By Jim Diers, Director

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods

From Great Parks/Great Cities: Seattle, 1998, a publication on an Urban Parks Institute regional workshop

Since 1988, Jim Diers has directed the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods along with its 13 neighborhood-based Little City Halls, a Citizens Service Bureau, and programs of organizational development, historic preservation and neighborhood planning and development. He previously worked for six years as Assistant Director of Cooperative Affairs at Group Health Cooperative and began his organizing career in 1976 with the South End Seattle Community Organization, and Alinsky-style coalition building in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods of Rainier Valley.

I believe communities have broad visions. However, often government puts communities in boxes. Neighborhoods have “friends of libraries” and they have “friends of parks” because that’s how government is organized, but it is not how communities see themselves. I think people would rather be “friends of neighborhoods” and look at how they could make connections between the different pieces that would help them build a stronger sense of community.

“In Seattle, we recognize that what really makes the city work are our neighborhoods”

Most city governments, including Seattle’s, are organized by function, with separate departments for parks, libraries, and transportation. In Seattle, we have a Department of Neighborhoods to try to bring those functions together. The place we do that, the place where all functions come together, is in the neighborhoods.

In Seattle, we recognize that what really makes the city work are our neighborhoods. They are the city’s strongest asset, along with the active citizens who are part of those neighborhoods. The mission of the Department of Neighborhoods is to build on that idea. We’re the only department that is organized the way the people are, by community. We have three parts to our mission: The first is to coordinate with communities across departments in order to bring more of a holistic approach to neighborhood planning, preservation, and development.

A second part of our mission is to improve delivery of services to neighborhoods. We accomplished that by bringing services closer to the people. We have 13 neighborhood service centers where people can go and pay their public utility bills, apply for a passport, or appeal a parking ticket or traffic violation with the municipal court magistrate.

The third part of our mission, and the part that I get most excited about, is community empowerment. It is the notion that neighborhoods are more than just places with needs. They are communities with abundant assets and resources. In order to fully tap those resources, government needs to go beyond involving citizens in the city’s priorities through the city’s programs (citizen participation) to enabling communities to address their own priorities through their own organizations (community empowerment).

I believe that people care very deeply about their community and want to be a part of it. They want to contribute something, but they don’t always want to go to meetings. And usually the only opportunity we give people to get involved in their community is by going to meetings.

At the Department of Neighborhoods we work hard at trying to find other ways to get people involved- to tap those incredible resources that already exist in each community. The program that does this most successfully is our Neighborhood Matching Fund program. The Neighborhood Matching Fund was designed 10 years ago, at a time when Seattle’s neighborhoods were screaming that there weren’t enough resources coming to the neighborhoods, and there were too many resources going downtown. The program was a way to meet the neighborhoods half way on projects that were priorities for neighborhoods, but not necessarily priorities for the city of Seattle.

The way the program works is simple. The city agrees to match a neighborhood’s contribution of sweat equity, professional services, donated goods or cash, with an equal value of cash from the city to accomplish projects that were proposed and carried out by neighborhood organizations. We work with a wide range of organizations; they don’t even have to be incorporated. It can just be a group of neighbors coming together who want to get something done in their community.

“The matching fund is really about… getting people involved and creating a stronger sense of community”

In the past 10 years, we have funded over 1,200 projects. The fund started out at $150,000, and has quickly expanded to $1.5 million per year. This year, the Mayor and City Council doubled the fund to $3 million dollars, and they recently agreed to increase it to $4.5 million over the next two years. We are currently funding about 250 projects a year, and that will grow as the fund grows.

What the matching fund is really about, though, is getting people involved and creating a stronger sense of community. There are thousands of people who want to get involved in their communities. However, they don’t want to make the commitment of joining an organization, or going to meetings. They would rather roll up their sleeves and make a short-term commitment to a project. These projects enable people to contribute whatever their skills are- as an architect or an artist, people of all ages, and people of different abilities. We believe that everybody has assets to contribute to their communities.

Through working on a project, people develop relationships and see what can be accomplished by working together. They get involved in the life of the community and even start going to meetings.

