So, when did we reach that tipping point where it’s accepted public policy to convert urban park land to other purposes? Whether it’s homeless encampments, parking garages, rapid transit, roadways, cell towers, utility stations or similarly incompatible uses, our park systems are being too easily compromised. Who is looking after our precious park heritage? How did it become so easy for elected officials to cavalierly disregard the vital role urban park systems play in our communities?
When can we stop worrying about our grandchildren stepping on discarded needles and avoiding homeless encampments on their way to their favorite parks? When will all of our public parks feel safe enough for women, children and the elderly to visit and enjoy?
While homeless encampments are the most recent and egregious examples of park misuse, they are hardly the only culprit. Another recent offender is the Sound Transit light-rail line coming into Bellevue off Interstate 90 along Bellevue Way. While other routes were considered, a decision was ultimately made to place this visually obtrusive transit line on the west side of the Mercer Slough. The Slough, a 300-acre nature park, had served as a bucolic entrance to one of the region’s most developed urban cores. It is now hidden and aesthetically, environmentally and recreationally diminished.
Urban parks are intrinsically important to the vast majority of citizens. Virtually any public preference survey conducted over the past 50 years will place parks and environmental land at the top of the list. They are our collective backyard, offering visual relief, environmental value and a staggering array of recreational opportunities. As open space disappears and density increases, our parks become more and more important to our quality of life.
Citizens within King County and Western Washington have been gifted superb urban park systems. In the mid-1850s, Frederick Law Olmsted and his contemporaries borrowed and adapted European park concepts to cities throughout the United States, including Seattle. Their intellectual contributions helped shape the landscape of urban America.
They understood that, throughout the course of human history, parks were the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful. They were a private oasis amid the squalor and deprivation that afflicted the vast majority of humanity over the centuries. As democratic systems began to emerge, these private parks began to transition to public spaces. Look no further than Saint James Park or Hyde Park in London to grasp the historical significance of this shift.
Olmsted and his descendants appreciated the fact that urban parks offered a civilizing influence, a needed counterpoint to unhealthy conditions afflicting cities during the middle of the 19th century. They wanted to provide the common citizen with an opportunity to experience the “country within the city,” “pleasure grounds” that offered beauty, tranquillity, informality and opportunities to reflect and recharge. They also introduced the idea of connecting parks via boulevards and walkways. In Seattle, the region’s park trailblazer, simply visualize the connections between Green Lake, Ravenna Boulevard, the University of Washington, the Arboretum, Lake Washington Boulevard and Seward Park. Following this sterling example, other cities followed suit, such as Bellevue’s Lake to Lake system, the Issaquah Alps and Kirkland’s string of waterfront jewels.
In a more contemporary twist, this idea of linkages has been expanded to include critical environmental lands, such as streams, urban forests, wildlife preserves and wetlands. When these park and environmental sites are integrated and connected, each community is immeasurably enhanced.
Park systems are the great democratic equalizer, accessible to all ages, genders, races, incomes and religions. They are a classic public good. They are the counterbalance to the excesses of the digital age, indiscriminate urban development and environmental assault. Urban parks have survived tectonic historic urban shifts because they retained their relevance to society.
Park land should never be viewed as some kind of holding area, benignly awaiting its highest and best use. Parks are not the easy, convenient and inexpensive answer every time land is needed to accommodate the latest crises. During my 22 years as Bellevue’s Parks Director, I routinely fielded requests to sell or lease “undeveloped” park land for everything from street rights of way to housing and museums. If land is needed for other public purposes, find the resources to meet these needs and stop this “death by a thousand cuts.” Urban parks are a legacy passed down to us from some of the great minds of the 20th century. Elected officials, respect this inheritance and assure that our grandchildren enjoy these unrivaled park systems.