Seattle is expected to grow by 120,000 residents and 115,000 jobs in the next twenty years. All too often, economic growth and development does not benefit marginalized communities in an equitable way. However, economic development does not have to come at the expense of equity. The City of Seattle is taking steps to build equitable development into its 2035 Comprehensive Plan and create a more sustainable Seattle for all communities.
Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) began in 2004 and is housed within the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. RSJI began as a primarily inward-facing effort to end institutional racism within city government. Five years later the Initiative pivoted outward and also began looking at community outcomes as they relate to racial equity. RSJI now represents a collaborative, community-wide effort to eliminate racial inequity in education, criminal justice, development, the environment, health and economic success.
In 2008, Seattle’s then Mayor Greg Nickels directed updates in neighborhood planning processes through City Ordinance #122799. Historically, neighborhood planning in Seattle has worked to the exclusion of low-income communities and communities of color. Ordinance 122799 laid out principles for effective engagement that would more equitably involve historically marginalized communities, beginning with areas of Southeast Seattle where a new light rail system would result in transit-oriented development.
Ryan Curren, consultant to the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, says that this Ordinance offered clear guidance from leadership on how to engage communities in neighborhood planning in a new and inclusive way. It started a planning process that resulted in 2000 people from underrepresented communities coming to the table and lending their expertise to neighborhood plans. The plans that came out of the process reflected different values than previous plans—values like living wage jobs, affordable housing, and affordable commercial and cultural space. The City then worked in partnership with community development corporations and coalitions built with immigrant and refugee communities to create new projects reflecting these values. In these ways, Seattle’s changes in neighborhood planning led to conscious efforts to invest in equitable development.
Equitable development also emerged as a top priority for the RSJI 3-Year Strategic Plan following a massive 2013 survey outreach effort. An Equitable Development Initiative (EDI) was formed as a result of this planning process, led by a team at the leadership level. Headed by the Director of the Office for Civil Rights and the Director of the Department of Planning and Development, the EDI leadership team includes several other Department leaders stepping forward together in an unprecedented manner.
Concurrent with the RSJI 3-Year Strategic Plan process, Seattle was also in the process of developing its new Comprehensive Plan. Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, entitled Toward a Sustainable Seattle, is a 20-year vision and roadmap for the City’s future. The EDI leadership team convened all departments to work in partnership with PolicyLink in examining equitable development best practices. The intent was to create a policy framework for weaving equitable development strategies into the Plan.
In 2014 the City performed a racial equity analysis on the draft Comprehensive Plan. As a result of this analysis, shared definitions, historical context, and new racial equity tools analyzing disparities emerged. A Displacement Risk Tool and Access to Opportunity Tool were created and analyzed different Seattle neighborhoods.
Mayor Ed Murray proposed a resolution to the Council that affirmed the EDI framework and made race and social equity a foundational core value of the Comprehensive Plan. Resolution 31577 defined and normalized terms involved in equity work and set a clear vision for an equitable future. Council passed the resolution unanimously.
The resolution calls for the City to:
- Incorporate new race and social equity goals and policies throughout the Comprehensive Plan.
- Analyze the impacts of proposed growth strategies on the most vulnerable communities, and change policies, programs and investments to help offset the impacts of the selected growth strategy.
- Close racial and social disparities with capital and program investments.
- Create, monitor and report regularly on equity measures.
Seek guidance on City policies and investments from community bodies who demonstrate inclusive representation of marginalized people.
Resolution 31577 strategically aligns with other efforts of the Mayor including a Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda, an Equity and Environment Initiative (EEI), and the formation of a new Office of Planning and Community Development. Resolution 31577 along with these and other City efforts represent a clear and united statement that racial equity is a driving force within the City’s work and a commitment for the City’s future. This is an important cultural shift and it demands leadership from all City departments.
Moving forward, a list of all the new Comprehensive Plan policies related to equitable development will be compiled and worked into a summary readers guide available for community as well as city departments. Community and departments can weave these policies into their own work plans in order to expand their racial equity work.
The City currently has the Comprehensive Plan available for public comment through November 2015. The Council will review the plan beginning in December, and adopt the plan in 2016. With racial equity as a driving force, Toward a Sustainable Seattle promises to move the City toward a better future for all communities.