Photo from Yelp user Indy P.
Photo from Yelp user Indy P.

On Fridays some friends and I have a semi-regular tradition of grabbing sandwiches from Tat’s (go with either the Italian Grinder or the Tatstrami) and heading over to Waterfall Garden Park to relax and pontificate on what needs to be done to make this city perfect.  It’s one of my favorite parks in Seattle, a place I make sure to take visiting friends and family.  A great resting point after a long week of work or a day showing off downtown.  What makes it so great:

Not usually this empty.  Photo by Yelp user Jane J.
Not usually this empty. Photo by Yelp user Jane J.




1. I can get to it. I don’t have long for lunch so need a place located where I am.  Same thing when showing off the city to people.  It needs to be where we are.

2. It’s worth going to.  An actual three story waterfall in the middle of the city, with maintained ‘green space’, a glass roof (it’s not always bright and sunny) and in winter, heating.  It’s not some barren wind/water swept empty plaza.

3. It’s enjoyable to just be there. The tables and chairs (plus above mentioned setting) make it a great place for people to be.  And it’s great to be around people.  And yes, maybe this makes me a bad progressive, but there are security and maintenance staff that help make it a pleasant experience.

Where is your urban oasis and what makes it great?

53 Replies to “What Makes an Urban Oasis?”

  1. 41.825018, -71.399873 — aka “the math | “modern culture and media” | “really abstract readings” department garden”.

    I agree with all three points mentioned, so will continue the list. My points center around the concept of ‘contrast.’

    4. Attracts people different from the ones in the surrounding areas. This garden, for some reason, was never popular with undergrads. You’d see professors and grad students walking through, but I think most people who sat on the benches were people who worked at the university. I can’t articulate why this was important to me.

    This is different from, say, the square next to Bellevue Transit Center. People lunch and smoke there, but it’s all people from the office towers that surround it, despite the grass and fountain.

    5. Seclusion / physical “reveal” factor. It’s not totally obvious from the street that you’ll come upon this lush ring of grass. If you approach it from the north, you walk through a slightly uneven, shaded brick path, through a trellis, and then you come upon this bright, soft mound.

    Seclusion means safety to take more personal risk. I did a lot of math homework and dance practice in this garden. I would not practice anything in City Center Plaza unless I was ready to perform it.

    Finally, this isn’t a requirement I hope to find in any other urban oasis, but I thought it was clever that there was a square garden in the next block south, in contrast to this round one. Very Bird’s Nest / Water Cube.

      1. Oops, I screwed up my link. I went from the coordinates of the park in the post to yours, and assumed the URL would reflect the change.

  2. I would add that the waterfall garden is additionally accessible because it isn’t cut off from anywhere due to a huge, busy street or highway, which also would create a horrific amount of traffic noise. So many urban spaces in the USA have reduced access due to busy roads, and/or have deafening noise in them.

    In downtown Seattle there are too many to choose from, but the eastern reaches of Jack Block Park sure has a great view of the waterfront, is reasonably far from surrounding traffic noise for being so close to an urban area, and really doesn’t seem to have huge crowds of people in it.

    1. Jack Block is one of my favorite parks. An ugly brownfield was transformed into a magnificent, if little-used, space.

  3. The definition of oasis from Merriam-Webster: “a pleasant place that is surrounded by something unpleasant.” In regards to this post, what is the unpleasant thing which surrounds the oasis?

    1. Further definitions from the same source:

      “A time or experience that is pleasant and restful.”
      “Something that provides refuge, relief, or pleasant contrast.”

  4. Momma’s Mexican Kitchen in Belltown–easy to get to, Tasty, if not all that authentic, Mexican Food, with garish art and kitsch all over the walls, and a casual, yet hip vibe.

    The Highline in Capitol Hill–easy to get to if you live near the middle of the city, good if you like heavy aggressive rock and roll, with the drink prices clearly indicated on blackboards, and a cool tolerant atmosphere.