The matching fund has supported a wide variety of projects including neighborhood-initiated planning, community organizing, renovating buildings, recording oral histories, establishing community schools, creating public art, building traffic circles, and much more. What I am going to describe here are a few examples of parks-related projects.

The way the program works is simple. The city agrees to match a neighborhood’s contribution of sweat equity, professional services, donated goods or cash, with an equal value of cash from the city to accomplish projects that were proposed and carried out by neighborhood organizations. We work with a wide range of organizations; they don’t even have to be incorporated. It can just be a group of neighbors coming together who want to get something done in their community.

In the past 10 years, we have funded over 1,200 projects. The fund started out at $150,000, and has quickly expanded to $1.5 million per year. This year, the Mayor and City Council doubled the fund to $3 million dollars, and they recently agreed to increase it to $4.5 million over the next two years. We’re currently funding about 250 projects a year, and that will grow as the fund grows.

What the matching fund is really about, though, is getting people involved and creating a stronger sense of community. There are thousands of people who want to get involved in their communities. However, they don’t want to make the commitment of joining an organization, or going to meetings. They would rather roll up their sleeves and make a short-term commitment to a project. These projects enable people to contribute whatever their skills are as an architect or an artist, people of all ages, and people of different abilities. We believe that everybody has assets to contribute to their communities.

Through working on a project, people develop relationships and see what can be accomplished by working together. They get involved in the life of the community and even start going to meetings.

The matching fund has supported a wide variety of projects including neighborhood-initiated planning, community organizing, renovating buildings, recording oral histories, establishing community schools, creating public art, building traffic circles, and much more. What I am going to describe here are a few examples of parks-related projects.

Planting Trees

The most common kind of project that people get started with is planting trees. It is a simple formula because the city supplies the tree and the community supplies the labor to dig the hole, plant the tree, and maintain it. But even this small step has had incredible results. This month, over 1,500 trees are being planted in 45 neighborhoods through the Neighborhood Matching Fund. And several years ago, in the neighborhood of Ballard, residents planted 1200 trees in one day. They did that by using their existing infrastructure- their block watch captains all organized their blocks and created a 1200-tree forest overnight.

Reclaiming Vacant Lots

Once people see how beneficial a simple tree planting can be, they get ambitious and go from planting single trees to looking how to re-forest huge open spaces. In West Seattle, the three-acre College Street Ravine was overrun with ivy and blackberries- not a very inviting place. The community applied for matching funds and started holding seminars about how they wanted this area redeveloped. People started learning about the ecology of their community and decided to go in and take out all the invasive plants and reintroduce native plants. They removed the ivy and the other non-indigenous plants themselves and replanted the area. It was a huge project.

This story is great for a number of reasons. One, this was a neighborhood that had no sense of community. They were separated by the ravine. This project brought them together, and out of it they built a community council that continues to be very active. Secondly, they learned about the environment, applying those lessons and becoming very involved in drafting the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance.

Lastly, and most importantly, people got very excited about what a neighborhood group could do to re-forest their community, and they started teaching what they had learned all around the city. Communities all over Seattle started applying for matching funds and re-foresting their open space using volunteer labor, based on the experience at the College Street Ravine.

There are many other kinds of park improvements that have had large impacts. In Madrona Park there was a lot of drug dealing, and the community was not using the park because of the dealers. Finally, the residents decided that they were going to re-take the park, and the first thing they did was to renovate the shelter house, which became an active center for community meetings again. During the process of renovating the shelter house, the drug dealers were driven away because they didn’t like being around legitimate activity. The community went on to build a brand new playground. It’s become a very active park.

Environmental Restoration

Another example is in Meadowbrook where there was a ballfield that was always underwater. The community decided to try to take care of the drainage problem because they needed the ballfield. They applied for matching funds; however, it turned out that to drain the area in a conventional fashion would be enormously expensive.

