Aerial view of the Duwamish Valley

Climate and Health Equity

Resilience District Concept Gathers Momentum in Seattle
By Emma Zehner, April 21, 2021


Residents of the Duwamish Valley, a section of Seattle perched just south of downtown, face an array of environmental challenges, health disparities, and racial inequities. Saddled with a legacy of pollution from the heavy industry and highways nearby, they now face increasing flood risks due to climate change and concerns about displacement and affordability. The riverside neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown have historically relied on community organizing to attempt to address these problems. But in recent years, the city of Seattle has taken a more active role in advancing environmental justice and equitable development in the Duwamish Valley by creating a cross-departmental Duwamish Valley Program, implementing the Duwamish Valley Action Plan, and collaborating with local activists and residents in new ways. Now, partners from the city and the community are exploring the feasibility of creating one of the nation’s first resilience districts. 

Resilience districts have been implemented in New Orleans, Louisiana; Portland, Oregon; and other cities around the world. Although they sometimes go by other names, the basic concept is the same, as described by the city of Seattle: “a geographic strategy . . . focused on adapting to flood risk and other climate change impacts as a key first step towards adapting to a changing climate, while taking a comprehensive approach that fosters community resilience.” 

Seattle’s approach specifically aims to coordinate investments in infrastructure related to affordable housing, parks, and climate change adaptation; prioritize the partcipation and decision-making of local residents and businesses, with a focus on building power and wealth for people of color and individuals with low incomes; and foster health and equity by identifying sustainable funding sources and equitable investment mechanisms, including value capture. The district will initially be managed by various city departments but will ultimately be led by the Duwamish Valley communities, who will establish partnerships with agencies, philanthropy, and private entities.

Graphic map of the South park and Georgetown neighborhoods
Credit: Blank Space LLC for the city of Seattle.

The vision for a resilience district, which had previously been discussed internally by city staff and community partners, turned into a concrete plan through partners’ participation in Connect Capital, a program run by the Center for Community Investment that helps place-based teams establish shared priorities and create pipelines of investable projects. Participants in the two-year process included representatives from Seattle Public Utilities (SPU); the city’s Office of Sustainability & Environment (OSE), Office of Planning & Community Development (OPCD), and Office of Economic Development (OED); the Seattle Foundation; the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), a group of community, tribal, environmental, and small business groups impacted by pollution and remediation along the lower Duwamish River; and other stakeholders.

With planning now underway, city representatives are learning from models around the globe—from Brazil to New Zealand—that offer insights into how to equitably finance related projects, collaborate across sectors, and adapt to sea level rise. Funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), granted at the end of 2020, will enable the project’s partners to take important next steps related to planning and piloting key elements of the resilience district.

“The community has been leading and working on these issues for decades, so it is really exciting to now see this work recognized and given support on the national level in ways that match the creativity and bold solutions being put forward by them,” Alberto J. Rodríguez, Duwamish Valley advisor at OSE and project colead, said. “This approach will allow us to collaborate in transformational ways.”

“This grant will make it possible for community groups, industrial businesses, public sector agencies, utilities, the port, and the county to continue to work together to address environmental hazards and build a more resilient community,” said Omar Carrillo Tinajero, associate director of innovation and learning at the Center for Community Investment. “Even in this difficult time, this work recognizes the importance of taking action to create a more equitable, smarter climate future.”

Project Background

Seventy percent of the residents of the Duwamish Valley’s two primary neighborhoods, South Park and Georgetown, identify as people of color. The environmental hazards they face include industrial pollution in the lower Duwamish River, which was declared a Superfund site in 2001; air pollution from State Highways 99 and 509 and Interstate 5, which all cut through the area; a lack of green space; and other challenges. During a community-run mapping exercise, residents identified noise pollution, vacant lots, a lack of healthy stores, and litter as additional “unhealthy” features. These factors have combined to create an average life expectancy eight years shorter in this zip code than in the city of Seattle and King County overall, and a full 13 years shorter than in more affluent, less diverse neighborhoods in Seattle. Further, by 2104, the routine flooding in this low-lying area is expected to become a daily occurrence.

