Look around your neighborhood. How far is the nearest grocery store? The nearest hospital? Where is the nearest bus stop and when does the next one arrive? Would you even take the bus? The answers determine our everyday lives and they vary depending on where we live. They depend on city public planning.
“Nowadays we look at it as the broader range of what kind of community are we trying to create,” says Diane Sugimura, Director of Department of Planning and Development for the city of Seattle, “so its not just land use, but how land use works together with transportation and how those two things affect the cost of housing.”
According to Sugimura, transportation is one of the more pressing issues currently facing Seattle public planning. Being one of the few US metropolitan cities lacking an efficient high-speed mass transit, Seattle once relied heavily on buses for public transportation until 1996 when voters finally passed legislation approving the construction of the Sound Transit Light Rail.
But the construction also imposes immediate consequences on the current transportation route, and because the current Light Rail itinerary stretches from SeaTac to Westlake, communities in South Seattle, particularly low-income communities of color, have been greatly affected. Bus lines have significantly reduced its service to these communities in order to avoid route overlap. Some have stopped services completely. While Light Rail continues service to the same areas, it can turn what usually is a one-trip bus ride into two, thereby doubling the cost as well.
“There’s a large percentage [of APIs] in Rainier Valley that rely on public transit and right now the public transit system is going through a lot of changes in planning for the future,” says Chilan Ta, a third-year University of Washington graduate student in the Masters program of Urban Planning. “Cutting the bus lines to the Rainier Valley and South East Seattle definitely has a negative impact on the API community, particularly those that don’t have alternative options to transportation.”
According to Ta, the rationale behind neighborhood restructuring is to concentrate public funds based on factors such as population projection and developmental location of major industries. With Light Rail making downtown more accessible from the South Seattle neighborhoods, housing prospects become more attractive to real-estate developers and private investments flock to areas with a higher living desirability.
However, in reality, the result is problematic. As costs of living rises in these neighborhoods, low-income communities of color, including non-English speaking immigrant API communities, are slowly pushed out. Immigrant-owned businesses close as their clientele move out towards more affordable housing, and over time the neighborhood makeup changes completely.
“When things like the Light Rail or freeways are built, they tend to go through the poorer areas, which are usually immigrant communities, and split or eliminate them,” admits Sugimura. “That is something that has been a concern of ours and we always look at what we can do. We need new development around the station area so the transportation investment works. We need to help both the residents and the business people.”
Ultimately it seems economic development and residential demographics are inevitably tied together, and shifting one side affects the other – the balance is as sensitive as a weighted scale. Having them meet at a harmonious middle becomes difficult, especially when certain voices are left out of the conversation.
“Many community voices aren’t heard in the discussion,” Ta contends. “The API community doesn’t know the planning process so they can’t engage in it as quickly or as readily as other neighborhoods in Seattle.” Ta attributes a lack of English proficiency from residents and a lack of generational history from the city as the main roadblocks to effective communication between community residents and city planners.
But conscious efforts are being made. Outreach liaisons fluent in a number of immigrant languages and native to the area function simultaneously as interpreter and community spokesperson. Sugimura admits City Planning did not hear out many immigrant demands, but nowadays things are changing.
“This is very valuable for us, to hear the different perspectives,” Sugimura recalls in describing a community meeting concerning Chinese elders at Beacon Tower. “Some of them said to us, ‘We’ve never been asked what we want in our community; what’s important to us.’ So I think they appreciated that.”