Passive Use – a Thin Green Line

In Seattle, nature-advocates are awakening to the fact that our treasured natural areas are not as protected as we thought they were. Turns out, the brilliant Green of the Emerald City is fading, at least in the eyes of many.

Here is a post I wrote for The Seattle Nature Alliance on the subject. It was posted the day after Seattle voted to approve a controversial funding method for our parks.

An ancient Bigleaf Maple.

An ancient Bigleaf Maple in Discovery Park.


Passive-Use, a Thin Green Line

Now that we’ve marched down the aisle and pledged our eternal and undying love for Seattle parks, one question remains. Will we love our parks to death?

Seattle is changing fast. Our population is exploding, neighborhoods are densifying, traffic is just plain nuts. We’ve come up in the world, which is wonderful. But, city life takes its toll and we’ll need greenspaces to keep us healthy and happy. We’ll also need careful planning so we don’t ruin the very nature we value so highly. Seattle only has 15% of park land that remains natural—one of the lowest percentages among American cities. The other 85% has been developed for active sports or landscaped.

The Seattle Nature Alliance is deeply concerned that Parks is managing natural areas to satisfy recreational desires rather than for ecological health and for our deep, human need to connect with nature. The Natural Resources Division—not the Recreation Division—should manage natural areas using urban ecology standards, not shifting recreational trends. The use should fit the resource, not the other way around.

Traditionally, Seattle park natural areas have been managed for wildlife habitat, passive recreation and natural beauty.Passive recreation means reserved for the general population: the non-motorized, non-mechanized, unhelmeted majority. Passive use is the central idea behind our national Wilderness system—conceived to protect nature for wildlife and the nature-experience for all people. Today, passive use is a thin green line between the remnant wild and the effects of development, over-use and ecological degradation. Without it, paradise would have been paved—or trampled—long ago.

The Parks Department is moving toward multi-use: slicing up natural areas like a pie and serving pieces to specialized user-groups. It’s been happening quietly—not as part of a   stated policy change, but rather through specific project proposals. Two years ago West Seattle was stunned to learn a commercial canopy zipline was planned for Lincoln Park’s mature forest. Recently, many Beacon Hill residents were upset to learn Cheasty Greenspace—one of Seattle’s last undeveloped natural areas— is proposed for a mountain bike skills course, with concept maps showing jumps, drops, and free-ride zones throughout the maturing forest. Now, there are vigorous protests and deep community divides.

Multi-use threatens to turn natural areas into community battlegrounds, with everyone scrambling for their own slice of the pie. Specialized user-groups are often supported by well-organized, well-funded, nationwide groups or even corporate sponsors with financial stakes in the specialized-use itself, giving user-groups an outscaled voice. The general population is left unrepresented, an easy target written off as NIMBY, grumpy neighbor, anti-bike, anti-sports, or anti-fun.

And, trying to accommodate multiple user-groups into a greenspace can easily exceed the limits of what nature can handle.

But, when park natural areas are reserved for the general population, every person has equal access. It is the fairest, most democratic way to manage our most precious remnant wild. It ensures nature remains accessible for all people while protecting wildlife habitat from over-use and ecological degradation.

Nature is not merely a setting to recreate in. Natural areas are living systems, and all people deserve an opportunity to explore and find wonder there. By spending quality time in nature and getting to know our fellow living creatures, we find our own place in the world. This is essential to human health and well-being.

Perhaps it’s time to split the Parks Department in two, as proposed for Bellevue parks by their former director Lee Springgate. We’d have a Seattle Department of Recreation Parks, and a Seattle Department of Natural Parks.


Seattle Nature Alliance enthusiastically supports that idea. It’s time.

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Sources and References:

Seattle Parks and Recreation data, as supplied to the Trust for Public Land, City Park Facts, 2014

Cheasty Mountain Bike Project Concept Plan

Lee Springgate Open Letter

Best Practices for Natural Areas, Seattle Parks and Recreation






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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Denise Dahn, Artist/Writer


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