Book Review:
Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle

  • Posted 2/18/2010
  • Essay 9318

By Matthew Klingle
Yale University Press, 2007
Softcover, 400 pages
Photographs, Maps, Notes, Index
ISBN 978-0-300-14319-5

Seattle is widely considered the epitome of the American Environmental City (rivaled only by Portland, Oregon, a few hours to the south). Situated in the spectacular intersection of mountains and sea, and populated with progressive, environmentally minded people, Seattle appears to be the embodiment of environmental in all senses of the word. In Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, Matthew Klingle muddies this outwardly clear perception with messy historical background, revealing a complicated relationship between a quickly growing city and its resource-rich location and surroundings.

Klingle never lets us forget that humans are a part of the environment and that their interactions have indelibly altered the landscape. Drawing especially from Coll Thrush’s Native Seattle, Klingle gracefully illustrates the Native American perspective of nature in the region. He begins the book with local tribes’ creation stories, which recognize that their homeland is constantly changing. The shape of the land was unreliable in this region where the water and land are eternally comingling. These people shaped their living patterns around the rhythms of the earth.

White settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest with their own ideas of what land and nature meant, and saw economic opportunity in the towering trees and seemingly endless supply of fish. City Boosters knew that in order for the city to compete economically, a large work force would be necessary to harness the available natural resources. The Chamber of Commerce and railroad companies embarked on an ambitious advertising campaign to market Seattle’s offerings. Close proximity to wilderness was always a major selling point. It was implied that geography itself could impart desirable qualities on its inhabitants; for example, publicists for the Northern Pacific Railroad dubbed the region the “Mediterranean of America.”

Klingle traces the history of Seattle, covering all of the predictably environmental topics. The saga of Northwest salmon recurs again and again, aptly used as a metaphor for environmental degradation in the region. He thoroughly documents the late nineteenth-century development of a leisure class in which the wealthy used the nearby wilderness as a sort of playground, leading to both land protection and the exclusion of certain people. There is a section on park development within the city, with the famous Olmsted firm contributing design guidance. Klingle also covers the engineering boon that brought hill regrading, canal building, and the purchase and protection of the Cedar River watershed to provide Seattleites with reliable water and electricity.

Klingle also sheds an environmental light on less obvious events. For example, when Bertha Knight Landes was elected as mayor of the city of Seattle in 1926, the first female executive of a major American city, she compared overlooking Seattle to caring for “the larger home.” Klingle frames this as an ecological declaration, a turning point in how Seattle’s leadership considered its duty to nature.

Incidentally, learning about the environmental history of Seattle gives one a broad understanding of the city’s overall development. It would be impossible to write the history of a city without taking into account relations between humans and nature, but while other versions might make you read between the lines, Klingle puts this relationship front and center, tricking you into learning about major events and starring personalities along the way. It seems a natural way to write a city history.

Throughout, in his academic and engaging tone, Klingle emphasizes how people cannot be separated from the environment, nor can we continue to uphold the false dichotomy between nature and city. Especially towards the end, Klingle is decidedly focused on environmental justice, reminding us that drastic landscape transformations remade the social fabric of the city and that class distinctions took on a geographical nature. Klingle ends this dramatic story with an urgent call for an ethic of place that can guide our future actions in accordance to the natural world.

By Elise Fogel, February 18, 2010

Submitted: 2/18/2010

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You