Seattle Needs a Wild Idea

(This post was originally published as a Guest Opinion for the Seattle Times on November 23, 2013)


I can walk down my front steps and 8 minutes later be surrounded by a forest of towering cedars, Douglas firs and mossy maples. It’s the same in many Seattle neighborhoods—you can be in full urban-mode one minute and in a forest or on a beach the next, feeling like you’ve been magically transported from the hard edges of city life. Spend a half-hour, and you’re renewed.


A watercolor sketch I did of  a trail in Lincoln Park's forest.

A watercolor sketch I did of a trail in Lincoln Park’s forest. I came back to this spot a few days later and saw that a huge Parks Department truck had driven down this trail, running over the roots of the large maple on the right and shearing off the bark. Since when do we need heavy equipment on our park trails?


This is the Urban Wild. It’s found in Seattle Park Natural Areas, the gems of our city parks. It’s remnant wild nature right at our doorstep, and it’s a big reason people want to live here. We love our nature to death.

Trouble is, we’re starting to do just that. Imagine our forests trampled and fragmented, wildlife stressed, views marred, and peace disrupted. No one should take the Urban Wild for granted. Without formal protection, it won’t last.

In 1964, this same realization inspired the national Wilderness Preservation Act. National Parks and Forests were showing ecological wear and tear from overdevelopment and overuse, and people could see that without protection, wild nature would be lost.

We need similar vision now. Seattle should have a municipal version of the same idea: an Urban Wild measure to formally protect our park natural areas and provide secure funding to manage them using science-based urban-ecology standards. It’s important for wildlife, but also for the rest of us. All people, young and old, rich or poor, need daily contact with nature to be happy and healthy.

You might assume park natural areas are already protected. After all, birds sing in the trees, baby seals snooze on the beach, and the woods bustle with Green Seattle volunteers on their 20-year mission to restore urban forests. It’s all good, right?

Not necessarily. The budget cuts of the Great Recession bled Parks dry. They’ve done the best they can, but with insecure funding, the utilization of natural areas is inevitable. Stewardship is part of Parks’ mission, yet there is nothing to prevent development or encroachment on natural areas. Last year’s proposed plan to install a commercial canopy zipline in Lincoln Park’s forest is proof of that.

Traditionally, park policy has kept natural areas for passive-use, but times are changing—playing in the woods is not what it used to be. Mountain biking, ziplines, cyclocross, and foraging are some of the interests that lobby for access to the Urban Wild…and Parks is listening. (3) To some people, if it’s not high-speed, high-tech, high-impact, or high-volume, it might as well be a bowl of broccoli.

Still, most of us know that meaningful contact with nature tends to be slow, quiet, and reflective. It’s easier on the nature, too. A Parks Legacy Plan survey found most people use parks for simple walking (78%, tied with picnicking) (4). And yet, active sports and recreation groups—and the potential revenue they bring in—are energetic, organized, and vocal, and tend to dominate policy. Birds and squirrels, not so much.

But, we also pay heavily for recreational interests. Developed parkland is much more expensive to maintain than natural areas. Unlike Portland, with 70% of its total parkland left natural, in Seattle it’s the opposite: 86% of our parkland is developed or landscaped. Only 14% is natural.

It won’t take much before our remnant Urban Wild is all used up. Seattle is growing fast. Combine increased use, higher-impact recreation and encroachment with a densifying city, and the future Urban Wild will end up ecologically degraded and ugly.

City Council should create an Urban Wild Ordinance to permanently fund and protect natural areas in Seattle parks. They should be managed specifically for ecological processes—wildlife habitat, soils, water—but also to preserve an essential experience for people: the magic of the Urban Wild. Future generations are going to need this refuge even more than we do now. We’re leaving them with enough problems as it is.



Please join me in the effort to preserve wild nature in Seattle! Even if you’re not from Seattle, you can be a voice for urban nature preservation around the world. In the coming generations, most people will be living in cities, so it will ultimately affect us all.

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4 thoughts on “Seattle Needs a Wild Idea

  1. Denise, first, I love your watercolor. It’s just lovely.

    This is such a critical post and an effort I’m delighted to know about. I just clicked “like” over at the Facebook page, too. I was born in Seattle but left at a young age, moved around, and just now returned after many years in California, mostly the Bay Area but also Los Angeles. Living in those two cities was an exercise in contrasts that I think is relevant to this topic.

    Los Angeles has so little wild space and wildlife left in urban areas, it left us consistently feeling bereft of connection and peace when we lived there. In recent times, there’s been restoration on the cemented slough of the LA River which is poignant because even in the limited stretches brought back to life, birds like herons, migrating ducks and Killdeer have found their way to these revived patches of land. I always say it’s the “if you build it, they will come” principle. Even tiny swaths of habitat bring in the wildlife.

    The San Francisco Bay Area, by contrast, has so many wild spaces, even from our urban flat, we lived just 15 minutes from many areas of near isolation and trails, with loads of wildlife in almost any direction. I was stunned sometimes that some people living there immersed in the urban, didn’t realize just how dramatic that juxtaposition was — pelicans and egrets and hawks and thousands upon thousands of shorebirds lounging on urban beaches within yards of coffee shops.

    I always tend to think of urban development as the antithesis to nature in the city but you’re so right that the emphasis on human recreation over natural terrain can be as a damaging an ethos to our fellow wild beings. When I travel or move to new cities, I first check the map to see where all of the green spaces are, hoping to find gems of wild in the city. When you land on a green swatch that could be berry trees for Cedar Waxwings, shrub cover for towhees and sparrows, and water sources for all animals, it’s brings such a pang to see a soccer field instead, with no surrounding landscaping for urban animals.

    I would love to see a renewed emphasis on an Urban Wild ordinance. And I’m so glad you brought this to public attention, in such an eloquent way, both here and in the Seattle Times. (Sorry for the long post but it’s a topic very close to my heart.)

    • Thank you so much, Ingrid! Since I wrote this article, I’ve been glad to hear from others who share these views. I really think we are the silent majority. I hope to help convince us all to be a bit more vocal in the need to preserve urban wild spaces. In Seattle, we are lucky to have such opulent nature so close at hand, but we tend to take it for granted, and it is not. It’s in need of protection! I hope you’ll follow us on Facebook (Alliance for Seattle Park Nature) and keep updated…there are elections coming up this year! We’ve only just begun.

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