Looking for an alternative, the community leaders started talking to some of the old-timers in the neighborhood and realized that the reason the area was always underwater was because it used to be a wetland. So, what they decided to do was to re-create the wetland. And along the side of the ballfield, they dug a long trench, and brought the stream back to the community. They put in native plants along that stream. They put little bridges over the stream, and a trail along it. The high school next door is now studying the water quality of the stream; they are very involved in the environment. When Meadowbrook had their dedication ceremony, I saw a great blue heron, and a red-tailed hawk- birds that had not been in that community for a long time. The wetlands has become an incredible community asset. And, the ballfield is dry.

Educational Environments

At Carkeek Park, the community worked to bring salmon back to Piper’s Creek which runs through the park. Having made the park a good place for salmon, they decided to also make it an inviting place for kids to learn about the lifecycle of the salmon. The centerpiece of the play area they created is a slide that you can slide right down through the mouth of the salmon and come out the back end. There is a trail that you follow that goes through caves, and over obstacles. It gives the children a sense of the struggles that salmon go through to get back to Seattle. This is just one of 75 unique playgrounds throughout the city that have been created through the Neighborhood Matching Fund.

The P-Patch Phenomenon

This project is known as Billy Goat’s Bluff. There was an overgrown street right-of-way that was never developed because it was too steep. The only vehicles that would try to get up it were four-wheel drives that would come up in the middle of the night and try to challenge each other. The noise of the engines roaring and revving was driving the neighbors on either side of the hill nuts. It was a real neighborhood problem.

So, the neighbors decided they were going to apply for neighborhood matching funds and turn this area into a community garden. It seemed like an impossible task. But by hand, they terraced the whole hillside and turned it into a spectacular garden. The top of the hill has a play area, a picnic spot, and a beautiful view out over Ballard and Puget Sound. Over the course of the project, neighbors on either side who had not known each other because they were separated by this barrier of weeds came together to work, and later to share food and conversation. This project truly brought the community together, and is now one of 47 organic gardens in the city’s P-Patch program.

The Orca Elementary School in Columbia City was just an asphalt parking lot until the community got together with the school and built a beautiful garden. People in the community farm in this garden- largely a Southeast Asian population that doesn’t have access to land otherwise. They are involved with the kids during the daytime as part of the environmental curriculum in the school. There is a greenhouse in the back. There is even a street tree nursery, from which trees are transplanted back into the neighborhood.

The Fremont Troll

The last project I want to tell you about is one of the most famous, and one of the most controversial. It began with neighbors who were concerned about the unkempt appearance of the land adjoining a bridge in their neighborhood. They applied for matching funds and developed what they called Bridge Park with nice landscaping and a sitting area. It was one of our first projects. I soon feared it might be our last.

The area underneath the bridge was a mess, but the community saw its incredible potential. They thought that this would be a great place for a piece of public sculpture, so they applied for matching funds. The application said that the sculpture would be selected through a public process. I was uncomfortable funding such an open-ended project, but our funding decisions are all made by community people, and they like the idea.

The competition was held at the Fremont Street Fair- the models were put on display and people were invited to vote for whichever project they wanted. And my worst nightmare came true. The people chose a design I thought would ruin the Neighborhood Matching Fund. It was a giant, ugly troll. The local art critic in the daily newspaper wrote a scathing piece, saying that it was an example of why the public should never be involved in public art decisions. The people have no taste. It was just kitsch. This got the people in the community so upset that they started rallying and raising funds like crazy for this project. The kids wrote a troll rap, and painted 10-foot long footprints up and down the streets of Fremont, like the troll had been walking through there.

Soon after, they went ahead and built the troll. He’s so big he holds a VW Bug in its claw. It’s an environmental statement, as if he grabbed this car and took it off the top of the bridge. The Fremont Troll quickly became a focal point for the neighborhood. Hundreds of people gather around the scupture each October to celebrate Trolloween. Visitors from all over the world come to pay homage to the troll, and have their picture taken with it. The art critic soon wrote a retraction, admitting it was “time to eat troll.”

There were initial problems, including some vandalism. At one point, somebody broke out the window in the back of the car. In response, the neighborhood formed a troll patrol. They started patrolling the neighborhood and making sure that the troll was well taken care of. I think that this is a great example of the kind of ownership that comes out of the matching fund. People take pride in what they create, and as a result, they maintain their projects.