On a recent sunny weekend, I was standing in Discovery Park with two of the people most responsible for the existence of this gem of the Seattle park system.
One was former Mayor Wes Uhlman who, elected in 1969 as the city’s youngest mayor at age 34, oversaw the acquisition from the government of the former Fort Lawton in Magnolia. The other was a slight, soft-spoken Scotsman, Peter Ker Walker, who is the last living member of the landscape architecture team that wrote the park’s first Master Plan.
It was Walker’s first visit to the park since the plan was written in the early 1970s, and Discovery Park advocates were eager to hear the two men talk about the park’s creation and what its future should be.
That’s an important question in a city where open space is now rare, gobbled up by development, and where parks are under pressure from a booming population. Plus few issues rile residents more than arguments over park use. They are often greenswards of controversy.
Uhlman, who left the mayor’s office after two terms and went back to lawyering and ventured into real estate, still cares deeply about the park. He is fit and looks much younger than his 82 years with short-cropped silver hair and shades. As we stand looking out over a vast open grass field that offers a spectacular view of the Olympics in the West, Uhlman could not help but look at it with the eyes of a developer — or a hungry man eyeing a sirloin: If you build homes on this, millions could be made, he says.
That in a nutshell is the challenge of open space, he reflects as we walk. People come along and “think it’s just real estate.” Uhlman, though, is not in that camp when it comes to Discovery. He recognizes what a treasure the park is. But when the city first began considering what to do there, he says, “Developers were licking their chops. Housing, a shopping mall … we fended them off.”
That gives some inkling of the value we’ve placed on places like Discovery: A development mother lode was taken off the table because we value other things more. Or at least we try to.
Peter Ker Walker agrees with the intrinsic value of open space and nature in the city. The 1972 park master plan he co-wrote emphasizes the importance of protecting Discovery Park from further development. The plan says Fort Lawton “challenges this city to create within its borders a public park of unparalleled magnificence. … The site is one of breathtaking majesty.” On that everyone can agree.
But the plan goes further. The primary goal of the park should be “to provide an open space of quiet and tranquility for the citizens of this city — a sanctuary where they might escape the turmoil of the city and enjoy the rejuvenation which quiet and solitude and an intimate contact with nature can bring.” The plan even urges less dense development around the park to protect it.
“Nothing,” Walker says unequivocally, “is more valuable than this open space.”
The battle for open space has lasted more than a century in Seattle. People fought over the Olmsted Park plan that provided much of the shape of city green spaces, the Bogue Plan (defeated by voters in 1912), and over the basic function and purpose of city parks. That fight is intensifying as Seattle is growing and densifying. Recent examples include arguments over protecting or developing the Talaris property in Laurelhurst, a landscaped campus eyed for housing. Volunteer Park advocates have pushed back against expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.
In a denser city, finding or creating open space is more difficult, and advocates argue more space is necessary to serve a burgeoning city. The public can be of two minds: Parks measures generally do well with voters but the Seattle Commons, pitched for South Lake Union, was defeated twice at the polls. The yin and yang of Seattle politics is often reflected in the tension between increasing density and preserving open space. Can one happen without coming at the expense of the other?
Peter Ker Walker has worked on landscapes all over the world, from Paris to Detroit to Amman, Jordan. He has spent much of his career in Vermont, but he grew up in Scotland’s border country and at a recent presentation at the University of Washington laid out some of his influences. At home in Scotland there are vast open spaces, water, hills and old fortresses. Walker says he was steeped in the values of fellow Scotsman John Muir, and the Olmsted brothers, who laid out much of Seattle’s park and boulevard structure. He believes in the inherent value of nature.
“Nature in the city is precious,” Walker says. Preserving it is a huge challenge and very important for health, recreation and sanity.
Discovery Park is over 500 complex acres — wild areas, beachfront, bluff, historic housing, large open fields and spectacular views. It is the city’s largest park, but — and this underlines the cries for open space — Discovery doesn’t even crack the top 100 U.S. city parks in terms of size. Tucked at the north end of Magnolia, the site’s virtues were once strategic — the government wanted a well-positioned fort to defend the approach to the Bremerton naval yards. The Seattle Chamber of Commerce assembled the land and donated it for the fort in the 1890s. By the 1960s, Fort Lawton was obsolete and the federal government declared it surplus in the ’70s. The city got it back at no cost, save for what it costs to maintain, run and improve it.
The problem, Walker says, is the temptation to tinker too much. Some changes at Discovery are welcome and have increased open space. A large section of the park, purchased from the Navy, was the Capeheart parcel, once military housing, a PX and parking lot. It has been leveled and replanted with native plant species. Where there was concrete there are ferns and trees; Savannah sparrows sing and bees buzz.
On the other hand, open space by its nature tempts the urban mind. The longer it is “preserved,” the more people come up with schemes for using it, building on it, nibbling away at it. Some people would like to see affordable housing built there, or more of the old buildings used for events.
Deputy Seattle parks superintendent Christopher Williams, speaking along with Walker and others at the UW, says our parks are one of our most democratic institutions, but also among our most controversial. Issues like affordability, homelessness and generational shifts in priorities add to tensions. Can these issues be addressed without violating a commitment to open space and reserving areas for cultivating nature? Peter Kahn, a UW psychologist at the School of Forestry, says that if we “gobble up land, we’re gobbling up the wellspring of human existence.” The inspiration we need, even to make better cities, comes from “interacting with wild areas,” he says.
Thaisa Way, urban landscape historian at the UW, says that we need to be bolder with our parks vision. She notes that in the 2016 PBS documentary, “10 Parks That Shaped America” two of the innovative parks were in Seattle, Gas Works and Freeway Parks. She lists off the incredible run of park and preservation innovation Seattle pioneered in the late 1960s and early ’70s: Discovery, Gas Works, Freeway and Pioneer Square’s Occidental Park, along with saving the Pike Place Market. And this was in and around the Boeing recession.
It was partly a response to hard times. We had federal Model Cities money, we were afraid of urban decay that was impacting many Eastern cities, and environmental consciousness was starting to come to the fore. Facing a “turn out the lights” moment we innovated. We turned a gas plant into a world-famous park on Lake Union, took possession of an old fort, and plunked down a downtown park over I-5. “Seattle,” says Way, “was at the forefront of incorporating nature in cities.” We should dare to be audacious today, she says.
Audacity might be leaving well enough alone. Randy Lewis of United Indians of All Tribes helped lead the occupation by Native Americans at Fort Lawton to assert tribal treaty rights. That struggle resulted in a parcel of land being leased for native use and the Daybreak Star Center.
“Everyone is vying for quality space,” Lewis says in reference to Discovery Park, “but there will be no quality space without wild space.” Discovery Park has attracted coyotes and cougars. “More than human space we need animal space,” he says.
Master plan co-author Walker emphasizes that educating the public on the importance of open and wild space is key — bringing out every person’s “inborn biophilia” is how he describes it.
Walker acknowledges the Scots naturalists who were first to send Northwest plants species back to Britain for study, men like David Douglas of Douglas fir fame, or explorer George Vancouver’s seagoing surgeon Archibald Menzies who first described the madrona tree for science. Walker says with the Discovery Park plan he felt like he was giving something back.
As we walked the open spaces in the park, he was asked by a park volunteer, “what should we do” to improve the park? The best thing, he advised, is “do nothing.”