Jan 18

Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, by David Williams ★★★★

This is a wonderful historical accounting for how Seattle was massively reshaped, making it the city that it is. Large hills were completely removed, tide flats filled in, and the shoreline extended in the early reshaping of the city. Williams starts with prehistoric times, thenoffers an early history of the city including its founding by Arthur Denny. He notes Seattle’s original geography, and then details the decisions, and oftentimes absence of decisions, that led to the restructuring of the geography. It is now hardly imaginable that the shoreline was much further in, that many of the hills of the city existed that are now flattened or completely removed, that the drop in the Lake Washington shoreline by 3-6 ft with the placement of the ship canal completely changed the nature of the communities and industries that surrounded the lake, that the filling in of the Duwamish tide flats and many other flat lands adjacent to water now seem to be a natural part of a long pre-existing landscape. Williams takes a look back at all of this earthly rearrangement, and asks whether it was necessary or prudent, and whether the good was greater than the harm. These are questions that are not easily answered but always very worthwhile asking. Unfortunately, cities often get it wrong, Seattle with its audacious remodel of planet earth, as San Francisco’s grand decision to build the Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Hindsight is a curse. Williams details how Seattle is now engaged in multiple tunnel projects, as well as rebuilding its waterfront which seems to be deteriorating, the new waterfront taking into account massive hypothetical rises in sea level. Who knows whether a future author will equally past judgement on current Seattle decisions?

There is only one detail I really didn’t like about the book. Williams writes as though he was doing a television script, which would work best for how the text stands. Though he includes a moderate number of historical photos, he also assumes that the reader is very familiar with Seattle. In order for me to grasp what he was saying, I needed to sit in front of Google maps, and search for every location described in the book. This slowed the reading down considerably. Many geographical features, like some of the hills of Seattle, simply could not be found. Maps are sorely missing in this book, which makes it a much less fascinating text. Hopefully the second edition of this book adds the missing maps.

I wish to thank Sarah B for recommending this book. My love for history and the environment fit well with this text.

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