In 2013, I was appointed to the Parks Legacy Committee. Having served on the 2008 Parks & Green Spaces Levy Oversight Committee since 2010, I was excited for this opportunity to work with a diverse stakeholder group tasked with presenting a best option to the City Council for what to do following expiration of the levy. For both positions, I was a pick of Councilmember Sally Bagshaw. I jest that these appointments are what gave me legitimacy, and my work on these committees was a place to which I often pointed in 2015 as evidence that, if elected, I would be an effective advocate.
See, I love parks and open spaces. Whether active- or passive-use, parks in Seattle are pretty great. When advocating for $750,000 to go to the Broadway Hill Park as part of the second round of Opportunity Funds, I took a stance that it is vital we take every opportunity we have to create parks in dense areas. These are the back yards of apartment and condominium buildings.
Parks are also the great democratizer. Take First Hill’s First Hill Park. It’s tiny (I could go on and on about the lack of adequate park and open space on First Hill) - they hold an annual dog show of sorts, bringing residents from all sorts of backgrounds and economic statuses together for a fun event. Plus the puppers!!!
Suffice it to say, it was pretty great having the opportunity to be one of 15 members of the Parks Legacy Committee, and looking to the future of parks funding, and how to bring greater sustainability (while addressing a significant major maintenance backlog). This was an opportunity to pull parks funding from the levy cycle, and ensuring that there was sustainable, stable funding for a system that is a core function of our government. Following months of public meetings, subcommittee meetings, and robust discussion among committee members, we ultimately endorsed utilizing taxing authority authorized by the State, creating the Seattle Park District, along with a six-year spending plan prioritizing major maintenance, while also ensuring that programming was funded at a level so as to not dramatically increase the cost to use public fields and community centers. The subsequent campaign, while brutal (and, that one time, violent) ended with voters approving sustainable funding for parks.
We need parks and programming that are accessible to households of all income levels, and have sustained, adequate investment
Our country’s criminal justice system is a mess. It is reactionary, and in order to ensure that the loudest voices feel “safe,” we overspend on jails and guns, while under-spending on upstream investments. I say this more as a critique of the imbalance than the dollar figures (although I still maintain that the majority of police officers have no business carrying firearms designed to kill people). A large part of this imbalance - both in funding and pay for folks who work in upstream services, is because we don’t want to levy the taxes necessary to scale-up the funding for those programs. We’re greedy, and these days, politicians with the largest bullhorns are spineless, corrupt, and unwilling to acknowledge or accept data if that means their funders have to pay more in taxes.
While some people deride the concept of “evidence-based solutions,” I am personally a big fan. Primarily because the evidence strongly supports my position (so it’s easy to support). When it comes to parks and recreation, the evidence is clear: investments in quality programming (such as what can be done at community centers) decreases criminal activity among youth. Well-maintained parks and green spaces in urban settings decreases crime rates. While defensible space theory is focused on housing, the concept readily extends to community assets. When government not only creates, but invests in maintaining quality parks, ball fields, community centers with programming, etc., community feels ownership and takes care of that space.
Beyond investment, the design and use must also be done with the community, not to the community. I distinctly recall a vote I took on the Parks Levy Oversight Committee to fund removal of a grove of English Hemlocks in Othello Park. The community wanted this invasive species removed to improve sightlines and safety in the park (along with other investments that I was proud to support). Tree advocates, meanwhile, maintained we should not remove the trees. For me, it was an easy vote: are the trees an invasive species? Yes. Will removal improve public safety in this community? Yes. Additionally, twice the amount of trees removed were to be planted throughout the city (using non-invasive species).
While crafting the Park District legislation, this vote was one thing constantly in my mind. The other: my time as a volunteer coach and umpire in Seattle Central Little League. For those who haven’t experienced it, Saturdays at the Garfield Ballfields during little league season are a community affair. Families gather to watch their kids play, laugh about stories from their weeks, and disagree with umpire calls on balls and strikes.
