The Washington Environmental Health Disparities Map is an interactive mapping tool that compares communities across our state for environmental health disparities. The map shows pollution measures such as diesel emissions and ozone, as well as proximity to hazardous waste sites. In addition, it displays measures like poverty and cardiovascular disease. The map also provides new and rigorous insights into where public investments can be prioritized to buffer environmental health impacts on Washington’s communities, so that everyone can benefit from clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. Source: Washington State Department of Health.

I see the ramp linking I-90 and I-5 from my window every single day. For those of us that live in this part of Seattle, road noise and pollution are a fact of life. But how many of us stop to question why these freeways were built where they are, or what we can do to help shape these types of decisions in the future? Those aren’t easy questions to answer, but I hope to start to address them here. 

Across the United States, communities of color have been disproportionately and negatively impacted by laws and policies that have left lasting inequalities in every aspect of life including healthcare, education and housing. Another lasting inequality, which is particularly relevant to Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID), is transportation infrastructure. The CID is surrounded by major freeways and under the flight path to the airport. It’s no surprise, then, that data from the Washington Department of Health shows environmental health disparities in the CID and South Seattle area are the highest on the scale due to factors including diesel pollution and ozone concentration.

And while we may not be able to change the past decisions that we live and breathe every day, we have an opportunity to make a difference for our future by encouraging our legislators to support important updates to the Growth Management Act (GMA) in the upcoming legislative session.

Thirty years ago, Washington state passed the GMA to help our cities and counties plan and accommodate for rapid growth. Under the GMA, cities and counties build Comprehensive Plans that are updated every eight years. And while that sounds complicated and distant, these plans impact our lives in many ways, big and small, every single day. 

For example, the City of Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan guides decisions on where to build housing, how to improve transportation, and where to make investments like utilities, sidewalks, and libraries. The City’s designation of the CID within the Downtown ‘Urban Center’ and many of the neighborhoods around the CID as ‘Urban Villages’ determines everything from transit frequency and residential development/density to the amount of open space we have for parks. 

The proposed updates to the GMA in the next legislative session include requiring cities to plan for housing across all income levels and homeless populations, reduce carbon emissions and mitigate and protect against the impacts of climate change. The legislation will also require that cities identify areas with high risk of displacement, and implement policies to reduce displacement – another issue relevant to the CID/South Seattle area which the city has already identified as having high displacement risk. 

The next set of Comprehensive Plans are in 2023 for the City of Seattle, and 2024 for King County. 2023 and 2024 may sound like a long time from now, but the planning and community engagement will start soon so it’s critical the GMA updates are in place before they do. These plans will determine the next 10+ years of growth in our community, impacting the air that we breathe, the homes where we live, and the sidewalks where we walk. 

I call on representatives statewide representing AAPI and other communities of color to vote yes to the updates to the GMA, especially our representatives of the CID and the 37th district: State Senator Rebecca Saldaña, Representative Sharon Tomiko-Santos, and Representative-elect Kirsten Harris-Talley. 

Serene Chen works for Convoy, a Seattle-based startup reducing carbon emissions in the freight industry. She is a member of former VP Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps, the 37th Legislative District Environment and Climate Caucus, and a volunteer with Futurewise’s Washington Can’t Wait campaign to update the GMA.   

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