By Jack Stubbs
The city of Seattle has long been recognized as a leader in environmental sustainability efforts, with initiatives like LEED, Living Building Challenge and most recently the 2030 Challenge Pilot Program allowing the city to continue forward momentum in tackling mounting environmental issues.
However, these is still significant work to be done in certain areas of the city, particularly in the Duwamish Valley that runs along the 5.5-mile Duwamish River in South Seattle. The river has been identified by the EPA as a Superfund site, meaning that it poses a risk to human health and the environment. Residents of the Duwamish River Valley face many environmental, socioeconomic and racial issues as a result of long-standing historical practices in the area, according to Alberto Rodriguez, Duwamish Valley advisor with Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.
“A lot of the issues are due to historical practices…the Duwamish River was straightened, shortened and deepened in the early 1900s and many industries moved in…so it’s highly polluted because of that historic legacy of more than 100 years of industrial [activity],” Rodriguez said. Since the 1920s, the Duwamish Waterway—which flows through the industrial core of Seattle and into Elliott Bay—has been a hub of industrial and commercial activities such as cargo handling and storage, ship manufacturing and food processing.
Ongoing pollution and contamination of the river, among other factors, means that the Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods face a number of pressing environmental and socioeconomic issues that the city of Seattle has taken steps to combat in recent years.
In April 2016, the city launched the Equity & Environment Agenda and announced the creation of the Duwamish Valley Program (DVP) to engage more than 500 residents, workers and business owners of South Park and Georgetown to combat community priorities around environmental cleanup, racial equity and economic revitalization.
And on June 27th, 2018, Mayor Durkan followed up on the DVP with the release of the Duwamish Valley Action Plan (DVAP) to expand economic opportunity, make environmental progress and increase economic investments in the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods. A multi-departmental effort led by the Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE) and the Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD), the DVAP is aided by participation from 18 city agencies and feedback from 500 Duwamish Valley residents, workers and businesses. The main objective of the DVAP is to align and coordinate the city’s efforts and investments in the Duwamish Valley—program staff have compiled an inventory of 100 programs and 170 underway or planned projects in the Duwamish Valley.
According to a 2013 study written by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group with a grant from the EPA, “Duwamish Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis,” the South Seattle Duwamish Valley is a community with disproportionately high environmental health burdens and risks. For example, the life expectancy of South Park and Georgetown residents is on average of eight years shorter than the Seattle average and 13 years shorter than the average in Magnolia and Laurelhurst. In 2011, Public-Health Seattle and King County’s Policy Development & Evaluation Unit conducted a health and demographics analysis of the Duwamish Valley. In comparing the Duwamish Valley to King County residents, the department found Duwamish Valley residents are more likely to live in poverty (17.6 percent versus 9.7 percent), be foreign born (31.9 percent versus 19 percent) and not attend high school (20.1 percent versus 8.2 percent), according to the 2013 study.
Created for and by the community, the ultimate hope is that the DVAP addresses both short- and long-term issues facing residents of South Park and Georgetown. As part of the plan, the city identified 50 near-term priorities as well as various longer-term objectives. Some of the near- and mid-term objectives of the plan are to create a tree canopy engagement plan and enhance green infrastructure in publicly-owned land; increase access to medical and dental plans; launch a Food Banks Pilot Program; and fund community groups and non-profits to do work around air quality quality improvements.
In terms of funding for the plan, one of the tools that the Department of Neighborhoods (DON) is implementing is the Duwamish River Opportunity Fund (DROF), which is meant to go towards environmental development and restoration, job training and economic development, pedestrian safety and affordable housing strategies, among other priorities in the neighborhoods. “The DVAP highlights a lot of different area and lots of different things that are happening in the Duwamish Valley…[and] DROF really gives community members the opportunity to propose their own projects that are in alignment with strategies outlined in the plan,” said Theresa Bui, grants and contracts specialist with the DON. “It also helps connect low-income communities to existing resources.”
Since 2014, funds have been allocated to a variety of quality-of-life enhancements for the neighborhoods in the Duwamish River valley. The total amount of 2018 funding available for the opportunity fund is $250,000. While the projects for 2018 are still undergoing Request for Proposals (RFP), there were several notable projects implemented in 2017, including increased funding for the South Park Information and Resource Center; increasing capacity and reach at the Georgetown Open Space Committee; and improvements to the South Park Senior Center.
One of the broader objectives with the DVAP is to further connect these communities to the wider region and create long-term infrastructure there, according to Rodriguez. “We are ensuring that the people who live and work in these business industries can benefit from these improvements that we are bringing to the area and connect them with the city’s regional prosperity and progress,” he said. “[It’s a question] of how the community can actually influence decision-making and the creation and delivery of services and projects in these neighborhoods.”
According to Rodriguez, one of the simultaneous challenges and benefits of the DVAP is that it requires input from and collaboration between such a wide variety of local and regional agencies, with organizations like King County, the city, the Port of Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport all contributing to the efforts. “It’s important for us to coordinate and collaborate not only internally here but also externally with non-profits and community organizations,” he said. Rodriguez hopes that the implementation of the city’s various goals will go more smoothly than it has historically. “The lack of coordination has been an issue before…we have been trying to implement the DVAP as we were creating it; we didn’t want to go into another planning process without delivering results on the ground for community members,” he said.
And while locally within the Duwamish River Valley, current strides are being made to improve the infrastructure and economic prosperity of surrounding neighborhoods like South Park and Georgetown, the more far-reaching goal is to ensure that the DVAP and its funding tools like the DROF have longer-lasting impacts in the community. “Our team is working to connect the Duwamish Valley with the knowledge and resources to make lasting, equitable long-term positive impacts, help steward future investments, and shape their communities,” said Andres Mantilla, director of DON.
Rodriguez echoed this point, emphasizing how positive progress made the the DVAP in the short-term must be followed up with tangible, concrete investments in the future of the neighborhoods in the Duwamish Valley. “As we address some these environmental equity issues through the DVAP, we need to ensure that every investment in the Duwamish Valley yields multiple benefits…it’s not only environmental, but also [about] providing jobs in local contracting and youth training or increasing access to food…[our] new approach is that interconnection and interdependence of issues,” he said.
And while in the regional context progress has been made when it comes to improving the quality-of-life for Duwamish Valley residents, businesses and industries, there is more work yet to be done in the short- and long-term, according to Rodriguez. Moving forward, even greater levels of coordination between public and private agencies will be required. “I think we’re on the right track, [but] I think there are a lot of opportunities for improvement and to do more,” he said. “It’s different when we know that we need to build a bridge and we know that we can have a scope, schedule and budget…but some of these issues like anti-displacement do not have a specific solution or right approach; nobody has come up with a solution [yet]…the city cannot address many of these historic issues by itself, so we need to be collaborating with other agencies, foundations and the community first and foremost.”