Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Tarr, Joel A.
Pub Date: 06/22/2010
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Summer, 2010 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 4
Topic: NamedWork: Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: Klingle, Matthew
Accession Number: 230778732
Full Text: Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle. By Matthew Klingle (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xix plus 280 pp. $30.00 HB, $20.00 PB).

Eight years ago I published a review essay about the emergence of a literature focused on the environmental history of cities that identified five primary themes: the study of the impact of the built environment and human activities on the natural environment of cities; societal responses to these impacts and efforts to alleviate environmental problems; exploration of the effect of the natural environment on city life; analysis of the relationship between cities and their hinterlands; and the investigation of gender, class, and race in regard to environmental issues. (1) Few, if any, of the books in the existing literature at that time incorporated all these themes. In addition, other themes, especially land use patterns and choices, city-hinterland relationships, and environmental justice, required attention.

Since that time the literature of the field has greatly increased and now includes a book series devoted to the History of the Urban Environment, edited books on specific cities featuring essays by different authors, works on particular themes such as environmental justice, "natural" disasters, urban infrastructures, and various environmental phenomena in an urban setting. (2) No single author, however, has tried to incorporate all of the above themes in the history of a specific city until publication of Matthew Klingle excellent work, Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle.

These themes emerge from Klingle's historical narrative. One continuous focus is the attempt by Seattle developers and politicians to readjust the natural landscape to fit city building needs, complicated by the clash between the idea of property as public good and as private gain. These controversies were especially spirited along the waterfront where land speculators, commercial interests and railroads fought about how to develop Puget Sound's wetlands. These conflicts were also reflected in the battles over construction of the Ship Canal, which involved altering the hydraulics of Lake Washington and Lake Union as well as of local rivers. Such changes affected hundreds of businesses and houseboats as well as local Indians and squatters who asserted their rights to the tidelands and waterfront through subsistence use. Making land in Seattle thus faced human, institutional, and non-human obstacles. This lesson was repeated again with the failed attempts of city engineer R.H. Thomson to alter the natural environment with technology and to link "social progress to the ability to improve nature." (119)

Klingle finds the same struggle between public and private power in the design and use of Seattle's parks. Here the park designs of the well known landscape designer John C. Olmsted, stepson of the famous Frederic Law Olmsted, who believed like his stepfather in creating pastoral refuges that would alter human behavior, came into conflict with the opinions of the engineer R.H. Thomson. Olmsted, for instance, opposed Thomson's pragmatic approach to road building in order to protect scenic woodlands. He also opposed the construction of playgrounds, desired by Seattle residents. He was, says Klingle, "a nineteenth-century Romantic who lived and worked as a twentieth-century Progressive." (151) He and his stepbrother Frederick had inherited their father's vision of creating a harmonious city promoted by idealized landscapes, but, observes Klingle, such harmony had seldom existed-there were "limits to the idea of the urban garden." (152).

In the decades after World War I Seattle's middle class enthusiastically embraced outdoor leisure and recreation, but also insisted that such recreation fit their standards of behavior and decorum. This involved pushing the working poor out of Seattle's playgrounds, driving houseboats and shacks from the lakes and fivers and from their banks, and banning local commercial fisherman and Indians from fishing in the waterways. Thus, in a new consumer age Seattle had developed an outdoor-oriented middle class leisure society that valued nature but which wished to limit it to those who shared its values. Class conflict revealed itself in several domains but especially in the fight over Seattle metropolitan government (Metro). Like similar battles in other metropolitan areas, this conflict pitted small towns and suburbs against the larger city. Much of the controversy surrounding Metro involved issues of wastewater systems, sewage disposal and pollution control. The fate of the salmon became a critical part of this dispute, as did the high price that needed to be paid to protect the fish. In pursuit of the goal of salmon preservation, fish and game authorities increasingly placed restrictions on Indian fishing, repeating a theme that had been evident in Seattle for decades - ecological restoration most benefited those who had power.

The plight of the salmon symbolizes for Klingle the limitations of Seattle environmental utopianism. Saving the salmon actually involved "intertwined but contradictory goals" in which various class, environmental and commercial issues were mixed. (256) Salmon, says Klingle, had become symbolic of the city, and fights over the fish's fate reflected divisions among urban groups as one group's "environmental prerogative" became another's "environmental wrong" - all complicated by the physical realities of nature.

Klingle's over-arching theme is the manner in which human efforts to shape and reshape the landscape consistently violated the concept of the "ethics of place." (22) He maintains that in the period before Europeans and Americans entered the region Native American Indians held an ethic in regard to the salmon fisheries that emphasized "dependence, moderation, and respect." These are virtues that are also reflected in Klingle's call for an ethic of place that recognizes that nature and culture or human and non-human are integrated, not separate, and especially linked in that "most unnatural of locales, the city." (274) Environmentalism and environmental politics in Seattle, he argues, has often adhered to concepts of "purity" that ignore the "messy and contradictory" nature of urban reality. As a remedy for this he embraces a "principle of civic environmentalism" that recognizes that citizens are unequal in terms of power and resources. Civic environmentalism therefore needs to face the "legacies of history" and supply redress for wronged communities and ensure equity for others. And he notes these principles need to be applied to non-human as well as human communities.

The "legacies of history," of course, means that such goals are profoundly difficult to achieve and might only be obtainable by following an ethical pragmatism that would "argument or replace contemporary environmentalism." (276). Urban history is especially critical because "urban landscapes are ... so many ethics of place expressed physically." (277) An awareness of history can help us avoid a dependence on fixed moral lessons and be aware of the need to address questions of social justice as well as environmental degradation. Outstanding studies in urban environmental history such as Kringle's Emerald City provide a model that will hopefully lead us in the right direction.


(1.) Joel A. Tarr, "Urban History and Environmental History in the United States: Complementary and Overlapping Fields," in Christoph Bernhardt (ed.), Environmental Problems in European Cities of the 19th and 20th Century (New York/Muenchen/Berlin, 2001), 25-39.

(2.) For instance, see Martin Melosi and Joel A. Tarr, editors, History of the Urban Environment, University of Pittsburgh Press. There are now eleven books in the series with others in the works.

Joel A. Tarr

Carnegie Mellon University
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