Graphic comparing life expectancy, tree canopy, asthma prevalence, and percentage of households living near Superfund sites in Georgetown and South Park with more affluent neighborhoods in Seattle.
Credit: Blank Space LLC for city of Seattle.

While the city has made efforts to address these problems, some of these actions have raised concerns among residents about displacement. SPU’s plans to invest $100 million in stormwater management infrastructure in the area and Seattle Parks & Recreation’s plans to improve and add parks, for example, have prompted increasing worries about displacement of current residents in a city with few affordable housing options. A 2015 analysis by Governing revealed that of seven U.S. Census tracts in Seattle that had experienced gentrification since 2000, five were in Georgetown and South Park, with median home values increasing an average of 47 percent between 2000 and 2013.

“We cannot be talking about a water treatment facility that is going to bring open space without thinking of displacement,” Paulina López, executive director of DRCC, said. Collaboration is critical, she said: “Our public utility doesn’t build affordable housing, but it should still be collaborating with the Office of Housing and other departments on its infrastructure investments.”

Since forming the Duwamish Valley Program in 2016, the city has commited to furthering social justice in policy and development, aiming to coordinate priorities across 18 city departments and strengthen relationships with community partners. Participating in Connect Capital helped the team shift from a focus on discrete projects and “symptoms” to a more proactive systems mindset, according to Rodríguez.

Throughout this partnership development and capacity building work, anti-displacement has repeatedly emerged as the top priority for residents. Departments such as OPCD and the Office of Housing are taking steps to address these concerns, including providing funding for capacity-building to the Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition (DVAHC), which was formed in 2017 to preserve existing affordability, develop a multipurpose community building, provide repairs, and acquire lots to build additional housing. The city is also buying land for affordable housing and providing $910,000 to Habitat for Humanity to build 13 two-bedroom, two-bath homes in South Park, which will be sold for $210,000 for a family with an annual income averaging $45,000 (in February 2021, the median list price of homes in this neighborhood was $525,000).

“We are working to shift to a culture of pairing community development with concrete anti-displacement actions,” said David W. Goldberg, strategic advisor with OPCD and project colead. “It looks like in the next few years the neighborhood will get both a park and new affordable housing.”

Group picture of Duwamish Valley Youth corps members and the mayor of Seattle.
Mayor Jenny A. Durkan with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps at an Earth Day celebration of Duwamish Alive! Credit: Alberto Rodríguez.

Planning: Local and International Models & Inspirations

The partners are thinking of the resilience district timeline in three stages, says Goldberg: “norming, forming, and performing.” At each of these stages, representatives from the community, philanthropy, and city will play evolving roles. During the “norming” stage, the city and community are organizing listening sessions and researching precedents. In the second stage, the city plans to develop regulatory options for enabling legislation and amendments to development standards. By the third phase, the community would hold the largest role and begin to cogovern the district, with the city playing a financing and legislative role.

With the funding from RWJF, the Duwamish Valley Program will focus on “norming” and “forming” by researching promising practices for three aspects of the district: cross-sector collaboration, sustainable funding sources and equitable investment mechanisms, and adaptation to sea level rise. The partners have already identified models in places as far-flung as San Juan, Puerto Rico, São Paulo, Brazil, and Christchurch, New Zealand, that are using strategies that could be adapted in the Duwamish Valley.

“We have built this concept from the needs of the community,” Rodríguez said. “As a result, we cannot find one model elsewhere that perfectly aligns with our work, but we have found bits and pieces that embody key aspects of the work that we want and plan to do.”

