipelines bringing water to homes, schools, and businesses. Nature leaves the city in the shape of products manufactured from the plants, animals, and minerals that flow into urban factories and companies as raw materials, or in the streams of garbage and sewage destined for treatment plants or landfills. And nature exists in Seattle and Spokane in the form of parks, boulevards, and neighborhoods planned with the out-of-doors in mind. Cities are places where the built and the natural intertwine, often in complex and contradictory ways. The purpose of these materials is to help illuminate such how people shape nature in Northwest cities and how nature shapes people and their cities in turn.

Because of space restrictions, this project consists of particular episodes in the environmental history of two Washington cities: Seattle and Spokane. The project divides into four sections, each exploring particular facets of city’s history. These sections may be taught together as a unit, or used separately as individual lessons. Questions and teaching suggestions accompany each section, as well as more general activities at the end of the essay. A proper name and subject index is included as a finding aid. A timeline provides important dates in the environmental history of Washington and the Pacific Northwest. Finally, the project includes a bibliography, suggested videos, and on-line resources that teachers may consult for further information.

This project is far from exhaustive. It shows how certain documents—business records, booster brochures, newspaper articles, city plans, engineering surveys and political campaign literature, to name a few—testify to the environmental history of urban places. The documents in this packet focus on trade, city boosters, urban design and planning. Of course, there are other topics to explore and other cities to examine: public health and sanitation, wildlife, pollution, waste management, and environmental justice. Instead, teachers and students should use this project as a guide for building their own collections on urban and environmental history, or for teaching these aspects of Pacific Northwest history in their classrooms.

Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest