Book Review:
Seattle Geographies

  • Posted 1/05/2012
  • Essay 10001

Edited By Michael Brown & Richard Morrill
Paperback, 209 pages
Photographs, charts, maps, tables, appendices, index
University of Washington Press
ISBN 978-0-295-99091-0

Full Disclosure: I (the reviewer) am a graduate of the University of Washington Geography department and acquainted with many of the contributors to this volume.

In the spring of 2011 the University of Washington Department of Geography had the honor of hosting the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). In conjunction with that event the University of Washington Press published this handsome paperback volume, edited by Michael Brown and emeritus professor Richard Morrill (a person of historical significance in the department, in his own right).  One immediate purpose of the book was to serve as an introduction to and of Seattle to the thousands of geographers and geography students attending the meeting -- who might have only the most clichéd, media related knowledge of Seattle -- and to introduce the department and its work in various areas of geography, celebrating 75 years of geography at the University of Washington.

The AAG meeting is now history but this volume is perfectly suited for the general public interested in the history and focus of one of the University of Washington’s finest departments. Moreover, it should make the reader aware of how history and geography complement and enrich one another. History and geography can be thought of as two sides of the same coin: considerations of space (geography) and time (history) feeding a confluence that is place. In our case, that place is Seattle. Almost any topic in geography will refer, at least in passing, to something that has gone before. Almost any good historical presentation can be enhanced by that mainstay of geography: a map.   

The first chapter by Michael Brown and Dick Morrill -- with a discussion of the physical geography of Seattle and the Puget Sound region by William Beyers, longtime professor of Economic Geography -- is an excellent, readable introduction to the discipline of geography and the many and varied aspects that it takes. As Michael Brown notes, there can be a geographical approach to virtually any subject of interest. The department at the University of Washington is considered to be a Human Geography department, as opposed to Physical Geography (although this can never be ignored). Brown and Morrill provide a good, brief history of the department as it has evolved over the decades. Finally, the reader may come away with a much clearer idea of what geography is rather than confusing it with geology.  Lastly, Brown introduces the book in the spirit of public scholarship wherein the usual academic approach to topics is tempered by a briefer, more readable and approachable style. The chapters that follow represent collaborations and combinations by the various authors. All of these chapters represent major sub-disciplines in geography, such as Economic Geography, Political Geography, Social Geography, and Cultural Geography.   

Under those rubrics, briefly described at the beginning of each chapter, there are contributions of varying length addressing an interesting variety of topics. The chapter on Political Geographies includes discussions on the Viaduct (that controversial road that runs along the Seattle waterfront) but also a discussion of skate parks in the context of public space. In the chapter on Social Geographies, gentrification, tent cities, segregation, and “Gay Spaces” are covered. The chapter on Rural Geographies strikes me as slightly anomalous insofar as the authors extend their discussions rather far beyond even the greater Puget Sound region to cover Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and even Wyoming in some of the tables and pictures. It is a worthwhile read, however.  

It is not necessary to read the chapters sequentially, or to read each chapter in its entirety before continuing to the next. The reader will see that a particular subject of interest might be considered from the perspective of several different areas. Thus, Starbucks might be considered from an economic, political, or cultural viewpoint. With the exception of the chapter on Cultural Geographies, each chapter has a good number of maps to illustrate and enhance the subject. The reader will get a good idea of how varied and powerful modern mapping approaches are when they are applied to an area of interest. The historian might wish such techniques had been available much earlier. 

In short, I would say that every geography department might hope to provide its supporting/surrounding community with such an approachable example of what it is about.

By David Jensen, January 5, 2012

Submitted: 1/05/2012

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