Shapeshifter Seattle: You call this eco-friendly?

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.

The Duwamish in the upper portion of the photo runs straight, Harbor Island to its right awaits sea rise, the Port operates on landfill and Seattle is awaiting a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

By Knute Berger

It’s a gorgeous spring day and riding the ferry Puyallup from Bainbridge to Seattle is a bit like being trapped in a pretty postcard. I’m chatting with a couple visiting from Auckland, New Zealand. They are marveling at the city and scenery.

As we come into Elliott Bay, they’re telling me about a controversial port project in Auckland to extend the city’s major shipping wharf, an extension of a major shoreline reclamation effort. The new plan has outraged the citizenry who are largely opposed to more blocking of views, losing access to the public space of the harbor, and the environmental damage of more “reclamation” of the bay. I nod. Seattle has had its own waterfront controversies, from the early claims of the railroads to the Alaskan Way Viaduct to concerns over the costs of the new, proposed “waterfront for all” and Bertha. But I’m also thinking, this city they are looking at today, surrounded by sea and mountains, is one of the most unnatural landscapes imaginable. Extending wharves? That’s the least of what we’ve done.

There’s not time to tell them about the manmade nature of what they’re seeing. Sure, there are structures and roads of all kinds. But it’s our town’s very foundations as well. The bay we’re on has been reconfigured, the waterfront where we’ll be landing, even the land itself. Looking toward Mount Rainier, there’s manmade Harbor Island and the port with its red cranes guarding the manmade entrance to a river that was straightened and shortened by engineers who turned 14 miles of lazy river into a five-mile-long polluted arterial for water.

Much of the city sits on land that was flattened through numerous re-grades that washed away entire hills and made places like flattened Belltown (formerly called the Denny Regrade) and the Denny Triangle ripe for development. The various re-grades created fill dirt and debris that gave us SoDo and the Industrial Area, extended and leveled the waterfront, filled in ravines and natural wetlands.

Unnatural Seattle is getting more attention. So is natural Seattle. The latter is important to get as a way to measure the kind of change we’ve imposed upon the land. To that end, the Burke Museum’s Waterlines project — which has mapped the original shorelines and landscape of pre-settlement Seattle — has produced a wonderful bird’s-eye view of the Seattle area as it was before the Dennys, Borens, Yeslers, et al. (The pdf can be downloaded here, and a printed copy is available in shops and bookstores around town. Or see below for obtaining a copy.)

You can see the meandering path of the Duwamish River as it snakes into Elliott Bay, and the vast saltwater wetlands and tide flats at its mouth. You can see landlocked Lake Union, not yet connected to Puget Sound or Lake Washington via the Hiram Chittenden Locks, Ship Canal, or Montlake cut. You see Lake Washington before it was lowered, killing the Black River that flowed from it, and before the Cedar River was diverted into it. Lines of the map show the modern shoreline overlapping the original one. Native place names and village sites are also added.

The map doesn’t give you a vivid sense of the complicated contours of original Seattle, or the density of its forests, the sogginess of its bogs, the openness of its prairies. There are still vestiges of these you can visit —old growth in Schmitz Preserve Park, a still burbling Licton Springs, a bit of oak prairie at the south end of Seward Park. All of the city’s original peat bogs have been paved over, though apparently there’s one left just south of the city in SeaTac at Tub Lake.

The map also includes walking and bike tours around the city that help reveal the past, where islands appeared and disappeared, where a native fishing area is now marked only by an ancient, still visible rock, where ancient streams once flowed. The old waterlines are interesting to visualize: Green Lake, formed by a left-over chunk of glacial ice, used to be larger, but was lowered to make room for the surrounding park and endless numbers of joggers. The new Weyerhaeuser headquarters in Pioneer Square is being erected on the site of an old tidal lagoon soon filled with sawdust and garbage. South Lake Union’s shoreline was substantially altered — before Paul Allen and Amazon came along.

On the Unnatural Seattle side of things, there’s a book that will be published this September by the University of Washington Press that promises to be an eyeopener. If you use the Waterlines map to get oriented to what Seattle was before it was Seattle, David Williams’ book, Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, will be the deeply researched story of how it was done. Writing about the premise of his book on his blog, Williams, a geologist and naturalist as well as author, blogger and tour guide, writes: “[T]he new site [for Seattle] was far from ideal. Steep hills and bluffs surrounded it, high tides periodically made an island out of part of it, and to the south lay a vast tide flat, half the day a barren expanse of mud and half the day covered by the waters of Elliott Bay. But the deep harbor was fixed in place and the settlers would have to adapt. With a former surveyor, Arthur Denny, as their leader, they knew the land around their chosen spot could be changed.”

Williams goes on to write that they “completely removed a 245-foot-high hill that covered 60 blocks of the downtown,” built a harbor and what was for many years the world’s largest artificial island, and created some 3,000 new acres of land with fill. Williams recently gave a preview of his book as the Museum of History and Industry’s Denny Lecturer for 2015 (disclosure: I introduced him to the capacity crowd). His detailed researched into the re-grades, how and when they were done, and for what reasons (largely to spur development and increase land values) was absolutely fascinating. I know that even Denny family members in the audience learned something new about Seattle history.

That history is important to understand, not just to know where we come from, but where we’re going. Our transportation frustrations are largely driven by topography and past decisions that have ensnared us in a tangle of hills, ravines, narrow passageways and even bad soil (see Bertha). Williams says a chapter of his book is devoted to the future of our topography as it is impacted by global warming and sea level rise (bye-bye, Harbor Island) or the inevitability of a major quake (the Seattle fault was unknown to the pioneers) — forces that could reshape Seattle, and/or instigate further, defensive terraforming. We’re still dealing with runoff problems (see the Madison Valley flood), maintaining our manmade “ground” (rebuilding the seawall) and coping with landslides (how many times are the rail lines closed in winter?), and navigating the hills and isthmus (subway, anyone?). The remaining hills, at least the uphill portions, are not exactly bike- and pedestrian-friendly for the masses.

When you see how much work it has taken to make the land conducive to a modern city, and how much work it takes to keep it habitable, it’s rather unsettling in a city that makes so much about its environmental cred. The things we did to make modern Seattle should horrify modern environmentalists — much of what we spend our time on these days is trying to undo the past by resurfacing streams, restoring salmon runs, nurturing wetlands, cleaning up SuperFund sites, restoring old pathways. We have had to build into the cost of progress the mitigation fees of repair and restoration. It’s a heavy burden, one not anticipated by the ambitious city builders for whom leveling, digging, filling, scraping, paving, blasting and chopping seemed to be ends in themselves.

Looking at the Waterlines map, I play a kind of mental SimCity game. If we knew in the 1850s what we know now about sustainable development and green practices, if we valued the lessons, culture and experiences of the Salish peoples, if we had it to do all over again, how could Seattle have evolved? What kind of city would we be with flowing streams, meandering rivers, more old growth, vast saltwater marshes and tidelands filled with clams and game, and settlement with even more ups and downs?

I’d love to see someone do a 3-D map of the stages of that thought experiment.  How could be re-imagine the 1890s, the 1900s, the 1950s? If we imagine an alternative history and development timeline, it could help us evolve a different future.

Editor's note: Want to win a copy of the Burke Museum's Waterlines project map referenced in this article? Simply take this quiz, get two questions right, like us on Facebook and you will win a copy! Supplies are limited, so enter now!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.