    If you’re talking relaxing, I’d just soon get on a plane to go to Maui or Montego Bay, but they’re not exactly urban.

  5. I haven’t been to the waterfall in many years, but two places that I enjoy ‘hanging out’ in downtown are: the Grand Central Bakery in Pioneer Square and strangely, the lobby/first floor of the City Centre building. Maybe someone can explain to me why I enjoy the City Centre building so much. I’ve always been drawn to it, especially when the movie theatres were there on the 3rd floor. But, it is a good place to stretch out and relax with lunch or a snack, and take some time to read the newspaper. I’ve never really cared for Westlake Center although I think the recent remodel makes it a bit nicer. I have always liked Pacific Place–from the moment I walked in back in 1999, I felt it was just ‘right.’ And, I also enjoy relaxing in the ground floor of the Columbia Tower although I don’t get there very often…

  6. When I lived in Belltown, I’d go to the Sculpture Park weekly. It was a few blocks from my apartment, has nice views, is relatively riff-raff free and is a great place to sit and people watch. After a stressful day at the office it was a great way to unwind and watch the sunset.

    I know a lot of folks hate that park because the art is lame and they needlessly demolished the trolley barn, but it worked for me.

    1. I really like sculpture park, not so much for the sculture itself but the architecture and the setting. I love the gradual lines and overall design of the main building.

      I also never loved the trolley, so there is that…

  7. When I was a young my mom used to take me to this park. I was pretty young so I don’t have a good memory of what we did, but I do remember that it was always an enjoyable and quiet getaway. It’s a surprising hidden treasure and when you walk in you feel like you’ve been transported to somewhere far away. Last time my mom was in town we made a point of stopping there and taking a picture. I wonder if she has a picture of years ago…

  8. I’m from the Deep South (of Seattle) and these are my favorites:

    Big Parks:

    Jefferson Park (likely the gold standard for community park design and very popular with the neighborhood)
    Seward Park (much improved over your daddy’s Seward Park, the trails are open again)
    Kubota Gardens (best “oasis” in South Seattle)

    Small Parks:
    Bhy Kracke best small park outside of the Deep South
    Hitt’s Hill I like to include a walk through HH on my neighborhood walks, even if it means going a few blocks out of my way

    1. Did the Parks Department decide it wasn’t already managing enough places where people go to bhy kracke, and so needed a purpose-built space for said transaction?

  9. “I know a lot of folks hate that park because the art is lame and they needlessly demolished the trolley barn, but it worked for me.”

    Close, but not the whole story. I don’t hate the park because the art is lame- a judgement for the Ages to render. I do have a real problem about the lack of art that children can climb on. And pieces that can’t be touched because fingermarks could destroy something that an an armor piercing tank shell couldn’t dent.

    Wish we were closer to Fort Lewis, though. Worth a try.

    No. what I hate with a city-leaving loathing is not so much the removal of the streetcar, but the slimy way it was taken from us by people in office who for either wickedness or stupidity-your choice- lost their right to hold office when they either killed or let the streetcar die.

    And for everything else in the mentality of Seattle that lost us a priceless age-defying present from a friend of mine, George Benson, probably the best elected politician Seattle ever had.

    But I hate everything and everybody who had their hands on the matter is that my own urban oasis was not just aboard the cars themselves, but also just about every place they ran through.

    Myrtle Edwards Park. The jet boats to Canada. Pike Place Market. Colman Dock, and The International District- with its cross -Jackson Street access to the Tunnel, and everyplace I could fly to from Sea-Tac.

    And most comforting of all, Pioneer Square. The Waterfall Park. The Smith Tower. Occidental Mall, with the cafe whose owner used to roast his coffee on site. Elliott Bay Bookstore- I wonder how much the end of the car line had to do with their leaving.

    Only worse than all the above and your choice of hardware in the Sculpture Garden- the savagery of the battle that now has to be fought to those cars back where they belong. Against entities without the guts to identify themselves.

