Seattle 2035: As city grows, park goals slip out of reach

By Ari Cetron
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By Ari Cetron

As Seattle's population grows over, longstanding goals regarding park space are likely to fall by the wayside. At the least, people will need to get used to thinking of parks as something beyond big open spaces with grass and trees.

The city has two goals with regard to the amount of parkland available to its residents in terms of raw acreage. The first is a baseline goal of 1 acre of parkland per 1,000 residents, which the city is well above. Seattle Parks owns about 6,200 acres (at 488 parks and other facilities), and we’ve got about 650,000 people.

But the parks system also has an “aspirational goal” of one acre per 100 residents, first adopted in 1993. We’re about 300 acres shy of that number, and it’s going to be hard to catch up with 120,000 people predicted to move to Seattle by 2035.

Part of the problem comes down to raw acreage. The city is adding new parkland all the time – since 2008, Seattle Parks has acquired about 23 acres, and had another 49 gifted by other city departments. But’s that’s just a fraction of what would be needed to meet the city’s goal, which would require 1,400 acres more of parkland by 2035. To put that in perspective, the total of 7,600 acres of parkland would equal about 14.3 percent of the city’s land area.

Beyond this, there’s also a goal for spreading parks around. As acreage goals run into the reality of Seattle’s limited space, these discussions will likely take center stage.

“More realistic is moving away from population and moving to a distribution goal,” says Susanne Rockwell, strategic advisor in the Office of the Parks Superintendent.

Since it wouldn’t do to just have one giant park in the middle of the city, the Seattle Parks wants to ensure the open spaces are dotted across town. There are different standards for urban villages – more densely packed areas – and spots outside those villages, but generally the idea is to make sure everyone in Seattle lives fairly close to a bit of open space.

“I think the standard people want to look at is how far people need to go to get some breathing room,” says City Councilwoman Jean Godden, chairwoman of the council’s parks committee.

Seattle has 32 urban villages. Of those, 11 do not meet distribution goals. The Department of Planning and Development also expects four will fail to meet even the current acreage goal of one acre per 1,000 residents, no matter what we do over the next twenty years. The problem could be most acute downtown, which the DEIS says could need as much as five city blocks to meet the acreage ratios.

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But the outlook isn’t all bleak. Rockwell points out the waterfront park being developed in conjunction with the removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct will create space easily accessible downtown dwellers, for example. Beyond this, the city might need to change its thinking on open spaces.

“It will require re-thinking how we define a park,” says Amy Gore, director of sustainable communities for advocacy group Futurewise. Gore believes it’s important to maintain the 1 per 100 goal, but says we should better consider other lands available to the public.

Under current standards, for example, only land owned by the Parks Department counts toward the city’s goals. However, there are other chunks of open space, such as land owned by the various universities, Seattle Public Schools and other city departments. Even places like the Seattle Center, or Sculpture Park aren’t counted as part of the equations, because they are not owned by the Parks Department. Citizens make use of those lands as well, and the Parks Department may start factoring them in, Rockwell says. This won’t actually add new parkland, but may give a more realistic picture of what’s available.

And the city will likely continue to add more open spaces, even if they are not city-owned. For example, Seattle sometimes allows developers to build larger buildings in exchange for providing public benefits, including creating public open space. These spaces, such as the plaza around the Wells Fargo Building at Madison and Second, are owned and maintained by the private property owners but are open to the public. They are called Privately Owned Public Open Spaces.

Gore notes some caution in those plans. It’s important when designing these spaces to make them inviting and accessible, she says. For example, a seventh-floor rooftop garden on the building at Fourth and Madison is considered public open space, but how would the average member of the public know about it?

The policy conflicts that Seattle and its limited land will face in future years have come into focus recently. In a drive toward additional parks, Godden and Mayor Ed Murray originally proposed turning a blighted property near Roosevelt High School into green, open space. They later backtracked as political resistance to the plans appeared, and put them on hold to consider affordable housing options.

Regarding the goal of one acre of parkland per 100 people, Godden believes it is worth keeping in the books. “It’s setting a high bar, but it’s worth striving for,” she says. This may be the case, but attaining it becomes increasingly hard to fathom as the city grows.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Ari Cetron

Ari Cetron is a Seattle-based journalist who’s trying to figure out how to be a newspaperman in a world with fewer and fewer newspapers. The former editor of the Sammamish Review, his work has also appeared in Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business and