The phrase “sustainable city” calls to mind images of skyscrapers covered in greenery, urban gardens on every block and avenues filled with more bikes than cars. Yet the benefits of sustainability aren’t always accessible to all.

Seattle, nestled between ocean and snow-capped mountains, has been dubbed the “Emerald City” for its progressive environmental policies. However, low-income and minority neighborhoods in Seattle are exposed to higher rates of air and water pollution and have less access to parks, green space, and fresh food, factors which contribute to decreased health and quality of life.

...low-income and minority neighborhoods in Seattle are exposed to higher rates of air and water pollution and have less access to parks, green space, and fresh food, factors which contribute to decreased health and quality of life. 

This past spring, the city’s mayor announced an initiative to increase the representation of people of color in environmental leadership and decision-making in order to achieve more equitable policies. This made Seattle an ideal location for me to spend the past summer conducting research for a senior Social Studies thesis on community representation in urban environmental policy.

My project involved interviewing the leaders of local environmental organizations and city officials involved in environmental projects. I was interested in how effectively communities and the city were working together to create environmental change that benefited all residents. I aimed to identify whether there were differences across neighborhoods of varying race and class in the amount of money they received to carry out projects, the extent of their connections to those in power and the effectiveness of government outreach programs at addressing the needs of their residents.

The neighborhood leaders I spoke to were working to address a variety of environmental problems. These ranged from building parks along the bank of a SuperFund site currently undergoing remediation to ensuring that community gardens offered culturally-appropriate vegetables to immigrant communities. When the City attempted to sell a parcel of land in an underserved neighborhood, citizens turned out in force to contest the loss of green space and the lack of citizen input in the decision. The Mayor upheld his commitment to community-directed policies and canceled the deal, demonstrating the real impact that citizen voices could have in directing city actions.

...the conversations I had with city and local leaders revealed that the environment was not just about being green. They considered sustainability to be intricately tied to other social issues.


However, the conversations I had with city and local leaders revealed that the environment was not just about being green. They considered sustainability to be intricately tied to other social issues. Expanding public transportation, while it would reduce emissions, would also raise housing prices and lead to displacement. Similarly, preserving urban forests reduced available land for housing the homeless and constructing “green” buildings exacerbated joblessness when local residents were excluded from hire. These concerns demonstrated the complex balance between environment, economic, and social goals that a sustainable city strives for.

These concerns demonstrated the complex balance between environment, economic, and social goals that a sustainable city strives for.

My research experience in Seattle offered me a glimpse of the potential that cities have to address impending environmental challenges, and of the responsibility that city residents and officials feel to making sure that the “green” city is not also the exclusive city.

My research experience in Seattle offered me a glimpse of the potential that cities have to address impending environmental challenges, and of the responsibility that city residents and officials feel to making sure that the “green” city is not also the exclusive city.