    And no, I don’t oppose sending streetcars up First Avenue. Like bus lines on both Third and Fourth Avenues,this isn’t an either-or choice. Much infrastructure can be shared, from maintenance to communications and possibly to substations.

    But until the waste and vandalism that lost me my oasis- easily worth the ride on transit between Seattle and Olympia is restored- whatever Seattle is, it’s not anything Urban. Like, for instance, a City.

    Mark Dublin

    1. The thing about the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar is that it really set a national precident for how a well designed streetcar line can help revitalize an entire area. The photos taken just after it opened, and those taken as it operated, tell a great story of how much an impact that line had along its route.

      Those cars were not just an urban refuge, but helped create a number of other urban refuges along their route. The line opened in 1982, not too long after the “Boeing Bust” and some pretty bleak times for downtown Seattle. It alone wasn’t the only thing that changed, but that line sure provided a push.

      1. Why did the waterfront streetcar disappear? I heard it had something to do withSculpture Park, but that never quite made sense.

      2. The sculpture park got built on the location of the maintenance facility (carbarn). In theory, they could never figure out where to put the new carbarn. Then, the Seattle Big Dig err, SR 99 tunnel got started, and they had to rearrange the waterfront anyway. By then, most people had forgotten that the waterfront streetcar ever existed, and didn’t miss it when they started yanking up the track in some places and paving over other sections of it.

    2. “Well designed”? I rarely used the waterfront streetcar because it was (A) infrequent and (B) slow. That fails two principles of transit right there. I always walked because the walking time was the same or less than the wait time. And when it was moving, I couldn’t help notice how it was slower than the trolleybuses or modern streetcars.

      However, when a friend from Melbourne, Australia was visiting I took him on the streetcar, and he said it reminded him of his childhood.

      1. I agree, but after a couple of long conversations, I’ve learned that there is no convincing some people that the streetcar was a tourist attraction and not functional transit.

        The ironic thing is that the waterfront is one place where a bus actually could be concretely better than a streetcar as transit, because a bus could climb the hill at the north end of the waterfront and connect to either Uptown or South Lake Union. Route 34 in both of my network plans does precisely that, and a streetcar couldn’t.

      2. As a tourist attraction though, it worked OK in terms of helping to revive the waterfront.

        It could have been made useful transit, and I found the 99 route that replaced it horribly slow and terribly infrequent as well.

        As a streetcar line at least it was separated from street traffic on Alaskan Way, which was a good step. There is an empty strip of land between the grain elevator tracks and the BNSF main line, and the line could have been extended north to the AmGen bridge, allowing for transfers from the 15th Ave routes. That would have allowed for an Alaskan Way transit bypass of downtown Seattle, which can be really slow from the 24, 33, and former 15 and 18. This also avoids the grade crossing at the north end of Alaskan Way, which you would have to deal with with a bus route connecting the north waterfront with Seattle Center.

  10. I work in Fremont now, and my favorite little park is Fremont Peak Park. There are a lot of tiny parks along the ship canal, but none of them have the views that Fremont Peak Park has.

    Queen Anne has some great little parks — although more of a walk, rather than a single destination. Most of the Queen Anne Boulevard is really nice.

    Denny Park is nice (big trees). Even though it is a “wind swept plaza”, I really like Victor Steinbruek Park and the way it blends into Pike Place Market. It is fun to see the reaction of people, too. They all do the same thing (I do it too). Everyone walks up to the edge, to get a good view of everything, then they notice it is too noisy (with the viaduct) and back off a little ways. I don’t think the tunnel was worth it, but this area will really benefit when that monstrosity is torn down.

    I really love the Thomas Street Overpass, which connects Queen Anne to the Myrtle Edwards Park. This is a great overpass, and provides a great contrast now that this part of Queen Anne has built up. It looks like a real city here, and yet it is a short, uninterrupted walk down to the waterfront. Not a waterfront with a pier, either, but a waterfront with a natural bank (and all the creatures that go with it).

