A look at the history behind Seattle’s 37 Olmsted parks

37 of our local parks were designed by the same landscaping design firm that created New York City’s Central Park.

Discovery Park in Seattle with a lighthouse and the water in the background

Discovery Park offers one of the most popular Seattle trails.

Photo via Seattle Parks and Recreation

You may have already known that Seattle is consistently ranked as having one of the best park systems in the US — but did you know that’s quite literally by design?

There have been plenty of factors that have ultimately led to our robust catalog of green spaces, but one big cause can be traced back to 1903 when Seattle hired John Charles Olmsted to design a network of parks.

Olmsted was, at the time, the co-owner of the Olmsted Brothers landscaping design firm, which had been responsible for New York City’s Central Park and Boston’s “Emerald Necklace.”

And while a lot of Eastern cities are pretty proud to have one or two of these works, Seattle has 37 of their parks and playgrounds. Uh, no big deal or anything.


Nonprofit Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks also has a self-guided tour of Seward Park.

Photo via Seattle Parks and Rec

How did we end up with so many?

In the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush, Seattle was quickly expanding and the city saw an opportunity to begin protecting and preserving its land before too much was lost to development. In 1902, an official movement began in the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners to build a more elaborate system and hired the Olmsted firm.

Olmsted and his assistant traveled to Seattle to begin taking stock of the land and its most beautiful areas. The two then took their findings and overlaid them with two previously completed (but not enacted) designs — a parks plan created in 1892 and a proposed 25-mile system of bike paths — to create their Comprehensive System of Parks and Parkways.

In 1903, city council approved the proposal and the Olmsted firm got to work. Cal Anderson Park became the first Olmsted designed park in 1904. The firm’s relationship with the city lasted until 1941.


We’re pretty glad they decided to preserve this view from Gas Works Park.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Olmsted Parks today

Those looking to enjoy the interweaving artwork created by the Olmsteds can check out nonprofit org Friends of Seattle’s Olmsted Parks walking tour, which covers 50km of trails between the parks.

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