III. Constructing Nature: Urban Planning and Design in Seattle

While Seattleites worked to bring Alaska and East Asia into their commercial orbit, they also worked to design for nature within their city. From the earliest days of white American settlement, Seattleites put lines on the land to mark private and public property boundaries. As the city matured, however, residents realized that they needed to manage and direct growth by more comprehensive means. Early planning emphasized the role of Seattle as a port for natural resources. The face of Seattle would reflect its dependence on turning nature into commodities for trade, but it would also reflect how residents had grown concerned that nature was now something to be protected, not merely exploited.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Seattle residents, like Americans across the country, worried that the nation’s natural bounty was failing. Vanishing herds of bison and hillsides stripped of trees pointed to the wasteful and inefficient use of natural resources. The conservation movement grew out of such concerns, and noted conservationists, such as Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the new United States Forest Service, lobbied to enact new policies designed to protect and conserve the nation’s natural abundance. Other Americans, such as John Muir, extended their concern for nature beyond the desire to use resources more judiciously. In contrast to the conservation movement, the preservation movement lobbied to set aside more land for scenery and recreation. While historians have often distinguished between the two movements, arguing that conservationists stressed managing resources more efficiently and equitably while preservationists stressed protecting nature for its beauty and intrinsic value, both spoke to Americans’ broader concerns that nature was under siege.

These changing attitudes toward nature also touched upon the lives of urban residents, especially during the Progressive Era. At the same time that Americans began to rally behind the conservation and preservation movements, they also worried what urbanization would do to their nation. Cities had become environmental problems, filled with pollution, devoid of open space, and cut off from their surrounding countryside by bands of buildings and train tracks. As early as the 1850s, reformers in Eastern cities, such as Frederick Law Olmsted, began building municipal parks, such as Central Park in New York, to bring nature back into the city. By the 1890s, the park building craze culminated in what historians have called the "City Beautiful Movement," a constellation of reforms that used parks and buildings to uplift residents and eliminate blight. The City Beautiful Movement shaped urban planning and design in almost every major American city and Seattle was no exception.

After the Klondike gold rush, Seattle’s population boomed, bringing with it many of the problems that afflicted larger cities in California, the Midwest, and the northeastern seaboard. From 1890 to 1920, the population swelled by nearly 9000%, from 3,553 to 315, 312—the most dramatic increase of any city in the Northwest. As settlement spread across Seattle’s hills and valleys, many residents became concerned that growth would lead to inefficiency, sprawl, and ugliness. Remaining stands of timber fell before real estate developers and streetcar lines. Shacks filled with itinerant workers crammed the waterfront along Elliott Bay and Shilshole Bay. Safe and beautiful parks and playgrounds for the city’s children were scarce. Reformers sought to correct these problems before they ruined the city. Residents listened to reformers and empowered engineers and planners to bring order and beauty to Seattle.

One solution was to make Seattle into an urban garden with more parks, boulevards and open spaces. In 1903, the city government hired the Olmsted Brothers, the famous landscape architectural firm from Brookline, Massachusetts, founded by Frederick Law Olmsted, to design a citywide park system. For the next two decades, the Olmsteds were responsible for designing nearly all of the Seattle’s major parks, including Volunteer Park and Green Lake Park, as well as the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which was later incorporated into the University of Washington campus.

Parks were not the only vehicles for improving Seattle, however. In 1911, Virgil Bogue, a former railway surveyor and engineer, was hired as the Municipal Plans Commissioner and proposed an ambitious plan to guide the city’s growth and development. Hallmarks of Bogue’s plan included an enormous new civic center just north of the downtown business district, widened and tree-lined streets, and spacious parks based upon the 1903 Olmsted plan that would encompass the entire region from Puget Sound to the Cascade foothills. Together with the Olmsted parks, the so-called "Bogue Plan" was Seattle’s version of the City Beautiful.

As with so many urban designs, however, neither the Olmsted’s parks nor Bogue’s municipal plan were fully enacted. The "Bogue Plan," was defeated in the 1912 election after voters balked at the enormous expense, but much of the Bogue’s recommendations, from a regional parks system to improved highways and roads, later adopted in subsequent urban designs. The original Olmsted plan was pared back when it proved too expensive, but enough remained to ring the city in garlands of green. While some historians have argued that the original Olmsted and Bogue proposals fell before commercial interests and fiscal conservatives desirous to keep prime real estate out of public hands, this answer is too simple. Seattle was still tightly linked to extractive industries whose fortunes rose and fell on the mercurial swings in metal futures, the fisheries market, or demand for timber. Moreover, while Seattle’s population had exploded after the Klondike gold rush, the city had a relatively limited tax base thanks, in part, to the large numbers of residents who worked seasonally in extractive industries. Finally, many Seattle residents did not see the need for an expansive park system when so much spacious public land lay within a day’s train ride or drive from their homes.

