Gentrification and Climate Change Are Totally Related, Says Report

It may seem like a leap. But that's what a glossy new study, developed by environmental justice nonprofits Got Green? and Puget Sound Sage, suggests: It uses a whole bunch of community feedback to underscore the relationship between low-income communities of color and the risks of climate change here in Seattle.

And it argues that, yes, the price of housing has everything to do with the climate.

That's because the more expensive Seattle becomes, the more likely low-income workers are to move to the outskirts and commute long, carbon-spewing hours, often with fewer public transit options. As 40 percent of Seattle's carbon emissions come from road transportation, the report argues, battling gentrification and displacement is also a way to battle climate change.

And because low-income communities of color are the ones living in the parts of Seattle most likely to see major flooding in the coming decades – huge swathes of the Duwamish River Valley could be completely underwater by 2100, according to an analysis by Seattle Public Utilities – questions about affordability, equity, race, and climate impacts are all intertwined.

"Our People, Our Planet, Our Power" is the result of months of conversations and interviews with 175 South Seattle/King County residents and 30 community organizations. The major goal – in addition to growing the climate justice movement – is to use community members' feedback to create tangible climate policy recommendations for the city.

“Once you talk to people about it, they're like, 'Oh yeah, that totally makes sense,'” says Jamie Stroble, a member of the mostly-volunteer group that developed the survey and then fanned out to grocery stores and street corners and farmers' markets last summer. Stroble was among the several hundred who attended the report's release event Saturday. “People said, 'You know, I never thought of myself as an environmentalist, but all the things you're talking about are things I care about.'”

And, for Stroble, that's the heart of it: “We are all environmentalists,” she says. “We just don't think of it in that mainstream definition of what 'environment' is. All of these things” – affordable housing, access to public transit, access to healthy food – “are environmental issues.”

Stroble moved to Seattle from Honolulu 12 years ago, and says that there are many Hawaiians who relocated to the Northwest “because of economic displacement” and now are finding themselves displaced yet again. For years, she, too, has been moving from “apartment to apartment, just trying to find a place to live that's affordable and safe and not right next to the freeway.” For this and many reasons, “I'm deeply concerned about the future of our city,” she says. “That really pushed me to become involved with this project.”

So it's not just the traditional green groups that are brainstorming about climate solutions anymore: It's also people who care about gentrification, and affordable housing, and food. (Read: most people).

“The more people see themselves in this work, the more they feel connected to it and will take action,” says Got Green? executive director Jill Mangaliman, pointing out that low-income people are already, whether they know it or not, well-acquainted with what it will take on a global scale to reduce carbon emissions: “We know how to live simply and live collectively; we know how to conserve resources. We do it on the daily!”

Survey respondents' top concern was, indeed, housing costs: 89 percent said “lack of affordable housing” impacted them in their neighborhoods. 74 percent live near major highways, 73 percent expressed concern about limited public transportation, and 72 percent saw a lack of affordable food in their neighborhoods. But the people of South Seattle also do care, explicitly, about climate change: 90 percent of respondents supported almost every carbon emissions-reduction strategy the survey offered.

“It's not just a document, it's an organizing campaign,” says Mangaliman – something that Got Green? and others hope will serve as a kind of toolkit to show policymakers, “Like, 'Look, our communities have spoken, and this is what we've learned.'”

Report recommendations include, for example, developing community-owned land trusts, creating affordable housing along transit corridors, investing in green jobs for people of color, creating a Climate Adaptation Fund to help support local projects, and – perhaps most boldly – allow community members to decide how that fund would be spent (“participatory budgeting,” it's called).

And who knows – it's possible.

“We pride ourselves in being a green city,” says Rokea Jones, a longtime Seattle resident who participated in the survey. “I just feel like Seattle, if any city, is capable of doing so much more. Not only do we have the capital – maybe it's not in the right hands, but it's around, it's available – we have the education, we have the activists ready, we have the organizations ready to do the work and really take off with this thing.”

It sounds like the City of Seattle is listening. Puget Sound Sage and Got Green? will bring this report to their conversations with city staff; both organizations are already members of what's called the Community Partners Steering Committee, part of Mayor Ed Murray's Equity and Environment Initiative, launched on Earth Day last year. This Earth Day, the Equity and Environment staff plan to release their own set of climate recommendations for a rapidly gentrifying Seattle.

“The city is really in tune” with the work Puget Sound Sage and Got Green? have been doing, says Mangaliman. “In the face of all the things that are happening,” from air pollution to sea level rise to Seattle's exploding home prices, “there's a recognition that there's something wrong, and we're working together to fix it.”

Sara Bernard writes about environment and education, among other things, for Seattle Weekly. She can be reached at or 206-467-4370. Follow her on Twitter at @saralacy. Get more from your favorite writers by subscribing to our weekly newsletters.

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