Open letter to Seattle Mayor and City Council


We know that the environment and the people of Seattle suffer from the ill effects of urbanization. The heat island effect, the sewer overflows and marine pollution, heat exacerbated illnesses, habitat degradation—these are all the result of development which is unmitigated by a sufficient amount of green space and the Urban Forest.

Taken with global warming it all adds up to an environmental crisis for Seattle. What is the City’s reaction in the Comprehensive Plan’s proposed update? Is it to increase our open space goals, to seek out new funding sources for green space acquisition, or tie greenspace acquisition to development? No. The City’s response is to reduce open space goals to be more ‘realistic’ and cut the parks acquisition budget to a record low. This is at a time when Seattle is awash in money from development boom, and experiencing unprecedented losses of privately owned open space.

Our current comprehensive plan goal is to have one acre of public open space for every 100 City residents. And we are pretty close to that now. By way of comparison Portland has 2.3 acres per 100 people, DC has 1.3 acres, Atlanta has 1.1, Seattle has .9, Boston .7 and NYC .5 acres.

Because of the predicted arrival of thousands of new people in coming decades, The Department of Development says we would need to add 70 acres of open space per year to meet those same goals. Between 2000 and 2014 we averaged a gain of 18 acres per year.

The Seattle Urban Tree Canopy Project Report says we need 410 acres of new tree canopy coverage to make our goal of 40% by 2035. We have somewhere between 23-29% canopy coverage now. Pittsburgh has 42%; DC has 35%, Huston 30%, Boston 22%. LA 18% and Jersey City 11%.

By way of a different comparison, the Parks budget for land acquisition in 2016 is $6.9 million. The City plans to spend $28 million in coming hears to improve access to the Westcrest dog park. According to the Move Seattle website, the City will spend $83 million each year over the next ten years on safety measures to ‘eliminate crashes and accidents’.

‘It’s hard to get new open space’, the drafters of the comprehensive plan tells us, ‘because land just isn’t available.’ Meanwhile the City is planning to sell 30 surplus properties, the ‘substations’ which are practically mini-parks now, a large piece of surplus land in the densely packed South Lake Union Urban Village, and it plans to sell 33 acres of sensitive areas–steep wooded slopes, open meadow and wetlands–in an underserved southwest Seattle neighborhood. All to become yet more development. ‘But’, the City says, ‘we need that land for low income housing’. It’s not true. Housing can always go upward. Open space must be ground based.
Can anything be done to stop the paving of paradise? The transformation of a once scenic City into an intimidating set of concrete blocks, where the water views and back yards are reserved for the rich?

Yes! Adopt the 2015-16 TreePAC Green Agenda: Increase setbacks and landscaping requirements on private property, reduce lot coverage in single family zones, increase tree retention by increasing its value in Green Factor, set robust open space goals for industrial/manufacturing zones, adopt new and innovative funding and acquisition strategies like Tree Fund, require surplus land to stay in the public domain, adopt a strong tree ordinance, offer financial incentives to retain open space and trees (treebates), tie open space/urban forestry funding to development, disallow exceptions to building in sensitive areas, increase open space goals, hold law and code enforcement accountable for legal violations of tree laws, keep an accurate and annual update of tree removals and a more frequent update of the tree canopy, fund non-profits who increase or maintain open space and urban forests. But mostly, stop making excuses and get more open space for Seattle before it really is too late. Once it is gone, it is gone for good.

“When you sell the land, it is the end.”
-From The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck

Cass Turnbull
TreePAC/Open Space Advocate