After the Second World War, Seattleites attitudes toward nature in the city changed yet again with the rise of the postwar environmental movement. Just as reformers during the Progressive Era decried Seattle’s filthy neighborhoods, reformers during the 1960s and 1970s seized upon the same themes in their critique of a Seattle sprawling out of control. As with other cities across the nation during the postwar era, economic growth during the 1950s drove urban expansion into the environs surrounding Seattle. Cold War defense spending poured into Boeing and its local subcontractors, generating more jobs and attracting more migrants. Real estate developers, catering to Americans’ desires for grassy yards and new tract homes, helped to turn the small towns of Renton, Bellevue, Auburn and Kirkland into full-blown suburbs. This sudden growth spurt had unforeseen and unwanted environmental effects. More residents meant more cars on more roads with more pollution and more suburban sprawl. Industries and homes along Lake Union, Lake Washington, and the Duwamish River spilled more and more waste into the water. Salmon had disappeared from many local streams while smog began to obscure the city’s famous views. Nature in Seattle again seemed imperiled. 

By the 1960s, many area residents began to embrace what historian Samuel P. Hays has called the pillars of the postwar environmental movement: beauty, health, and permanence. Many Seattleites no longer saw their livelihood tied to fishing, logging, or mining. Instead, they saw nature as a playground or place for contemplation, a thing of loveliness not utility. They considered polluted skies and waters, endangered wildlife, and diminished outdoor recreation as a direct threat to their physical and emotional welfare. And in order to protect what was still left and restore what had been damaged, reformers turned again to better planning and growth management. 

The crusade to rescue Lake Washington was emblematic of this new urban environmentalism. The growth of suburbs around Lake Washington led to an increase of untreated sewage dumped into the lake. By the mid-1950s, water in Lake Washington was so polluted that swimming was impossible. Wallis T. Edmondson, a professor of zoology at the University of Washington, sounded the alarm that Lake Washington was becoming eutrophic or dying, in ecological terms, because sewage accelerated the growth of blue-green algae that stripped the waters of life-giving oxygen. Fewer and fewer creatures could thrive in the anaerobic waters. During the hot summers, mats of rotting algae washed ashore along with sewage, poisoning beaches and polluting the air. Concerned city and suburban residents lobbied to create a new regional planning agency, the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, or Metro, to clean up the pollution in Lake Washington, manage growth, and expand mass transit. 

James Ellis, a Seattle native and local attorney who spearheaded the Metro campaign, argued that Seattle’s environmental problems were the now region’s problems and thus demanded regional solutions. Pollution did not respect property lines or political jurisdictions. But others worried that an expanded county government would limit growth, hurt real estate values, and increase taxes. Nicholas Maffeo, a tax attorney from Renton, led the charge against what he called "the Metro monster." An August 1958 ad in the Bellevue American caricatured Metro as a snarling octopus, strangling a hapless suburban taxpayer in its tentacles. In hotly contested March 1958 election, King County voters narrowly rejected the first Metro measure. Anti-Seattle and anti-tax forces in Seattle’s suburbs won the first round.

Undaunted, Ellis and his allies put a newer, smaller version of Metro on a second ballot that excluded the suburbs that had voted against the first plan while narrowing the agency’s focus to building sewers and nothing else. Voters approved the second Metro plan in September 1958 by a wide margin—59% for to 41% against—with King County residents outside of Seattle ratifying the plan by nearly two-to-one. Construction on the huge interceptor sewer system to divert sewage from Lake Washington into Elliott Bay and the Duwamish River began in early 1959 with the first phase completed in 1963. By the mid-1960s, the water quality in Lake Washington had dramatically improved. Scientists, planners, and environmentalists had shown the promise of regional management to save urban nature.