    1. Victor Steinbruck Park is reguarly full of people, so it’s not a windswept plaza.

      Windswept plazas are mostly empty, like South Lake Union Park (except on the 4th of July), Northgate Park, the concrete park on the waterfront, Freeway Park (although it gets some use), that mini-park at the Queen Anne Counterbalance, and probably others.

      I’m sad that SLU Park and Northgate Park were designed so cheaply, and have no variation to break up the long flat areas (which was probably an overenthusiastic attempt to keep sight lines open for safety). But I’m glad that the land is reserved, so that a future city government can redesign them more human-scaled and interesting like Cal Anderson Park. Then they’ll attract more people.

      1. Northgate park is tiny, so I doubt it will ever be like Cal Anderson. It could be better, though. Some big trees would make it nice and more inviting. Their is no view there, so you might as well make it more forested.

        The South Lake Union park is a little trickier. Put in big trees and people would lose their view of the lake. There is enough room, though, to do something more interesting (and make it more like Cal Anderson). As it is, it isn’t too bad; it just isn’t that good either. The bridge is nice, and so is the Center for Wooden Boats; but other than that, it is kind of blah.

      2. At the risk of straying too far off topic, I;’d heard rumors that Cal Anderson Park had become unsafe. Was there ever any truth to this? Is it still true?

        I stopped by Waterfall Park at lunch time today. Really a nice spot, although somehwat spoiled by the fellow with the electronic cigarette stinking the place up.

      3. Flat, grassy parks are good places to play many kinds of popular games, toss balls with dogs, etc. The park north of Northgate could be useful for that, as could SLU park, except they have paved paths across them in totally useless directions. Parks where this sort of thing is happening are also more interesting to just hang out and read in because there’s human activity there!

        Trees and paths around the park border, or between various field areas, don’t really hamper this use… trees are great for providing shade, breaking up monotony, marking loose boundaries… Seattle has a bunch of old parks with flat-ish grass areas, playgrounds, and trees around the outside, not super novel but great places to have a picnic and play wiffle ball. This isn’t the only good kind of park, of course! But it’s frustrating to see over-designed, cutesy layout get in the way when it’s not really providing anything else (except a page in the designer’s portfolio consisting of a drawing from a helicopter’s vantage… too much design and architecture today seems to be primarily about making stuff look good from helicopters, considering how few people actually get around that way).

        Also, a square or quad is different than a park; a square can be grassy and a park can be paved. A square is pointless without a variety of buildings directly surrounding most of it. Squares that front an office building on one side and streets on three aren’t really squares, they’re something else… many of Chicago’s plazas, including the one with the famous Picasso, are like this; another similar one, which also gets activity from monumental sculpture, is Trafalgar Square in London… these are too open to be oases but don’t have enough interesting stuff directly around them to be squares, but when they work they have a different kind of public function.

        And, of course, not all oases are parks or even park-like. Big libraries often have reading rooms that are nice oases (Chicago’s has a cool one, and nobody knows about it). Seattle’s downtown library often lacks human scale detail and its top-floor viewing/reading area is no exception… but books are always human scale, and I like wandering the spiral… generally the non-fiction area of any significant library is quiet, big enough to lose yourself in, and full of depth.

      4. Thanks for bringing this up, Al. There are some things I really love about South Lake Union Park- hope nobody notices it is abbreviated “SLUP”, which can only be defined in the online glossary translating sounds invented by the late Don Martin. Please nobody look it up!

        Reading a lot about sailing. Had privilege of handling a 30′ sloop off a town north of Gothenburg and luck of not going down with all hands. So I’m fascinated with the wooden boats, and find it great to cross all the walkways across the museum.

        But best thing of all is sitting on the steps by the lake and watching the float planes take off and land. It really is great to have something that Alaskan fly right into a dock just a streetcar ride out of the Seattle CBD.

