I am on an edge, Seattle’s waterfront, about to begin a three-day, 45-mile urban hike from Burien, just south of the city limits at Three Tree Point, to Carkeek Park in the North End.
My reason for walking the waterfront is that I want to see how Seattle is treating its most cherished natural resource, Puget Sound. The city is about to begin a seven-year project to dramatically transform the downtown waterfront, tearing down the vile viaduct and creating a dramatic new pedestrian experience, and it’s worth trying to understand that in relation to the city’s entire edge with the water. Walking is a way of learning the physical texture and culture of a place with an intimacy that driving never allows.
Between the big lake and the sound, Seattle lays claim to a staggering wealth of water frontage. Without counting the Duwamish and the Washington Ship Canal, there’s about 22 miles of freshwater shore and 29 miles of saltwater frontage within Seattle city limits. By my count, about 44 percent of the saltwater shore and 41 percent of the freshwater is publically accessible in one way or another (views from a bluff or actual beach). Considering the sweep of history, this may be a respectable fraction.
A few years ago, I hiked the perimeter of Lake Washington, 76 miles in five days, and discerned for the first time an essential difference between the city and its satellites. Seattle provides twice as much lakefront to the public as all its ’burbs combined. The reason is that American cities tend to be about community, while suburbs bloom from notions of private and exclusive space. In walking, such concepts take tangible shape and exert a force on how you feel about a place.
Humans have always been drawn to waterfronts, whatever their reasons and restrictions. We risk everything in order to occupy land adjacent to water: storms, floods, tidal surges, tsunamis, beach erosion, onerous building restrictions, and of course, great expense. Puget Sound is a benign neighbor compared with the open-sea exposure of New Orleans or Long Island, but our edge can still be dangerous. In 1997 mudslides forced evacuations of dozens of houses in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood and killed a family of four in a beach community on Bainbridge Island.
I can’t speak for the entire human psyche but, in making this trek, hugging the view of Puget Sound as tightly as possible or being out on it in my small sailboat, I feel an infinity of possibility, endless configurations of sky and wind and tidal current and the architecture of waves, and boundless routes to take, either in fact or imagination.
See more photos of Lawrence W. Cheek's walk on the entire length of the Seattle waterfront.