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Sunday, August 13, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM


Guest columnists

A 100-year plan for open spaces in the Emerald City

Special to The Times

By the year 2100, Seattle is poised to double its current population. Along with this influx, our city will confront increased density, more compact urban centers and less reliance on automotive transport — all sound strategies to minimize our impact on climate change and reduce the pressure of suburban sprawl on our outlying farms and forests.

But what is missing in this laudable civic program is a long-term vision of how we will maintain our once-famous livability. Now is the time that we have to ask ourselves critical questions about the city our children will inherit. How will nature maintain itself within Seattle's concrete corridors? Where, in our constellation of urban hubs, will there be places to meet, talk with and engage our fellow citizens? How are we creating long-term strategic plans to invest in our green spaces in the same way we invest in transportation, sewage systems and communications infrastructure?

These are not new questions; at the turn of the past century, Seattle's founding families asked the very same questions of their booming city that was fast outgrowing its role as a provisioning post on the road to the Yukon. In response, they commissioned the Olmsted Brothers to map out for the coming century a vision of open space for the toddling city. Today, we must stoke our imaginations and forge a new, long-term vision for a green network within our graying Emerald City.

Widening our lens beyond parks and playgrounds, we can craft an integrated system of "green infrastructure" that will serve us as we creatively confront a future of rising obesity rates, global climate change, increased density and constantly stressed natural systems. By taking the bold step of viewing our streams, shorelines, wetlands, bikeways, parks and urban forests as not just amenities, but as providers of essential, life-sustaining services, we can create connected open spaces that will efficiently and economically accommodate a dense, livable and, ultimately, sustainable city.

But what is green infrastructure and what does it mean to have an integrated system? Put simply, green infrastructure consists of the connected transportation, water and energy systems that are non-polluting and regenerative. They are things we all value, like bicycle and walking networks, Seattle's "natural drainage" swales that filter pollutants from stormwater, and rainwater ponds and P-Patches.

Green infrastructure is also the living,vegetated systems that freely and sustainably provide city residents with essential services such as air purification, atmosphere cooling, carbon storage, flood control, food production, recreation and wildlife habitat.

As the Olmsted Brothers knew, the urban forest, our parks and boulevards are the backbone of a system of green spaces in the city. Yet, with the current premium on land and increased technological innovations, we now have exciting opportunities to till the soil to encourage tendrils of green to take root on virtually every parcel in the city. For a nominal investment, green infrastructure for stormwater management, pollution abatement or physical health can be folded into every new civic and private development in the city. Over time, these small outlays will provide services that will have an untold impact on our quality of life, economy, neighborhoods and natural systems.

Some of the services of green infrastructure are self-evident; others are less obvious. Everyone who uses them knows the utility of our existing parks and playfields; we value them as oases in the city, places for our children to play and areas where we recreate and learn.

However, our green infrastructure provides the city with so much more. It diminishes the impacts of global warming, encourages healthy, active recreation, promotes civic discourse, aids in healthy childhood development and cools our homes and streams. Salmon and other aquatic species benefit from green infrastructure as it slows stormwater runoff and increases water quality by removing the pollutants that foul our urban waters, which eventually find their way into an increasingly imperiled Puget Sound.

In an era of constrained municipal budgets, this extra infrastructure expenditure might sound like a political platitude rather than an urgent necessity. Yet, the investment in and the creation of a comprehensive system of green infrastructure need not involve massive outlays of city resources, nor undue burdens upon the city's development community, especially when we consider the windfall dividends we will all reap.

At pennies on the dollar, the return on this investment will be measured not only in terms of carbon molecules sequestered, number of degrees of cooling or stormwater volumes controlled, but also through intangibles like increased quality of life, more civic interaction amongst neighbors, and healthier citizens both mentally and physically. Plus, what other infrastructure investment looks better 20 years after it is installed?

Yes, there are real challenges facing the city, but most challenges also represent real opportunities. How we use our public rights of way, where we live within the region, how rising sea levels will affect our urban shorelines: Each of these questions holds out the potential for exciting, creative solutions, including an increased priority on preserving and expanding our network of green spaces.

But how do we get there?

First, we should rethink the essential framework of how we plan for our open spaces. The landscape of our green infrastructure resources is a spatially and administratively fractured archipelago: Here, transportation interests have jurisdiction; there, public utility regulators reign. Within each of these monacled municipal silos, the greatest public good is not always considered as departments strive toward their internal goals and quotas within the snake dance of bureaucracy.

However, by creating and adopting a unified vision, we can encourage interdepartmental collaboration to create a multifunctional, integrated system of green. With effective nonprofit, educational and private partners, we can produce the maximum benefit with the minimum investment.

Second, imagine a system of open spaces based on our existing watersheds that weave natural threads through the existing cultural cloth of our city to make both fabrics stronger. Rather than isolated neighborhood plans, what if we were to create watershed open-space plans to form bonds between our neighborhoods that maximized the ecological and social benefits by focusing on a connective system?

Consider, for example, the benefits and enriched identity that linked greenbelts, shoreline parks, artful water-purifying bioswales and continuous bikeways around Lake Union would give to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, commuters from farther afield, and salmon trying to survive the passage between the Cedar River and Puget Sound. Framing our understanding of open space on the unchanging flows of water, while respecting the social bonds that define where we live, the city can harness the power of Seattle's twin loves — nature and neighborhoods — to form a more robust and livable cityscape.

Third, we need a vision that proposes ways in which every parcel in this city can contribute to this overall system. We need to consider how our streets, stairways, riparian corridors, waterfronts, green roofs, P-Patches, vegetated swales, wetlands, waterways, backyard habitats and many more types of green spaces can be integrated as part of the city's green network. Through incentives and bonuses, can private landowners create ecological easements in their backyards and along shorelines? Can we remove curbs from our residential streets to allow plants and soil to clean stormwater on site rather than having it piped to distant, controversial and expensive treatment plants?

Finally, we must focus our planning efforts toward creating corridors where today there are only disjointed patches. Looking at a map of the city, a patchwork of green spaces lies on a quilt of linked yet lifeless gray streets. Some of these green spaces are parks, others street ends or basketball courts. Each of these stepping stones has the potential to be a link, and as we connect link-to-link-to-link, chains of unbroken green space will begin to form that will create bonds between ridgelines and shorelines, community playgrounds and urban centers.

At the neighborhood level, this emphasis on connectivity would create pedestrian, bicycle and kid-friendly corridors that would promote community, health and ecological integrity. When viewed from a citywide scale, we would begin to see a web of spaces draping over the city so that one could move from Greenlake to Greenwood, Lake City to Laurelhurst, Beacon Hill to Ballard, while passing through the business and civic hearts of the intervening neighborhoods. Whether the final destination were downtown, or Seward Park or a future Duwamish River trail, virtually anywhere one wanted to go to in the city could be accessed through a woven green fabric, where one could travel safely, healthily, efficiently and economically.

Much more than for our roads, bridges and sewers, which deteriorate and degrade with age, our children and grandchildren will thank us for the sustaining grandeur of our mature, completed system of parks, streams and trails. When viaducts have crumbled and cars have been supplanted by new transportation technologies, our enduring green infrastructure will tower over each of these investments as our lasting gift to the city.

Brice Maryman is a landscape and urban designer with Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture. Nancy Rottle is an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Together, they directed Open Space Seattle 2100, a community-UW collaboration to create a 100-year plan for Seattle's open spaces.

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