Some in Seattle say we need a "central park." That's what the proposed South Lake Union Commons concept was all about, and it motivates the FROGS (Friends of Green at Seattle Center) and others who'd like to see Seattle Center largely converted to open space.
John Olmsted, who was the mastermind of the city's park system and boulevards — the so-called "emerald necklace", designed many parks and park systems around the country, but he didn't favor a New York-style Central Park here. Rather, he wanted to collect potential park space throughout the city, putting parks within reach of every citizen. He wanted playgrounds (an idea he introduced to Seattle) within walking distance of every home. This kind of democrtization of parks and public amenities is part of the fiber of the city, which has expanded neighborhood libraries, community centers, pea patches, and is now returning to neighborhood schools.
Part of the reason a central park is unnecessary is that Seattle, despite Puget Sound sprawl, is in the middle of vast parks and protected wilderness areas, from Mount Rainier to the Olympics to the North Cascades. And because Seattle, thanks in part to Olmsted, acted aggressively to preserve urban park land, it is possible to take a Metro bus to see old growth trees within the city limits. While no one is denying that it would be nice if we also had a version of Vancouver's Stanley Park, the fact is we went another direction, and carving that space out of the city now is virtually impossible.
Still, despite the great amenities neighborhood parks make, they are often battle grounds as neighbors fight over crime, park maintenance, and use. Parks are magnets for controversy, from crime at Victor Steinbrueck to lights at Magnuson to mountain bikers at Lincoln. Urban parks, central or otherwise, are often regarded as local nuisances. Even the concept of park playgrounds was controversial during the Olmsted era as some park advocates saw them as bringing the wrong kind of people into public spaces, or worse, messing with the contemplative aspects of a park where a person could commune with nature inside a bustling city.
If Seattle's setting in a place of natural beauty is an advantage, if, in essence, our "central park" is comprised of the national, state, and county parks, waterways, and forest lands around us, do we have any responsibility to connect them more with the city?
I recently returned from a four-wheeled 12-state tour of the West and visited (and revisited) a number of national parks, monuments, forests, and grasslands. I was again struck with how much of our natural heritage is inaccessible to people without a car.
How many families are going to bike to Hurricane Ridge or Paradise? On your next hike, are you going to take the bus to the North Cascades? Have you had the pleasure of getting around the Olympic Peninsula on Greyhound? In terms of civic planning, Seattle ought to think about making the wilderness more accessible to its citizens so they can access their "central park" with options that are kinder to the carbon footprint.
Some national parks, such as the Grand Canyon and Glacier, can be reached directly by rail. In fact, rail and national parks once went hand in hand, with the railroads building lodges and promoting an emerging Victorian middle class to get out and see the wilderness. A notable Northwest example is Glacier Park Lodge built by the Great Northern Railroad with old growth Northwest Douglas fir. You still can hop Amtrak's "Empire Builder" and get dropped across the road from the lodge. But this is now the exception.
In Europe, many natural areas (like the Alps) are served by rail, so hikers don't need to come by car. Some U.S. national parks, like Zion, are banning autos to the periphery and using shuttles to take folks around the park. I recently took the bus from one end of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the other, and the wait time and service was better than my No. 11 bus route in Seattle. But because of time, distance, and bringing families and gear, vast parking lots are still needed to accommodate everyone.
Around Seattle, we have improved local access to some areas by converting rail road corridors (like the Burke-Gilman) to bike paths so you can cycle from Fremont to Marymoor Park and even on to the Issaquah Alps. But I wonder if shuttle bus services or local rail service to wilderness areas and trailheads could help shape a culture where people could leave vehicles behind so they wouldn't have to be the almost exclusive means of access?
You would think, for example, Mount Rainier would be ideal for such service being comparatively close to the urban I-5 corridor and Seattle and Tacoma, which have light rail, but as the directions on the park's website indicate, "There is no public transportation to or in Mount Rainier National Park."
There are folks looking into these issues, especially since more sustainable tourism and reducing impacts on parks is a long-term goal government. The Transportation Research Board of the National Academies has a committee studying the needs of public lands, and the feds are looking at it and spending money on it too, from hybrid buses in Denali National Park in Alaska to a transportation feasibility study for the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon. While expanding options for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders inside national parks is being addressed, the issue of getting there and back needs serious attention from urban as well as park planners.
Until then, broad use of our wilderness areas will be reliant on another American tradition: the road trip.