        Was especially glad to see that the park did not require the destruction of a streetcar line.

        But especially in a place as green-loving as Seattle, it’s unbelievable to have so little shade. The new Waterfront is in the same danger. “Windswept” is nothing compared to being baked! Summer isn’t exactly mild here. I think the Sound acts as a huge solar mirror.

        However, there is a cure that will also re-cultivate the urban guerilla mentality of the ‘sixties-incidentally not the one with all the fur that eats bananas.

        Anybody remember “People’s Park” in Berkeley? A bunch of students cut the cyclone fence around a schedule parking lot and planting unauthorized trees?

        Possibly incited by Ronald Reagan’s claim that trees cause more pollution than burning coal, helmeted and armed police officers got themselves photographed uprooting two foot high giant redwoods.

        Creating a classic public example of the mentality that the protestors always said the police had.

        So: what would happen if several hundred kids (sorry, but nobody but the Hare Krishnas shaved their heads in those days) stormed the park waving Pulaskis (come on, ex treeplanters, describe one) – and leaving the whole place bushy with fast-growing trees.

        And for heavy artillery in this attack, rebels could rent a couple of Vermeer diggers, a truck mounted frame with giant spades that can plant a thirty foot tree like an arboreal howitzer shell in a minute or two.

        Given Dominic Holden lately, Seattle Police will likely avoid an incident as public as a tree-massacre will be. Most likely the Mayor and the head of the police union will get into a screaming match over who gets credit for the trees.

        Good practice for 2016, kids, good practice…and leaving a fantastic urban oasis!

        Mark Dublin

      5. “rumors that Cal Anderson Park had become unsafe”

        I haven’t head that. I walk past it and through it all the time and see all sorts of ordinary people playing bicycle polo or soccer or frisbee or sitting on the grass, and they don’t look worried or threatened. There’s sometimes a group or two of, er, Broadway homeless on the lawn, but they’re just a small part of the park. There are general muggings and shootings around Capitol Hill sometimes but not particularly near the park.

  11. I love Fremont Peak Park. It’s the perfection of pocket parks. The view is good on many evenings because Seattle tends to get cloud breaks late in the day, which also make for great sunsets. When we can glimpse a nice sunset out our window, we head down there. Or just when we would like a walk after dinner. Often, we head down to Marketime and Video Aisle for desert and a movie afterwards.

    Other than the view, what makes it great? The art is interesting and Fremont-ish (Solstice Parade/Center of the Universe). The landscaping is nice, and well-maintained by volunteers. It’s super close to us, and a lot of other people, so it makes for a really nice leisurely walk, and there’s often other people there enjoying a nice sunset. I also take visitors there, so they can see the lay of the land, and the mountains.

    1. I agree. I got excited about the park (when it was first being built) because of the view, but I think they did a marvelous job otherwise as well. Nice landscaping and some nice little touches in the way of paths and art.

  12. The Seattle Tilth Garden and P-Patch behind the Good Shepard Center is a favorite place for me.

    For indoor escapes the Frye Art Museum is great.

  13. Waterfall park is also there as a gift from UPS to the city where it was founded as a bicycle delivery company…

  14. I guess I’d say Queen Anne Boulevard where it runs along 7th Ave W and 8th Ave W between McGraw and Highland—along with the string of little parks (Marshall, Parsons, Kerry).

    Why? Close, accessible, and flat, with spectacular views and lots of places to chill for a bit. And love the old concrete walls and vintage lighting.

  15. My favorite is the canal steps in Fremont, right next to Google. The steps are wavy and artsy and different heights and widths,which makes it fit with Fremont, and there are lots of different places and ways to sit. It looks out on the canal and the Burke Gilman so there’s always something to watch. It’s slightly away from the main strip, so its very relaxing.

  16. Seattle University garden, or gardenS may be more appropriate since there is so many types. A wonderful getaway from Madison and large imposing medical facilities surrounding.

