A Look Toward the Future of Citywide Green Space: an Interview with Cayce James from Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development

By Rebecca Bear
Transcribed by Alex Brott


Outside Citywide is a visionary project of Seattle’s Office of Planning and Community Development (OPCD) to expand, improve, and connect the city’s open spaces in collaboration with communities, the private and nonprofit sectors, and other city and county agencies. Seattle Parks Foundation CEO Rebecca Bear spoke with the project’s leader, Cayce James, OPCD’s strategic advisor on public space and environmental justice.

Rebecca Bear: Can you tell us about the project, and how it came about?

Cayce James: The Outside Citywide Initiative was formed around the time the city was putting together the 2016 comprehensive plan. There was growing awareness of the need for collaboration and coordination between the different departments—the Seattle Department of Transportation, Seattle Parks and Recreation, and Seattle Public Utilities, among others—that manage parks and open space.

Folks put together an interdepartmental team and started strategizing around coordinating better. At that point, pre-COVID, we were facing rapid growth, and our opportunities to acquire new parks and expand our existing public space system were getting more limited. Displacement was a huge issue that was accompanying that, and folks also wanted to improve equity of access to parks in the city.

RB: And part of your work with Outside Citywide is to identify green spaces in the city—even beyond parks—and identify what we need?

CJ: Yeah. To better understand the public space system across the different departments, agencies, and divisions, we gathered existing data about where the spaces are, including things like shoreline street ends, cemeteries, and campuses. From that compilation, we looked at what areas of the city were better- and worse-served by our existing assets.

We looked at how big the space is, what type of space it is, and walking accessibility, among other things, because a tiny parklet on your street corner doesn’t serve you in the same way that Discovery Park does. We included demographic, racial equity, and public health data to help us identify priority areas. That’s helped make sure our investments go where people need them most and has facilitated more collaboration across departments, who were able to use that same analysis.

RB: When it comes to these analyses—equity, climate, displacement, health outcomes—which neighborhoods did you identify as having the greatest need?

CJ: You get different results if you look at those different factors. Some neighborhoods, like Rainier Beach, have a lot of acres of public space—including schoolyards, playfields, parks, etc.–but still see poor public health outcomes directly related to people’s ability to exercise and spend time outside. For that neighborhood, acquisitions aren’t the main strategy; we need to improve existing spaces and connectivity. We also need to make sure that spaces feel safe and welcoming to folks, and that they are designed and programmed in ways that are culturally informed and respond to the interests and needs of neighborhood residents.

RB: If you wanted to start righting the wrongs done in those communities, what’s the easiest place to start?

CJ: One of the most important changes we can make, without additional resources, is for project funders to rethink how they’re relating to community members and how power and resources are distributed through their processes. There’s a tendency to pay for expertise from outside of communities, go in with a well-developed plan, then ask for community feedback on it. We can rethink that at every stage.

Supporting community members to have leadership in what’s being developed in their neighborhood achieves multiple benefits, and your resources often go much further. Built outcomes reflect and bolster neighborhood identities, and you can also meet more community-identified needs like jobs, housing, safety, and air quality.

RB: Are there parks or communities that you see as good examples of what that community-based approach looks like?

CJ: I love the 11th Street Bridge project in D.C. Recognizing that a new bridge park would likely facilitate gentrification, they are trying to address that before project work begins. They worked with the community to come up with several equitable development strategies around housing and employment and have begun implementing those before the park development work begins.

RB: Where have you seen the most need for us to support neighborhoods to address the climate crisis?

CJ: Climate change is here. Neighborhoods along the Duwamish Valley already experience flooding issues because of their elevation and proximity to the river, and these are going to worsen in the future. We need more multi-benefit green infrastructure solutions that can protect communities from future climate impacts, while providing green space and immediate benefits. Madison Stormwater Park, an open space that collects floodwaters in a storm event, is a great local existing example of that.

RB: Thank you very much for your leadership with this work at the city-wide level. It’s through research and mapping like this that we can really understand the challenges we face and see where we need to work for more equitable Seattle.

CJ: You’re Welcome!

Seattle Parks Foundation, along with Seattle Parks and Recreation, is partnering with OPCD to look at how the Outside Citywide vision can be realized through community engagement and real-world solutions. Learn more about Outside Citywide at www.seattle.gov/opcd/outsidecitywide.

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