Emboldened by their success with the Metro campaign and fearful of continued sprawl and unchecked growth, another group of concerned citizens, business leaders, and city officials joined to form Forward Thrust in 1966. Many of its leaders were veterans of the Metro campaigns, including James Ellis. Surveys by Forward Thrust found that a majority of Seattle and King County residents complained about increased traffic, noxious pollution, inadequate mass transit, and insufficient open space. Armed with these results, Forward Thrust organizers built support for a series of city and county bond proposals to fund improvements for pollution control, setting aside more land for parks, expanding local highways and mass transit, and erecting a county stadium (the Kingdome) for professional sports teams. But Forward Thrust was more than a vote to make more public facilities. It was a vote on managing Seattle’s growth. During a special election in 1968, voters approved some measures but rejected raising money for mass transit. A second round of Forward Thrust proposals also went down to defeat in 1970, due in large part to the regional recession propelled by Boeing’s bust. The underlying message behind both elections was clear: Seattle and King County residents wanted to restrict growth and improve the environment, but they were unwilling to raise taxes or restrict their behaviors, like driving cars or buying suburban homes, that contributed to regional troubles.

The documents for this section are taken from debates surrounding four urban designs for Seattle and its environs: the 1903 Board of Parks Commissioners Report, the 1911 "Bogue Plan," the 1958 Metro campaigns, and the 1966 Forward Thrust campaign. Consider the following questions as you analyze these documents:

23. Seattle Parks. First Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners, Seattle, Washington, 1884-1904 (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1905), 4-6. Seattle Municipal Government, Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Chronological Files. Seattle Municipal Archives, Office of the City Clerk, Control No. 5801-01, Box 1, Folder 5.

24. Seattle Parks. Selections from Seattle Board of Park Commissioners, Parks, Playgrounds, and Boulevards of Seattle, Washington (Seattle: The City, 1909), 11-12.

25. Seattle Civic Movement. "Closing Word," from Virgil G. Bogue, Plan of Seattle: Report of the Municipal Plans Commission submitting Report of Virgil G. Bogue, Engineer (Seattle: Lowman and Hanford, 1911).

26. Bogue Plan. Civic Plans Investigation Committee, The Bogue Plan Question (Seattle: R. L. Davis, 1912), Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries

27. Municipal Problems. Washington State Pollution Control Commission, The Seattle Sewage Treatment Problem (Olympia: The Commission, 1948).

28. Lake Washington Pollution. "Edmondson Announces Pollution May Ruin Lake," University of Washington Daily (13 October 1955).

29. "Vote NO on METRO!" [campaign flyer, c. 1958], from Bellevue American, 5 March 1958, copy in James R. Ellis Papers, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries, Box 1, Folder 5.

30. Vote Yes on METRO. "EMERGENCY! Clean Up Our Filthy Waters," [campaign flyer, c. 1958], James R. Ellis Papers, University of Washington Libraries, Box 1.

31. "Put METRO to Work," [campaign flyer c. 1958], Seattle—Metropolitan District, Vertical Files, Periodicals Division, Seattle Public Library, Main Branch.

32. Speech Against METRO. Nicholas A. Maffeo, "Speech Against 'Metro,'" 20 February 1958. Seattle—Metropolitan District, Vertical Files, Periodicals Division, Seattle Public Library, Main Branch.

33. Reports to Forward Thrust, [Capitol Hill, Montlake, Madrona District, Denny Blaine, and Bellevue] Forward Thrust Papers, Acc. 1704-4, Box 1, University of Washington Libraries.

34. "Forward Thrust Begins," 15 September 1966, Forward Thrust Papers, Acc. 1704-4, Box 1, University of Washington Libraries.

35. Forward Thrust. "What a Contributor Should Know about Forward Thrust," 23 May 1967, Forward Thrust Papers, Acc. 1704-4, Box 1, University of Washington Libraries.

36. Seattle Stadium Campaign. "Would you Pay $1.21 per year for a new all-weather stadium?" [Forward Thrust campaign literature], c. 1968, Reports to Forward Thrust, Mercer Island and Bellevue, Forward Thrust Papers, Acc. 1704-4, Box 1, University of Washington Libraries.

37. Forward Thrust Campaign. "When they’re 21, it will be too late," [Forward Thrust campaign literature], c. 1968, Forward Thrust Papers, Acc. 1704-4, Box 1, University of Washington Libraries.

38. Forward Thrust Campaign. "Vote TUESDAY Feb. 13th 'Your Day of Decision,'" [Forward Thrust campaign literature], c. 1968, Reports to Forward Thrust, Mercer Island and Bellevue, Forward Thrust Papers, Acc. 1704-4, Box 1, University of Washington Libraries.

Main Section II Section IV Section V Section VI Section VII Section VIII Section IX Section X
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest