If you walk up 23rdAve Southwest, just parallel to Delridge Way in West Seattle for a while, you’ll eventually hit a little plot of land where tufts of grass grow beside a thin winding ribbon of Longfellow creek. There are a few tree stumps and where once the ground would have been run over by invasive vegetation, now there is brown bark and dirt. This is the only green space in the area, and one day, it will be a full-fledged park where local residents can take a respite from their daily lives and connect back to the earth.
Willard Brown of the Delridge Neighborhood Development Association, is the driving force behind this project. He is dedicated to his work and is unrelenting in striving for a long-term vision for the little wetland park as a place that is ecologically sound, while also being a place for the community to engage with the earth, and with one another.
Brown is a self-proclaimed product of the idealism and activism of the ’60s, coming of age in a society increasingly concerned with the well-being of the planet and humankind.
“Concern for the environment was critical and it sort of touched everything that we did and it impacted decision making on a lot of levels for many of us and for me,” he said.
Until a few years ago, the wetlands housed one of Seattle City Light’s electricity substations. In 2015 when the City of Seattle decided to sell their surplus property, Brown and other local organizations fought to have a seat at the table in determining to whom the land would go. The DNDA had recently merged with the Nature Consortium, another West Seattle-based environment nonprofit. Brown had taken on the task of managing the organization’s environmental programs. With his focus on restoration and conserving local green spaces, Brown became concerned with the local Delridge wetland property. Because it was sold at market price, local organizations didn’t stand a chance at using those properties to benefit their communities. Brown rallied and fought hard along with local organizations to gain equal access to purchasing the land. Finally, they won and that’s how Brown came to manage the restoration of the Delridge Wetlands park.
Wetlands are integral to water management, serving as a sink and filter for water that travels down from high lying areas. Wetland vegetation work to clear the contaminants that collect in water, especially if that water comes from developed, urban areas. Making sure wetlands can function is integral to managing flooding and waste water, and Brown is dedicated to the task of getting the Delridge Wetlands back to full function.
Young people at the helm
As part of the restoration process Brown has some important helpers: students from Louisa Boren STEM K-8. The park is not only a real-world laboratory to witness their lessons in action, it is a part of their neighborhood. The students are instilled with a rounded view of their neighborhood, studying not only the wetland site as it is today, but comparing it to neighborhood maps from the past.
“if you look at it you can see the transition from seeing a mud plain, basically a wetland across the entire footprint of Delridge to what it is today…kids get it,” said Brown.
The students from Louisa Boren are a diverse group, with classes made up of at 50 percent students of color. In discussions of environmental justice there are criticisms that young people from communities of color and low-income families do not get adequate access to natural spaces. For these students, interacting with the wetlands in their backyard helps make natural spaces a part of their lives, and allows for them to see the real effects of hands-on problem solving. The students participate in all aspects of upkeep, from testing the waters of Longfellow creek for contaminants to creating scaled maps of the site. The 2ndand 4thgrade classrooms have also made clay models imagining future designs for the park. They work together in teams, learning how to collaborate and meet shared goals. Brown says that sometimes students are shy and hesitant to work together, but by the end of the year they are eager to solve issues as a team.
“I’m hopeful that we are transferring to these kids the idea that there are viable solutions to the water management issues, storm water management, flooding in our neighborhoods, wetland restoration, Longfellow creek and its flow and how that all connects,” said Brown.
The importance of placemaking
Concerns about gentrification and development come hand in hand with efforts to conserve natural spaces. Brown is worried about how the bustling real estate development growth will affect the young people who call Delridge home.
“Placemaking is so important and with all the displacement and potential displacement that is happening in our neighborhood, I think it is critical that we resist it and that we give our young people a sense of belonging,” said Brown.
With the way developers are making use of West Seattle’s affordable land values, it is more important than ever to preserve spaces like the Delridge Wetlands. Trusting young people with a sense of belonging and stewardship of the wetland will also help them put their neighborhood, their wetland and the processes that govern the larger ecosystem in perspective.
“Everyone needs a place near their home where they can just walk to get away from the hustle and bustle,” he said. “I believe if you want to create healthy communities, you have to focus in on accessible green space, as much as you do on sidewalks and stormwater management systems.”
Brown has a vision for the wetland park one hundred years from now, namely that it will still be on the corner of 23rdAve southwest and southwest Findley Street. He imagines the western red cedars that have been planted reaching up fifty feet into the sky, and he imagines a “high-functioning” wetland that is accessible to everyone in the neighborhood.
Finally, he hopes there are still eager students watching over the wetlands where “kids across all demographics, income, language, race, culture, all are equal in their support and stewardship of the habitat that they inherit,” said Brown. “That is the goal.”
This story is part of the series “Puget Sound Future-Makers,” a partnership with the Russell Family Foundation, Resource Media and The Seattle Globalist, which recognizes the work of diverse leaders in the Puget Sound region in shaping the strength and resilience of our future environment and communities.