May 10 2013

A Walk in the Park: The Legacy of the 1903 Olmsted Plan

In 1903, landscape architect John Charles Olmsted wrote that Seattle possesses extraordinary landscape advantages in having a great abundance and variety of water views and views of wooded hills and distant mountains and snow-capped peaks. I do not know of any place where the natural advantages for parks are better than here. They can be made very attractive and will be, in time, be one of the things that will make Seattle known all over the world.” That same year, city leaders hired John Charles Olmsted and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (the sons of famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted) to develop a comprehensive plan for Seattle’s park system.

Historic Photo of Green Lake Way, Seattle

Historic Photo of Green Lake Way, Seattle

The Olmsted Brothers designed a master plan of neighborhood parks linked together by a 20-mile long greenbelt comprised of boulevards and parkways. The parkways are lined with trees and other native plants, while the boulevards are lined with homes (this is still noticeable today). Each neighborhood park reflected the character of that particular neighborhood and provided a slice of nature within an urban lifestyle.

While the greenbelt was the prevailing feature of the master plan, John Charles Olmsted also intended to locate a park or playground within a half mile of every home. He believed that playgrounds were a necessary component to childhood development and for a civilized society.

1909 Olmsted plan for Green Lake Park, Seattle

1909 Olmsted plan for Green Lake Park, Seattle

The 1903 Olmsted Plan (and the 1908 park expansion plan) is the basis for Seattle’s modern day park system. Of the 68 parks and 18 boulevards that the Olmsted Brothers designed or recommended, Seattle has built 17 parks and 14 boulevards. The most significant Olmsted designed parks include:

The Olmsted Brothers were also influential in the design of Gas Works Park and Discovery Park.

Seattleites today owe a debt of gratitude to the Olmstead Brothers for conceptualizing the foundation of the city’s expansive green space network. Are there other cities with similar legacies?

Credits: Images from Paul Dorpat. Data linked to sources.

Amanda Bosse

Amanda Bosse is a former writer for the GRID. At the time she was writing, she was in the Master of Architecture program at the University of Washington. Growing up in the Midwest, she became interested in the dialogue between the individual structures and the urban fabric (including those structures not typically designed by architects). With a background in both architecture and urban design, Amanda was primarily interested in applying architectural thinking to solve larger scale design problems.

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 10th, 2013 at 9:55 am and is filed under Landscape Architecture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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3 Responses to “A Walk in the Park: The Legacy of the 1903 Olmsted Plan”

  1. Dewey Potter Says:

    Hi Amanda–
    Very nice job on your Olmsted piece! I have one small correction to offer if you want to email me or give me a call at 206-684-7241.

    Dewey Potter
    Communications Manager
    Seattle Parks and Recreation
    206-684-7241

  2. Amanda Bosse Says:

    To clarify, the Olmsted Brothers only recommended parks at the sites of today’s Gas Works Park and Discovery Park. The Olmsteds were in Seattle before the actual design of these parks.

  3. Farewell to Global Site Plans and The Grid from Amanda Bosse | The GRID | Global Site Plans Says:

    [...] lines will undoubtedly transform the city. While at the same time, the plans laid out by the Olmsted Brothers in 1903 continue to guide the city’s park system. Let us not forget that places such as Pike Place Market have remained for over a century, and [...]

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