Community Land Conservancy sees a green future for communities of color



by Amanda Ong


This October 20, 2021, was the kickoff of the Community land conservation (CLC), a BIPOC-led land conservation organization that acquires land for parks in historically underserved communities so that community voices are heard and centered in land use decision making. The CLC has been in the works for more than three years, since 2018 when the King County Open Space Equity Cabinet set new goals for property acquisitions in historically underserved communities. The Open Space Equity Cabinet hoped to achieve these goals by partnering and paying relevant community groups to advise them on needed code and policy changes. Thus, the CLC entered into development and today has one full-time staff member and five advisory committee members.

“Established land conservancies are all historically run by white people,” said Dr. Sean M. Watts, a member of the CLC advisory committee, in an interview with the emerald. “There is a profound lack of understanding of the issues facing communities of color. And the most obvious solution to that is to create a land conservation led by people of color. ”

In the strictest sense, a land conservancy is an organization under the National Association of Land Trusts that acquires property with the intention of eventually returning the land to private or public owners. But in the meantime, land conservatories ensure that these properties are managed with maximum environmental and conservation benefits.

“But that inherently pushes the focus of land conservation towards rural areas. You want to acquire the larger piece of land and set it aside, ”Watts said. “You can read between the lines about it – how it doesn’t serve communities of color. It focuses on the areas where there are the fewest people of color. It is centered on the opposite of housing and development.

Watts, like most members of the CLC advisory board, has roots in community-based and public sector organizations. Owner of SM Watts Consulting, Watts was previously Director of Community Partnerships at the Seattle Parks Foundation, AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at National Science Foundation, and founding director of the UW Doris Duke Curatorial Fellowship Program. But more than that, Watt’s understanding of the importance of the CLC’s work comes from personal experience.

“I lived in five different homes between the ages of 10 and 18,” Watts said. “And I got used to [thinking], ‘Oh, they’re improving the park across the street’ or ‘There’s going to be a new development there.’ I knew we were going to… move and in a year our rents would go up. Watts hopes the CTC can approach conservation alongside affordable housing to create affordable prices and habitable neighborhoods and hopefully decouple the trend from socioeconomic status and zip code to determine who has access to tree-lined streets and beautiful parks.

What Watts faced growing up is called green gentrification, and it’s a lingering problem in underserved communities of color. Green gentrification occurs when underserved communities see improved parks, access to nature, and improved infrastructure, only to see an accelerated displacement of residents as whiter and wealthier people flock to the community.

CLC Case Studies. (Graphic courtesy of CLC)

Green gentrification is actually the first issue the CLC tackled with its Kick-off engagement session, “Housing or Parks? A false dilemma ”, October 20. While the CTC aims to bring green spaces to underserved communities, the problem can be much more complicated than you might think. First, aside from the rejection of developers who would choose to monetize space and develop skyscrapers above parks, communities of color themselves may fear green gentrification. However, if a park is built without considering the needs of the local community and is underutilized, it can become a site of crime.

Watts recalls working once with a community that had the opportunity to improve playgrounds at their local community center. However, community members made a strong case. not to improve the space. Community members were worried not only about green gentrification, but also that the space would become so coveted, that people would come from further afield to use it, that it would have to be reserved and even eventually should. pay money to reserve the land. Although the land is currently in poor condition, this is how it was most usable for community members.

However, this does not mean that we can stop promoting green spaces in underserved neighborhoods, as lack of access to nature can have serious effects on the health of the community. A national to study cities formerly marked in red showed that neighborhoods formerly marked in red had a greater urban heat island effect. Without greenery in these areas, heat is trapped, raising the base temperature. In a heat wave, it can kill. “The links between nature and health are deep and well documented. Lack of access to nature means high rates of obesity, childhood asthma, exposure to toxins that nature would otherwise eliminate, ”Watts said.

On the other hand, Watts also says that having access to nature greatly improves health. Studies show that childbirth and childhood development outcomes improve, stress levels decrease, and focus and academic performance improve. Studies have even shown that just having a tree in front of your window during postoperative recovery speeds up your recovery time, and showing nature videos to people in isolation can reduce violence and aggression.

Here in King County, and particularly in the higher density BIPOC areas in southern Seattle and southern King County, gentrification and displacement are rampant. Green gentrification is happening here, and with it, negative health and social impacts. Lacking access to public space, BIPOC neighborhoods also lose access to community space and close social cohesion – the idea of ​​watching an elderly neighbor during a heat wave, for example, is less likely to cross your mind. The ability to organize to change these problems in the first place becomes stifled. Without a community to support each other, the effects on individual and community health are further compounded.

After 400 years of slavery, segregation and white supremacy, access to land is a major repercussion of the lack of reparations granted to black communities. Forty acres and a mule never happened, and black communities have historically been deprived of the benefits of nature. Today we have the responsibility to repair.

“We really need to seriously tackle the systemic exclusion of people of color in land use issues at all levels,” Watts said. “Everything from the accommodation, [to] businesses, access to nature, conservation and the environment. A study has shown that it will take 228 years for black families to reach the wealth of the average white family. Fixing this is going to take a lot of money.

Staff structure of the CLC. (Graphic courtesy of CLC)

The work of the CLC therefore begins with fundraising and finding a strong CEO. Before they can start the necessary work, they will have to raise the funds. But for now, the conservatory is driven by its desire to serve communities of color in an often overlooked area.

“We just want to make sure that access to nature and community gardens and beautiful places to walk and places to barbecue with your family is part of the discussion,” Watts said. “… it is important to make people understand that we must demand neighborhoods that are both livable and affordable. “


Amanda Ong (she / she) is an American writer of Chinese descent from California. She is currently a Masters candidate in the Museum of Museum Studies at Washington University and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in Creative Writing and Ethnicity and Race Studies.

?? Featured Image: Rowan Watts, daughter of Dr. Sean M. Watts, member of the CLC Advisory Board. (Photo courtesy of Dr Sean M. Watts)

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