'Olmsted in Seattle' Shines Light on History of City Parks

Local historian Jennifer Ott explores Seattle’s Olmsted-influenced parks, boulevards and green spaces in her new book
GREEN SPACE: Environmental historian Jennifer Ott in Volunteer Park, one of her favorite Olmsted-designed parks

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe.

To say Jennifer Ott is an environmental history buff is an understatement. She fell in love with the subject in college, after attending the first day of a seminar on the topic led by American historian Richard White at the University of Washington. “I was completely captivated,” Ott says.

More than 20 years later, Ott is still hooked. She has built a career on her passion for environmental history, most recently working as the assistant director of HistoryLink, a Seattle-based online encyclopedia of Washington State history.

Ott’s latest project for HistoryLink, Olmsted in Seattle: Creating a Park System for a Modern City (University of Washington Press, November 16, $29.95), explores how John Charles Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm, best known for New York City’s Central and Prospect parks, shaped Seattle’s green spaces and neighborhoods. Her previous involvement as a board member with Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks (FSOP) piqued her interest in the Olmsted influence in Seattle. She realized that with more than 85 parks, playfields and parkways designed or influenced by the Olmsted vision, there was an important story to tell. “It’s such a complicated story, and everybody has a slightly different version of it,” Ott says. “People don’t understand the breadth of the park system and how much of an Olmsted influence there is.” 

The book guides readers through the evolution of Seattle’s park system, starting with Olmsted’s arrival in 1903, and offers explanations about his design practices in landscape architecture—such as the delicate mapping of trails and the thoughtful placement of peekaboo views.
The one nugget Ott hopes readers will walk away with is the attention to detail found throughout our park system. “It’s a very well-thought-out framework...it’s not just happenstance.” She also hopes to impart to readers an appreciation of Olmsted’s vast impact on shaping our neighborhoods. “[A park] is not just a nice thing to have, it’s essential for the health of the community and the American democracy.”

Vital Stats

Double Duty
While working on the Olmsted book, Ott was simultaneously editing and writing parts of Seattle at 150: Stories of the City Through 150 Objects from the Seattle Municipal Archives. The book was commissioned by the city of Seattle to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the city’s incorporation.

Outdoor Zen
Ott says she believes that parks offer psychological benefits to everyone. “To be able to go in Seward Park, in the middle of the city, and get into that forest is pretty amazing, and it would be a lesser city without it.”

Deep in the Stacks
For this project, Ott looked through hundreds of primary sources, including three decades’ worth of the Board of Park Commissioners’ minutes. “I do [research] chronologically; it’s really the only way I can do it.”

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