Cross-Sector Collaboration in San Juan

In communities along Caño Martin Peña, a tidal channel on the San Juan Bay National Estuary, residents face challenges familiar to the Duwamish Valley, including displacement pressures, flooding, and environmental hazards stemming from poor water infrastructure. In the early 2000s, the Puerto Rico Planning Board designated the area a special planning district and formed a public corporation to oversee the implementation of a development and land use plan. The corporation works with a nonprofit coalition to ensure widespread community involvement and participatory community planning as well as with the Caño Martin Peña Community Land Trust to prevent further displacement.

As envisioned, the resilience district will be a similar type of collaboration. To establish capacity for this type of collaboration, build relationships between the many partners in the Duwamish Valley, and address community skepticism about the approach, the city is convening listening sessions and plans to hire a facilitator and provide stipends to residents offering their expertise.

“Cross-sector collaboration is so important,” López said. “There are not a lot of opportunities for funders, governments, and community-based organizations to be sittng in the same Zoom room, thinking creatively about how to address the impacts of environmental injustices and climate change. This is a great opportunity to develop good strategies and be meaningful in the way that these strategies can be implemented.”

Sustainable Funding Sources & Equitable Investment Mechanisms in São Paulo

Funding mechanisms such as land value capture—which allows the public sector to recover and reinvest land value increases that result from public investment and government actions—could help fund affordable housing, green space, and other community priorities in the Duwamish Valley. The approach of São Paulo, recently highlighted in Land Lines, has resonated in Seattle. Since the early 2000s, São Paulo has used CEPACs, a form of land value capture in which developers pay the municipality a fee for additional development rights. Those fees are then used to fund public improvements, including social housing. The city also stipulates that all displaced families can resettle within the same geographic area, and that a fixed share of revenues must be invested in affordable housing.

Rodríguez and his colleagues are interested not only in land value capture, but in other tools for investing in public goods, such as health equity zones, hospital benefit zones, community benefits agreements, landscaping standards, and more.

“This work is not only about capturing value, but also ensuring its equitable distribution,” Rodríguez said. “We cannot run the risk of further exacerbating existing inequities and disparities.”

Adapting for Sea Level Rise in Christchurch

Finally, the cross-departmental team believes the Ōtākaro Avon River Corridor Regeneration Plan in Christchurch, New Zealand, may offer important lessons about how the Duwamish Valley can prepare for projected sea level rise. The project is run by Regenerate Christchurch, a quasi-public agency that formed in the wake of the 2011 earthquake, and takes a holistic approach to planning for present and future land use.

Regenerate Christchurch addresses both the infrastructure needs and the cultural ties of residents, indigenous populations, and representatives from private and nonprofit organizations to the river. In addition to drawing inspiration from Christchurch, the city’s team is also considering using scenario planning, a practice through which communities plan for an uncertain future by exploring multiple possibilities of what might happen, to address rising seas.

“Adaptation to sea level rise in the Duwamish Valley will be rooted in community resilience: power and wealth building today are as critical as engineered infrastructure to respond to climate change impacts tomorrow,” says Ann Grodnik-Nagle, climate policy advisor with SPU.

Learning by Doing: Duwamish Waterway Park Expansion Project

While thinking through the big ideas of the resilience district, the city is using this time to pilot community-led work on a smaller scale with the expansion of the Duwamish Waterway Park, South Park’s main riverfront green space. This “learning by doing” project will use an existing grant to purchase a one-acre site adjacent to an existing park and expand the facility to support community services and cultural programming. The group will start the project by leading a site plan to determine how community uses can be accommodated on the site and, ultimately, how the community could potentially own the land. According to Goldberg, this is one of several potential “proof-of-concept” projects being considered.

“This is a good way to prove the concept so we can learn and replicate something similar with bigger multimillion-dollar investments,” says Goldberg. “It is a way for us to exercise the muscles that we will need to have in place when the resilience district is operating.” 



Emma Zehner is communications and publications editor at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Photograph Credit: Tom Reese.



Related Content

Climate Resilience: Seattle Housing Groups, Utility Launch Bold Experiment in Climate Equity