Seattle Parks need our help
By Jean Godden
When you think "Seattle," what do you see? The Pike Place Public Market? The Space Needle? The Smith Tower? The striking Seattle skyline? Beyond those images, many of us see Seattle as a City of Parks.
Seattle's 485 parks, trails and natural areas have long been the city's most valued asset. With over 93 percent of city residents living within a 10-minute walk to a park, Seattle has ranked as one of the nation's top parks systems. Seattle parks spread across 6,414 acres, some 11 percent of the city's land mass. Many acres are wild (think Carkeek Park), others are tame and manicured (Volunteer Park); some are vast (Discovery Park), others are tiny oases (Waterway Park). Big or small, parks touch something in the human spirit.
But despite this abundance, our parks have not been without problems. Over the years, they've sometimes suffered from neglect, over-use, vandalism and other urban ills. Funding often has been a problem. In lean years, parks have lost out to more immediate city needs. Fortunately, voters' creation of the Metropolitan Parks District in 2014 eased that competition, giving Seattle parks a more stable stream of revenue.
Today parks once again are vulnerable. Because of pandemic restrictions and because park employees have not been full strength, regular parks maintenance, programming and events have been suspended. Meanwhile, numbers of those suffering homelessness have moved into certain city parks. Systems that had operated to find alternative shelter for the homeless have been curtailed. At the same time, the city has opted to leave unsanctioned encampments mostly in place during the pandemic, rather than spread infection.
An ill-starred combination of factors has left a number of our parks dangerous and chaotic, ironically at a time when people have been experiencing the most need for park space. Acres of park space have been closed to the public. Playgrounds, closed off early in the pandemic, have been reopened. But, sadly, some play areas have been occupied by illegal encampments. Many parks have been left vandalized, damaged and unsafe.
There can be no argument that today our parks are in the midst of a health and safety crisis. Although still dealing with a raging pandemic, we must begin taking steps to restore the city's park system.
Part of that help for parks may be forthcoming. In November, Mayor Durkan announced a Clean Cities Initiative. She said the city would be spending $5.6 million on the push to combat the crisis of mounting garbage and trash associated with unsanctioned camping. She said there would be four new "community clean" response teams, 16 members drawn from Seattle Public Utilities, Seattle Parks, Economic Development and Seattle Transportation. They'll operate in the four quadrants of the city. One of the primary aims: To keep parks safe and accessible for all.
While the mayor's plan is admirable, it likely is only the first step to a conclusive answer. Earlier -- prior to announcing her Clean Cities Initiative -- the mayor had received a letter from citizens representing community councils, neighborhood associations and business improvement districts across the city. The letter detailed instances of the health and safety crisis in the most seriously affected parks, among them Ballard Commons, Cal Anderson Park, Denny Park and Junction Plaza Park.
The letter rightfully -- although somewhat offhandedly -- expressed concern for the hundreds of unhoused individuals who have congregated in park spaces. These unsanctioned encampments are the result of inadequate shelter space, another major crisis. Homelessness must be humanely addressed by providing more small houses, more hotel and motel spaces and more low-income housing throughout the city.
In its letter to the mayor and council, the ad hoc citizen group urged the city to take "immediate action" on health and safety concerns in the parks, focus on repairing damage and addressing the lack of basic upkeep. The letter acknowledged these issues are complex, but stressed the city's prime responsibility for working on solutions.
The letter did conclude with offers of help and cooperation from neighborhood groups. That offer is not to be taken lightly. There is little doubt it will take maximum effort on the part of city leadership -- and those citizen volunteers -- working to restore parks. It is a large order of business. But, difficult or not, we must ensure that Seattle continues to have vibrant park spaces at a time when the need could not be greater.