Like most cities, until the late 1960s, Seattle was highly segregated. Due to restrictive neighborhood covenants and other forms of discrimination, Rainier Valley in Southeast Seattle was one of the only neighborhoods where people of color were allowed to live. Now, Rainier Valley is one of the most diverse zip codes in the nation, home to over forty distinct ethnic groups.
Seattle is the fastest growing city in the country, and demographic changes in Southeast Seattle indicate that people of color have been displaced from their communities because the cost of living has become unsustainable for them. As a result, low-income communities and communities of color are relocating to resource-poor suburbs while a largely white and wealthier population is able to remain in Seattle.
In response to this rapid growth and demographic change, the City of Seattle has embarked on a multi-faceted equitable development strategy to help residents “prosper in place.” The opposite of gentrification-fueled displacement, “prospering in place” means that low-income people and families can afford to stay where they are, access the region’s economic opportunities, and deepen cultural roots in their existing communities.
The goal of community-supported equitable development is to utilize the strength of existing communities to produce economic growth that is beneficial to everyone. Oftentimes, this means working to:
- mitigate threats to gentrification-fueled displacement; and
- increase economic opportunities in disadvantaged areas.
Back in the early 1990s, the city worked with citizens from 38 neighborhoods to produce Neighborhood Plans—20-year visions for how each neighborhood would grow. The work was done as part of the Seattle Comprehensive Plan Initiative, a citywide effort that sought to “preserve the best quality of Seattle’s distinct neighborhoods while responding positively and creatively to the pressures of change and growth.” The plans were informed and created by both City experts and local citizens through extensive civic engagement efforts.
A decade later, due to rapid economic growth and public investments, the City saw major changes in its neighborhoods and populations. Therefore, the Mayor and City Council recognized the need to revisit the plans through broad and inclusive discussions with the community. They hoped to confirm the plans’ neighborhood visions and refine the plans’ goals and policies.
The Mayor and City Council chose three plans to be updated in 2009: the City’s Othello, Rainier Beach, and North Beacon Hill neighborhoods. One consistent priority pulled from all three plans was to work to ensure that growth in Southeast Seattle, particularly around public transit, served to improve residents’ lives rather than threaten to displace them. In 2011, the City received a Community Challenge Grant from HUD to implement some of the priorities laid out in the neighborhood plans. Community goals addressed with the grant were:
- Growth in new housing and commercial uses near light rail stations;
- Strong commercial districts that include a mix of small, local, and ethnic businesses;
- Housing affordable for a range of incomes and household sizes; and
- Multicultural community center to strengthen diversity.
After years of work with community organizations and partnerships, the Rainier Beach Action Coalition received funding to pursue a Food Innovation Zone in Rainier Beach in 2017-2018.
Reaching a broad range of residents, including those that have been historically underrepresented in the planning process, was a primary objective of the plan update process. For the Othello Neighborhood Plan Update, community members engaged with the City through:
- Hands-on workshops and smaller-scale interactive meetings with community-based organizations;
- Online updates and questionnaires;
- 53 neighborhood and City-sponsored meeting and events;
- Bicultural and/or bilingual Planning Outreach Liaisons (POLs) connected with 13 underrepresented communities; and
- 43 community workshops (led by POLs) where historically underrepresented communities could participate.
Residents participated in Issue Identification Workshops that laid the groundwork for the plan updates. The POLs went to extensive effort to build relationships with those who were new to the planning discussion.
City staff hosted workshops with residents to identify gaps and opportunities, hosted a town hall, and two open houses to draft goals and recommendations for the plan update.
One tangible outcome of Seattle’s equitable development strategies is the Rainier Beach Food Innovation District. The Food Innovation District is near the Rainier Beach light rail station and addresses the goals to create jobs and increase economic activity, improve education opportunities, reduce violent crime, and leverage private investment. It is envisioned to be a node for attracting food businesses to the neighborhood. It is also a network of uses/activities occurring in physical facilities that may include a food hub, co-packing, commercial kitchens, food science, and research. Local food innovation is also projected to be a top ten growth industry over the next decade in terms of:
- Number of jobs generated
- Jobs with a low barrier to entry
- High potential for individuals to climb the “wage ladder” and advance quickly.
Comprehensive Plan Website