Activating Open Spaces with Community

Posted by Brad Brickman — March 30, 2017

Brad Brickman 2016

When I first jumped into the environmental movement, I championed outdoor engagement, convinced of the need for more experiences, touches and connections with the living systems that support all of us. My goal was to bring more people closer to the unsustainable ecological impact of the American lifestyle.

In 2014 I joined SVP’s NW Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship and committed to learning how to support new bike and foot trails to connect communities, promote healthy alternatives to motor vehicles, and inspire communities to activate hidden resources in nearby open spaces. This is how I first became involved with Cheasty Greenspace, a huge 57-acre area near Beacon Hill that was clear cut in the early 1900’s.

Rainy Saturday after rainy Saturday, I joined a community work team dedicated to removing invasive species and restoring native plantings. I built friendships with leaders and participants. And we celebrated when the Seattle City Council approved a $100,000 grant to help plan the Cheasty Mountain Bike and Foot Trails project, an impressive community coalition that had broad support and had clocked over $500,000 worth of volunteer hours.

As it turned out, however, there were pockets of community resistance to the project. So Seattle Parks & Recreation convened five Project Action Team (PAT) meetings to bring the community together around common project goals. Unfortunately, this backfired. Meetings showed a clear division of public perception on the potential impacts of the project. And they became a public showcase of anger and entrenched positions, where a small number of members could derail consensus-building during the review process.

To my surprise, despite extensive studies by environmental engineers indicating that wildlife in the park could be sustainably managed, a vocal group of community members continued to oppose the project based on the perceived negative impact on birds and other wildlife nesting in Cheasty.

More roadblocks appeared from neighbors living nearby fearing gentrification. This faction believed bike trails in Cheasty would attract enthusiasts to their part of town to enjoy a recreational activity that appeals to a narrow and affluent segment of the population. They were concerned this would in turn cause property values and taxes to increase, forcing lower income residents to be displaced.

The final nail hit when an opposing attorney challenged the Cheasty project by requesting more extensive wetland studies and the city examiner agreed, effectively halting the community’s six-year effort. A very discouraging outcome for the organizers given all the positive energy and thousands of motivated volunteers contributing to the project.

I was shocked into realizing the complexity surrounding Seattle’s parks and open spaces. So in the aftermath of the examiner’s decision, I committed to developing smoother and more efficient processes to support community-driven greenspace projects. My goal being that we have to bring projects like Cheasty forward in a way that reflects the needs of the communities closest to the issue.

I commissioned a study with the Seattle Parks Foundation, a non-profit specializing in public space initiatives, and consultant Paul Schmitz of FSG, a nationally-recognized leader of collective impact and social innovation. While low-income neighborhoods often have less access to resources that can activate community spaces, Paul’s study helped the Foundation develop processes to engage those communities and support leaders that can benefit the most by activating open spaces. Also, the Foundation has since added a dedicated program manager in the Duwamish Valley and a director of community partnerships, so that supported projects are more responsive to the community most likely to need the resources.

And while the Cheasty project is still on indefinite hold, the experience has transformed how I do this work. It is now apparent that the outcomes I seek are less about place in a material sense and more about better processes, systems and qualities of relationships. This type of change cannot be measured unless you listen and volunteer for deeper involvement and understanding. I am doubling my bets on smaller initiatives that champion equity and inclusive partnerships to seed new enterprises, particularly in underserved communities.

Thankfully, I don’t have to navigate this alone. My work on SVP’s Environment Collective Action Team has continued to challenge and stretch my ideas on community partnerships and public spaces as I explore where I can make the greatest impact.

Brad currently serves as co-chair of the Environment Collective Action Team and was part of the second cohort of the NW Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship. In his free time, he can most likely be found biking, hiking, skiing or paddling in an effort to explore and experience the amazing living system and resources that make our planet.