  17. Bellevue Botanical Gardens is an excellent park/garden combination. There are extensive walking trails connecting the Gardens to the surrounding neighborhoods and if you’re willing to walk a bit, the B Line and 271. It’s worth the trek.

    I’ve never thought of it as an Oasis, but it is a pleasant distraction from the general blandness and chain stores that are Bellevue. (Crossroads mall and the Main Street areas being exceptions)

    1. BBG is one of my favorite places in Bellevue, particularly the evolving perennial garden. Downtown Bellevue Park is wonderful also, for different reasons. I love walking or jogging around the park at night, with it’s soft glow of lights, the water, trees, skyline views, and the increasingly diverse mixture of people quietly enjoying the place. Lots of great spaces in Downtown Seattle have been mentioned, a few more that I particularly like are: US Courthouse Plaza at 7th and Steward with it’s birch trees, water feature and the many steps which are great to sit and eat lunch on a sunny day; the plaza spaces along 2nd at Benaroya Hall; the courtyard spaces by Union Square/International District Station; and the various courtyard spaces at Two Union Square.

  18. All of you are wrong (except Velo). The correct answer is Discovery Park. Sculpture Park is dumb. Parks and nature do not need man-made art. It only detracts from the experience. Nature is its own art.

    Velo had a good pick with the Bellevue Botanical Gardens. Here’s an article on their fairly new suspension bridge. You don’t feel like you’re anywhere close to Bellevue in this park. It feels like you’re on a trail somewhere in the Cascade foothills.


    1. Man-made art has its own beauty, Sam. But you’ve got a good point too – sometimes people do need an unspoiled natural experience, and Discovery Park is a wonderful place for that. Or the Mountains-To-Sound Trail just west of West Lake Sammamish, as it’s turning up the switchbacks to climb the hill, has a wonderful spot where it looks like perfect natural beauty…

    2. Bellevue also has some surprisingly large woods starting next to the Botanical Gardens (from the school district parking lot), going down through Kelsey Creek Park, and then after a gap through horrid automobile streets (SE 8th, 116th), another forest at the Bellefield parks off 118th, which goes straight into the I-90 trail and Mercer Slough and the South Bellevue P&R.

      1. +1 – The more adventuresome can chain together quite the journey with a combination of the B Line, 245, and 271 – Especially if you have the day off during the week when all 3 have 15 minute headways or less.

  19. We DO have an embarrassment of urban oases in the metro area. But at the risk of sounding trite, my very favorite oasis is…my back yard. Twenty-eight years ago I took a sparse front, back and side yards and created what I call my mini-arboretum. I planted some of my favorite deciduous trees and voila, these years later it forms a wall of green. I can’t even see my across-the-street neighbors’ homes in the summer. I agree we need more trees in some of the new parks (Ballard Commons is a great case in point–some trees on the periphery but the rest of it bakes in the summer sun). I like to say I’ve done my part–and then some–toward the necessary greening of Seattle.

  20. As far as Seattle, I have several oases. One I used just recently is the corner where Zeitgeist Coffee lives. Although it is a mere block away from the monumental stadiums, somehow, the low rise architecture of Pioneer Square takes it down a notch, and restores some humanity to the world. The Pioneer style of architecture, low square buildings, is so balanced, so elegant, that I think it rivals the buildings in great cities like Munich and London. If only more of Seattle were not built in that fashion. Call me nostalgic, but sometimes I think the Smith Tower is still the best looking structure in all of Seattle. Imagine a complete urban landscape, done only in this way:


  21. It’s hard for me to think of urban oases in Seattle, because Seattle just isn’t that urban. Central Park in NYC feels like an urban oasis because it’s flanked by urban neighborhoods. Golden Gate Park feels like an urban oasis because it starts right at the end of the urban, dense and bustling Haight/Ashbury neighborhood. Few parts of Seattle actually feel “big city” (even within the urban core) so there doesn’t feel like there’s as much to escape from.

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