Kids need things to do. Communities deserve investment in public assets. Yet reliance on user fees over tax revenue was increasing the cost to participate in those things to do. And unstable funding was leaving too many communities out of adequate investment in parks and community centers. Parks should not be a money-maker. Community Centers should never turn someone away because they can’t pay. When we do that, the adverse impacts not only harm communities, but ultimately cost taxpayers even more.
People play sports
Active recreation is a good thing, and a lot of people participate. We have leagues for adult recreation that mirror our youth leagues. Softball, soccer, basketball, tennis, roller derby - hell, even dodgeball and kickball! People who participate are getting out of the house and off of the couch. They are socializing. They are part of communities.
In order to play these sports, people need places to play - all ages. Different sports have different requirements - derby requires an indoor court with painted lines. Softball/kickball needs a ballfield with an infield and outfield. Soccer and rugby require large, rectangular fields.
The sad reality, however, is that the places for people to play are too often limited, away from transit options, demanding folks drive to play. This is especially true for sports that have large tournaments, drawing hundreds of people to our city, to our restaurants, to our hotels and, due to lack of transit access, to our rental car companies and roads. Softball tournaments are played in Redmond; soccer in Tukwila. We have designed this through placement of parks and active recreation fields. It’s a choice we have made.
…Not as many people are playing golf
On any given day, soccer pitches and ballfields across Seattle (especially Spring through Fall) are booked with leagues and teams. Hundreds - thousands - of people are directly or indirectly participating in the culture and community of sports across Seattle, and all signs suggest that we have more people playing than room.
At the same time, we are seeing declining use of the four public golf courses.
There are many reasons for this, I’m sure. One that is noted in the report cited by Erica C. Barnett is the (relative) decreasing quality of the four courses. Another is simply a decline in interest in golf. And this raises a question: should the city city actively work to increase participation in golf, particularly from groups that don’t play at the same rates as older white dudes (younger people, women, communities of color)?
This raises a different question: if we are a city that values environmental sustainability, how much should we invest in expanding participation in golf? Beyond the financials associated with properly maintaining a golf course, the environmental impacts - runoff, pesticides, water, energy for daily mowing, introduction of invasive grass species, etc., are real. By continuing to operate four courses, are we, as a city, living up to our stated values? What’s more, is encouraging greater participation living up to our purported values?
Golf courses and housing
Following a long-delayed study on Seattle’s publicly-owned golf courses, there is now a discussion raging on Twitter about what to do with these courses. In one corner, we have Seattle City Council candidate Heidi Wills, who has called studying the golf courses and use a “[waste] of the City’s time and money.” In the other, Seattle City Council candidate Shaun Scott has stated golf courses should “swiftly be decommissioned and replaced with [public] housing.”
Somewhere in the middle - Mike Eliason and Danny Westneat. I’ll be speaking on this issue, and the interplay of Initiative 42, later this month. Today, the fourteen of you reading this far get to see what I won’t be saying.
I disagree with both Heidi and Shaun
As an initial matter, asserting that a study on the efficacy of a program showing declining use is never a waste of time and money. Especially considering that, like parking lots at strip clubs, golf courses are environmentally unsustainable.
At the same time, eliminating wide swaths of green space - no matter how it is currently used - disallows opportunity for better and more equitable use. Not to mention (a) the lack of funding available to invest in public housing at this scale and (b) that it’s bad public policy to concentrate rent-restricted housing at the levels suggested by Mr. Scott.
Instead, the golf course study offers an opportunity to not only better utilize public park lands for other park purposes, but also live closer to our stated values as a city with respect to environmental sustainability. In fact, one of the common issues raised as a reason to convert golf courses to housing I would argue supports converting them to actual public parks (rather than publicly owned parcels that you have to pay a steep premium to use).
A common issue raised regarding golf courses is light rail. Notably, the West Seattle Golf Course and Jackson Park Golf Course are both adjacent/near future light rail stops. As the argument goes, this is sufficient cause to convert the courses into housing and neighborhood shops.
While I appreciate this, and agree that there should be consideration and room for deliberation made to convert some of a golf course to housing (if it were to be decommissioned), how close these potential parks are to light rail is also a mark in favor of converting to more active and passive use that is not restricted to high per-use fees.
