Activating (and Protecting) Our Great Gorge

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We want to continue to celebrate and steward our amazing urban river gorge.

Garrett Jones

In 1907 and 1908, John Charles Olmsted and James Frederick Dawson made several visits to Spokane to create a comprehensive parks planning report. They were paid a handsome $1000 for the job — with Olmsted receiving an extra $50 to add as much verbal advice as possible. As the son of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the City was particularly interested in gleaning any wisdom he could offer on designing a great parks system.

More than a century later, Spokane residents and visitors enjoy the fruits of this report every day: Manito Park, Corbin Park and many more of the city’s celebrated greenspaces — both landscaped and wild — can be traced back to their wide-ranging advice.


But it is clear that one thing caught their attention more than anything: the steep river gorge that cuts through the city, including (and just west) of the roaring Spokane Falls. Olmsted referred to the gorge as “a tremendous feature of the landscape and one which is rarer in a large city than river, lake, bay or mountain.”

With this unique asset, they recommended that Spokane create a “Great Gorge Park” — a swath of land that spans from the Falls all the way to what is now Riverside State Park, inviting residents to enjoy the Spokane River.

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In the century that has followed, Spokane has never fully achieved the Great Gorge Park vision. But the Spokane Parks Board has made steady progress, acquiring much of the land envisioned by the report, and creating public spaces such as High Bridge Park (landscaped) and People’s Park (wild).

For Garrett Jones, Acting Director of Spokane Parks & Recreation, the goal is simple. “We want to continue to celebrate and steward our amazing urban river gorge, turning this asset into an advantage that truly connects people to the river.”


Preservation and Play

In recent years, the City of Spokane has invested over $300 million in its Integrated Clean Water Plan. Though this is a far cry from the $1,000 the City paid for the Olmsted report, the plan has a related goal: creating a better future for Spokane residents by preserving its natural environment — especially the river.

The City has built 20 combined sewer overflow (CSO) tanks, which keep untreated wastewater from flowing into the river from antiquated drainage systems that combine stormwater with residential sewage. These systems, inherited from Spokane’s early days, pipe this wastewater to water treatment facilities. But during heavy rainfall or snowmelt conditions, the system overflows directly into the river. To prevent or greatly reduce this pollution, the CSO tanks hold millions of gallons of untreated water during such events, then eventually release it to treatment facilities during non-peak flows.

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The CSO tank construction projects are nearing completion, and the result is a win-win-win. Even with the staggering financial investment, the City hasn’t raised utility rates beyond inflation levels. The river is being protected. And in the process, even more public, activated greenspace is becoming available along the urban waterfront. Why? Because the CSO tanks are built underground near the river, and this creates new spaces for the public to enjoy.

“It’s a great combination,” says Jones. “This is clean water infrastructure we need, but the land above it comes alive for people to engage — passive open space, interpretive signage, trail connections, places to enjoy our river.”

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For example, the new South Gorge Loop Trail is being built partly above a 50,000 gallon CSO tank. When completed, the loop will create the opportunity for a 5-kilometer jaunt that includes Riverfront Park, Peaceful Valley, Redband Park (complete with a new boat launch), People’s Park, the Sandifur Foot Bridge across the river, and the Centennial Trail on the north side through the popular new Kendall Yards neighborhood.


Strolling this loop is the sort of experience Olmsted envisioned a century ago. But the river has had a magnetic effect for far longer.

“For thousands of years, this river gorge has been a gathering place for people to connect with one another and with nature,” says Jones. “As we protect the river, we want to keep on stretching these assets together to provide all kinds of great opportunities, from the Falls all the way northwest to Riverside State Park.”