One summer afternoon in Discovery Park, a man tossed a radio-controlled glider off the bluff, looking to catch a thermal. It did, and it also caught the eye of a bald eagle perched on a nearby tree. The eagle registered the balsa bird as either prey or rival and swooped at it, talons extended. But the glider was more agile, and it took one evasive dive after another. A knot of people gathered to watch the dogfight, and sympathies appeared divided. Some rooted for the eagle; others seemed stoked that our own species had apparently engineered a better-flying bird.
Eventually the eagle tired of this nonsense and retreated to its tree.
City parks form an intersection of nature and civilization, and we can enjoy whatever point along that spectrum that nourishes us. That day, I was frankly in the eagle’s corner. I wanted to see it kidnap the contraption and carry it out of radio range and drown it in Puget Sound. That’s my personal predilection when in a park, cheering for nature over human invention. I generally prefer unmanaged landscape over landscape architecture, trails over sidewalks, and nature over machines.
But even parks that are highly designed and engineered, like Seattle’s U.S. Courthouse plaza, provide a refreshing counterbalance to the city’s confining spaces and commotion. Civic projects like buildings and sidewalks and streets are necessarily utilitarian, but in park design the art can and should take precedence.
Seattle, its suburbs, and even exurbs are stunningly endowed with parks. The raw numbers are impressive: Seattle alone maintains more than 400 city parks comprising 10.2 percent of its land area. That percentage scores 11th from the top among high-density American cities, but by total expenditures per capita, Seattle’s park system ranks third at $272 per person per year. (Only San Francisco and Washington, DC, spend more.) Much of this legacy dates from 1903, the year Seattle engaged the nation’s leading landscape architecture firm, Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, to design a comprehensive parks plan. Most of it got built, thanks largely to Seattle being only a half-century old at the time of the plan. Land-use options weren’t already limited by too many streets and buildings.
But the most vital ingredient in the region’s great parks is what existed here long before civilization. What other urban area claims sound frontage, lake frontage, rivers, waterfalls, mountains, snatches of old-growth forest, and topography so crinkly that you can slip into a secluded city canyon that goes about its business without reference to the urban life teeming above the rim? We have all these, and the parks to celebrate them.
More than anything else, it’s the choices, the endless variety of experiences, that make the park experience so enriching. One spring morning, I hiked alone into Bellevue’s Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, and on my way out got a little confused in the tangle of trails—this isn’t quite wilderness, but it is indeed wildland, and there are cougars and bears. I whipped out my iPhone and called up a map. Occasionally there’s reason to cheer human invention over nature.
I’ve based my roster of the region’s 10 best parks on physical beauty, the variety of experiences they offer, and most of all on the potential for an encounter with the unexpected: an unadvertised work of art, a delectable design detail, a biological tableau that reveals something about how nature works. These aren’t just green places to relax; they’re settings for surprise and wonderment.