Think about our light rail system. Now think of how many parks and/or open spaces are accessible via light rail (or other frequent and reliable transportation option). There’s Cal Anderson Park, Westlake Park, and Occidental. But what about the gems of our parks system?
Lincoln Park, Jefferson Park, Magnuson Park, Discovery Park, Carkeek Park, Gas Works Park - over and over our parks system is designed to essentially require car travel for many households to access. And for those that are near light rail - they’re very busy (which is a good thing). The golf courses themselves, if converted to parks that more equitably serve our community, are uniquely suited for a combination of passive and active use not unlike Marymoor Park in Redmond or Delta Park in Portland.
In my mind, I can envision a barrier of mixed-income housing, with a wide and welcoming pedestrian/cyclist entrance to a new Jackson Park adjacent to a light rail station, leading through passive urban forest and green spaces, moving to soccer pitches, a softball/baseball complex of 5-7 fields, an off-leash area, and more, redefining the use in a way that reaches more households, provides an option to get to active recreation that isn’t car, and attracts amateur sport tournaments to Seattle (rather than the suburbs). And that’s just one rando’s vision of what could be.
Our city needs more parks
As we continue to increase density and housing types, we must also be cognizant of the need for more parks and open spaces as part of our growth strategy. There are parts of the city that have seen rapid growth, but have missed on the opportunity for commensurate park space (think First Hill and Belltown). The result: significant increases in cost, and decreases in scope, of projects to serve these neighborhoods.
The flipside: more creative ways to create public space. Think the Bell Street Project, sort-of parkifying a roadway. Or the numerous places where car-centric right-of-way has been converted to public space for people instead. The 14th Avenue Northwest project in Ballard is just beginning, with a vision of a boulevard-like woonerf extending from 65th Ave NW to Ship Canal.
All of these are expensive, and that creates a cost-prohibition on moving quickly providing more access to neighborhoods under-served by our parks system. While I see the allure of taking these massive (Jackson Park is 160 acres) public properties and converting them to housing, it is my opinion that this not only will exacerbate inequity in access to parks, but cost more in the future as our city scrambles to meet its park acreage-to resident goals.
The City should regularly review how its public assets are being utilized, and whether there is justification for overhaul of our publicly funded parks and recreation investments. To say otherwise shows a complete disregard for one of the purposes of elected officials: to manage taxpayer dollars smartly.
There is also a lingering question as to whether we even should be promoting increased participation in golf, a sport that has requirements for courses that are necessarily contrary to our environmental protection ideals. Do we need to provide more opportunities for kiddos and adults to get out of the house and be more active? Yes. But we can do so without poisoning our environment in the process.
Part of this necessarily means greater access to great parks via transit. Right now, that’s just not the case for too many parks. We can do better, and Jackson Park in particular presents a very unique opportunity to craft a destination park - with both passive and active uses - that is readily accessible by light rail. This opens not only opportunity for our community to have improved access, but can be an economic plus, bringing athletes to Seattle’s hotels and restaurants, and riding light rail to play sport rather than clogging our roadways with rental cars.
And this doesn’t preclude housing - just not at a scale some would like. A hybrid approach as suggested by Mike Eliason really makes sense. We need housing, we need parks, we need community centers. Utilizing a small portion of a decommissioned golf course for housing - including housing on top of a community center - can create new opportunities for households to have access to affordable homes near transit and near great parks.
There is a separate policy issue altogether - should our city count the acreage of the parts of our park system that are only accessible if you pay money for entry (not including parking) toward our overall park and green space goals? On this, I don’t think we should. And if that means we move from a surplus of acres-per-resident to deficit, then so be it. Inflating numbers masks reality, and is a poor way to govern.
I’m glad that the study has been done. And I’m glad to see that the issue of what to do with golf courses - seeing reduced use, limited to people with money to spend, and ecologically harmful - is making its way into the political realm this election cycle. If not only because it raises the issue: our parks are, broadly, reserved, whether due to zoning decisions, lack of transportation access, or exclusionary fees. The issue of golf courses raises a set of issues around land use, highest and best use, user fees for public services, and more. And these are good conversations to have, to begin laying the groundwork for meaningful policy changes and public investment.