A Balancing Act to Build Community Resilience: Adapting to Climate Change in Seattle

This is the third in a six-part interview series with team coordinators from each of the six Connect Capital initiative teams. Team coordinators help their multi-sector teams steward work to address their community’s shared priorities.

Rising sea levels and increased rainfall are reshaping Seattle’s geography and threatening neighborhoods located in areas susceptible to flooding, including many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color located near the City’s industrial parks and Superfund site. In the Duwamish Valley, sharp differences in income correlate to high disparities in health outcomes, particularly for people of color. According to the Duwamish Valley Action Plan, life expectancy in the Valley is 13 years lower than Seattle’s more affluent and predominantly white neighborhoods, and Duwamish residents experience higher rates of diabetes and food insecurity.

In the coming years, Seattle Public Utilities, a national leader in sustainable and resilient utility practices, will invest more than $100 million in South Park, a neighborhood in the Duwamish Valley, to address flooding and stormwater quality. The Connect Capital team is working to ensure that the investments create equitable community benefits, prevent and lessen the impact of climate change on residents at risk of displacement, and create solutions that can be applied in other areas facing similar challenges.

ann grodnik nagle

In this interview, Ann Grodnik-Nagle, Strategic Advisor of Climate Adaptation at Seattle Public Utilities, shares the team’s aspirations for the work and reflects on the progress so far. Ann has extensive experience in resilience program management, investment banking, and non-profit fundraising. She looks forward to using the lessons from those experiences to unleash the catalytic role utility investments can have to build climate resilience, community health, and social equity.

What are you all trying to do?

We are trying to use drainage and wastewater utility investments to catalyze development that promotes climate resiliency and equity. Seattle Public Utilities will be making a substantial investment in infrastructure in South Park in the coming decade. These investments are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make South Park’s industrial area more resilient. We are using our Capital Connect effort to develop tools and processes that allow the utility, and hopefully the entire City, to consider climate and sea level rise adaptation in a more systemic way. This includes co-creating solutions with the community, strategically aligning and amplifying public investments, inviting new partners to participate and contribute, and leveraging additional investment that will lead to a healthy, climate-ready region for community members and local industrial businesses.

How is this work building on what you all have been up to in your community?

Community members in South Park have done an incredible job of organizing and building capacity, and the City has undertaken a multi-department effort to advance environmental justice and equitable development goals. The Duwamish Valley Action Plan is a substantial and community-driven roadmap for our work. The Connect Capital effort is allowing us to get a jumpstart on some of the long-term goals of the action plan related to climate resiliency and to pair those efforts with near-term challenges such as access to open space and affordable housing.

How are you hoping Connect Capital will help?

Connect Capital is helping raise the visibility of the work that is being done within the community, within the utility, and within the City. It’s also providing a platform for us to reach out to stakeholders and partners who have historically operated in relative isolation from each other, including local industrial businesses, philanthropic foundations, and private investors and developers. We are trying to build a coalition to address challenges at the intersection of water, climate resilience, and equity.

The initiative is also giving us the opportunity to test new models to address long-term challenges like climate change and near-term challenges like displacement. Seattle has grown so quickly—it’s the fastest growing city of the decade, with a population increase of about 19% since 2010. This means that it is impossible to develop community-driven solutions without linking them to affordable housing. This is a stretch for many entities that have historically focused on single issues. Through Connect Capital, we can build coalitions to tackle both challenges.

What has been most interesting or surprising to you or your team so far?

I’ve been surprised by the scores of people who have come to the table to play a role in this effort. There is momentum building around the Duwamish Valley, and the focus on community investment is relevant to transit, access to open space, economic development, anti-displacement, as well as climate resilience.

I’m interested in the balancing act that is required to facilitate progress: We balance Seattle and South Park’s long-term challenge of adaptation to rising sea levels with near-term challenges of affordability and displacement. We balance the priorities and needs of residential community members and industrial businesses in a mixed-use neighborhood. We balance open space access with cleanup of contaminated industrial lands. The theme of balance keeps coming up chronologically in terms of temporal pressures and priorities within the neighborhood. I’m excited to find solutions that are able to thread the needle between what may seem like competing priorities but can have common solutions.

What are you most excited about next?

Because the issues we are dealing with are so multifaceted, I’m excited about interacting with people from housing, community development, transit, the Mayor’s Office, banks, and others on an extensive list. It’s exciting because there’s been a lot of ground work done in South Park and Connect Capital is coming in at an opportune time to integrate various pieces and get to action. I’m excited about how this will generate real results and tangible solutions for residents and businesses in South Park. There’s been so much planning and engagement, it’s our—the City’s— chance to make some real progress. Our team is excited to be part of that action.

Connect Capital teams just completed their third Learning Community in Berkeley, California. At the Learning Community, the teams refined their action plan to move forward with their pipeline of projects and identified the adaptive challenges they need to confront to accelerate the pace of their work. The teams are preparing for a second round of Local Strategy Sessions this Spring, where they will have the opportunity to bring their partners together in their communities to advance their work.

Transforming investment in communities

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CCI is supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, JPMorgan Chase & Co, and The California Endowment.

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