Emerald City

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Matthew Klingle. Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. (The Lemar Series in Western History.) New Haven: Yale University Press. 2007. Pp. xix, 344. $30.00.

Summary

Contents:

Prologue: The Fish that Might Save Seattle

1. All the Forces of Nature Are on Their Side: The Unraveling of the Mixed World

2. The Work Which Nature Had Left Undone: Making Private Property on the Waterfront Commons

3. The Imagination and Creative Energy of the Engineer: Harnessing Nature's Forces to Urban Progress

4. Out of Harmony with the Natural Beauty of the Wild Woods: Artistry Versus Utility in Seattle's Olmsted Parks

5. Above the Weary Cares of Life: The Benefits and High Social Price of Outdoor Leisure

6. Junk-Yard for Human Junk: The Unnatural Ecology of Urban Poverty

7. Death for a Tired Old River: Ecological Restoration and Environmental Inequity in Postwar Seattle

8. Masses of Self-Centered People: Salmon and the Limits of Ecotopia in Emerald City

Epilogue: The Geography of Hope: Toward an Ethic of Place and a City of Justice


Matthew Klingle explores the connection between environmental and social justice in his study of the built environment of Seattle. He parallels the engineering of Seattle’s landscape with the salmon population – a central concern to this day – overlaid with the economic and racial display of native peoples and non-whites. He contextualizes this development in a narrative stretching from Seattle’s turbulent early years in the late nineteenth century to its rise as a port and manufacturing center through the perspectives of several key engineers and planners, who, “shared one critical assumption: a sense that nature altered was nature perfected and society harmonized.” [5] The foremost of these were landscape architect John Charles Olmsted (Frederick Law Olmsted’s nephew and adopted son) and engineer R.H. Thomson.

Klingle embraces Thomas P. Hughes notion of “technological momentum” in that once Thomson and other planners began re-envisioning the landscape of Seattle through aggressive re-grading of hills and redirecting of watercourses, along with Olmsted’s definition of parks, the opportunity to fully embrace the sensitive ecological balance of the region was lost, with significant and lasting ecological and social consequences. Seattle’s poor were forced to the ecological margins of the city where exposure to the by-products of industrialization have imperiled health and quality of life. However, Klingle details a more nuanced struggle amongst planners like Olmsted who saw the landscape as a distinctive core value as essential to Seattle’s identity. However, neither Thomson nor Olmsted advanced their policies in a democratic fashion and Klingle argues that, “the engineers, who declaimed their good works on behalf of society, turned out often to be profoundly anti-democratic moralists, distrustful of an uneducated public.” [90]

Klingle’s central argument can be distilled to his statement, “history is inseparable from place” In his estimation, this means an exclusively environmental perspective loses the human context that both shapes and is shaped by the “natural” environment. In the instance of Seattle, much of the city’s problems have come about because human motivations (commerce, real estate values, etc.) have taken precedence over studied consideration of environmental impacts, and likewise, environmentalist resistance has often failed to account for societal impacts. His “sustainable ethic of place” argues accounting “for the imbalances in power and resources among citizens” when it comes to the issue of “civic environmentalism.” [275]


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