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Environmental Justice in Action: Pilot Project with the Ethiopian Community in Seattle

This article is the first in a series: “Seattle Environmental Justice in Action” — highlighting projects and organizations that are advancing environmental justice in our city. 

Created in 2017 as part of the Equity & Environment Initiative, the Environmental Justice Committee (EJC) supports City staff in creating and advancing environmental programs with strong ownership and collaboration from communities of color and connections to community-based solutions. An early priority for the EJC has been to support and cultivate projects and partnerships that demonstrate environmental justice in Seattle.

Last year, the EJC forged a partnership with the Ethiopian Community in Seattle (ECS) to develop a pilot project that achieved the goals of building partnerships between local government and communities of color and leveraging existing cultural hubs to support place keeping and maximize environmental benefits.

Public spaces represent an important bridge between the physical and symbolic capacity for critical civic engagement. Today, these spaces continue to be where communities of color can gather to exercise their civil rights through meetings, rallies, teach-ins, demonstrations, and celebrations of religious and cultural festivals with (minimal) fear of being targeted by law enforcement or explicit acts of racism. The EJC created and adopted the Principles of Public Space for Communities of Color to guide the process of the project.

Over the course of the pilot project, the partners worked together to co-create an outdoor gathering space for community that also connects to environmental investments in the neighborhood. The collaborative design process with ECS ensured that the voices of their members and residents were centered throughout the development. The process created space for ECS staff to gain insight into city design and environmental solutions while increasing the capacity of government to listen to community and build environmental solutions that center the local users.

The pilot project redesigned a 20 x 21-foot space for an outdoor style “parklet.” The Ethiopian Community of Seattle staff led and leaned into a collaborative design process with the City of Seattle, Framework, and the University of Washington.

The focus from the outset was to enhance multigenerational gathering while supporting culture, growing food, showcasing plants that are native to Ethiopia or similar in type/look to Ethiopian plants, and including outdoor “classroom” elements to share about Seattle’s environmental programs and protections and East African heritage.

The project was also an opportunity for the City to invest in providing an outdoor “cooling” spot in an area that is exposed to heat events and supports climate preparedness in communities by increasing social cohesion.

During the process of creating the pilot project, ECS was able to participate in other built environment projects both on their own site and in their neighborhood. In the summer of 2018, ECS was selected as a recipient of the Equitable Development Initiative Capacity Building Grant for the community center to move forward on their plan to redevelop the property into senior affordable housing with a senior center and daycare on the ground floor.

The EJ pilot project is a model for local government to support community lead design projects that provide quick wins while planning for longer-term projects. ECS was able to go through a quicker, tailored, and implementable design process. The ability to continue to run through a design process and then see it come to fruition, allows community members involved to have a deeper ownership of a space and the learned experience that will carry to future design projects. The collaborative design process of the EJ Pilot Project had an overarching goal of increasing environment investment but did so through a tailored community process that responded to a community priority.