Some eco-minded groups that traditionally focus on rural conservation are turning their attention to urban areas, in an effort to combat inequality and sprawl.
The cranes are on the march in Tukwila, Washington, a Seattle suburb of 20,000 people not far from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. You can see the telltale signs of the metro region’s construction boom along International Boulevard, where a gleaming new library marks a city-led mixed-use project in an area that just a few years ago was best known as a drug trafficking hub. North of the construction stands an aging 60-room Knights Inn motel that’s ripe for redevelopment. The property changed hands in January, but the new buyer isn’t some teardown-eager developer who plans on building condos for the city’s burgeoning population of young tech workers; rather, it’s a land conservancy more accustomed to preserving rural farms and forests.
Forterra, a land trust that operates throughout Washington State, paid $3 million for the property, utilizing a new fund dedicated solely to urban projects. The eventual beneficiary will be the Abu Bakr Islamic Community Center across the street, a hub for the neighborhood’s growing Somali community. I toured the hotel with Abdirisak Ahmed, the center’s director. Two buildings up front will eventually hold 30 or so storefronts for entrepreneurs who currently face rising rents elsewhere in the city. “Back there”—he points to a two-story building at the rear of the property—“will be apartments for refugees and newcomers.”
Ahmed envisions a $6 million affordable housing complex in the coming years, and a commercial sector teeming with the independent shops run primarily by immigrant women in Washington’s most diverse city. But for now, he’s hoping to have residents and tenants in the existing hotel by the end of the year.
As Seattle’s latest economic resurgence continues apace, minority groups like the first-generation immigrant and refugee populations living in Tukwila are vulnerable to displacement when investment flows into their neighborhood. Rents have soared in the city and neighboring suburbs, and lower-income residents are getting pushed further out; groups like Forterra are advancing the notion that one way to advance the cause of natural conservation is to combat housing unaffordability in urban areas.
“At a gut level it makes sense,” says Michelle Connor, Forterra’s vice president, who oversees the group’s urban work. “If we invest in those neighborhoods, what do we need to do to ensure that people can stay and actually benefit from those investments, as opposed to being pushed out?”
This is a novel approach among land conservancies that typically focus on protecting rural spaces from development. “There traditionally has been this big divide between urban and rural,” says Jennifer Minner, assistant professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University. “If you look at urban systems as ecological systems, the combination of nature and culture, it is a wonderful thing when a nonprofit can operate at a regional scale.”
Another group, the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, has taken up the same idea and applied it to a very different urban market—Cleveland. Traditionally focused on preserving farmland and wetlands in Northern Ohio, the group began focusing on urban blight just before the Great Recession ramped up the hollowing-out of Midwest cities.
“We studied the situation and realized that the cities were one of the major reasons we had a problem with exurban and rural conservation,” Western Reserve president Rich Cochran says. “Cleveland went from [nearly] 1 million people in 1950 to less than 400,000 today. They just spread out across Cuyahoga County. By not dealing with the dynamics in the city, we were putting a Band-Aid on the regional cancer.”
Western Reserve’s method of choice was to create and support land banks, which are used to purchase vacant properties and clean their titles. The group spearheaded a fundraising campaign that Cochran says delivered $400 million to land banks across the state. Now, the priority has shifted to helping residents acquire those properties and to bring more green space to city neighborhoods that lack tree cover.
Land conservancies specializing in rural and wildland purchases rarely dip into urban areas—and when they do, their actions come with risks. The history of conservation has an unfortunate relationship with racism—many of the field’s forefathers supported eugenics—and the work of environmental groups has over years disproportionately benefited white and affluent citizens. Sarah Dooling, research director at Austin-based TreeFolks, has studied how environmental renewal in cities can displace its most vulnerable residents. Forterra and Western Reserve, she says, may bring valuable environmental expertise into cities, but they must be careful how they wield it, lest they exacerbate the inequities they’re trying to alleviate. “The challenge is, how can we think in multiplicity?” she says. “It’s not people or nature. I think these organizations are trying to emphasize the interrelatability, the codependency between people and nature.”
To avoid sparking development that displaces the very groups they seek to help, Cornell’s Minner says, land conservancies must continuously involve affected communities—and make space for them on staffs and boards. Jacqueline Gillon witnessed detached environmental work firsthand during three terms on the East Cleveland City Council and more than a decade with neighborhood leadership groups. The experience left Gillon, who is black, dissatisfied with the temporary environmentalism that showed up in her communities, and she jumped at the chance to change the dynamic when Western Reserve offered her a job four years ago.
“When I was told what we’re going to do, and where we’re going to do it, I knew the black folks I encountered in the neighborhood were going to be happy to see me,” Gillon says. “Because we are accustomed to these really cool programs parachuting in the neighborhood; they’re around for a while and then they leave. We’re used to people studying us, researching us, and not being a partner.”
Forterra’s equity approach is to let community organizations it partners with guide the process. Gene Duvernoy, Forterra’s president, cited the group’s relationship with the Africatown Community Land Trust, which concentrates on protecting housing in Seattle’s Central District, where the share of black residents fell from 73 percent in 1970 to about 14 percent today. Local affordable-housing leaders connected the group to Forterra, which loaned Africatown $775,000 to secure a stake in an affordable housing development.
“We recognize that we don’t have the wealth of knowledge that the Africatown leaders do in matters of race,” Duvernoy says. “We’re not suggesting at all we’re a social justice organization, or that we know best. We’re simply following the lead of the Africatown Community Land Trust, and providing the real estate skills to make their dream happen.”
Abu Bakr’s partnership grew slowly, Ahmed says, over a four-year period, as the two groups realized their missions aligned. Forterra built trust in the city after helping develop parks and community gardens, so when Ahmed expressed interest a few years ago in expanding Abu Bakr’s footprint, city officials connected him with Forterra. “Our community faces a lot of issues,” he says. “We face a lot of displacement. We’re also facing income inequality. Forterra sees that it has a way to have a project with social impact.”
The hope is that Abu Bakr, with Forterra’s help, can be the anchor that helps the community stay attached to this fast-changing neighborhood—so that they’re a part of Tukwila’s revival, not a casualty of it.