by Caroline Guzman
Hilltop Park is a small recreational space located nearby SeaTac Airport in the City of Burien. The neighborhood has been struggling with noise pollution, lack of green spaces, and lack of employment for People of Color. The mayor of Burien, Jimmy Matta, has joined the Port of Seattle in partnership with the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), EarthCorps, Forterra, and Partner in Employment (PIE) to restore the habitat of Hilltop Park and support green jobs in historically underserved airport communities.
“When it comes to the environment, this is a first for People of Color,” said Matta at a recent media and partner tour of the park to learn about the improvements and restoration work. “This community is 42% People of Color, 25% Latino, and we’re 54,000 residents. So, the partnerships are here not because they were forced, but it’s because they’re excited to get involved.” The new restoration habitat will plant 270 trees and remove 60,000 square feet of invasive plants by this fall with the help of EarthCorps. Additionally, the proposal will provide green jobs to the local youth through PIE. The trees planted at the park will help sequester carbon produced by the airplanes, meaning more clean air for passive enjoyment.
Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck spoke about pushing for more funds, an endowment of $10 million, to advance this and similar projects around the city. “The airport communities are disproportionately affected. We know all the disparities that happen here, and this is where we can make a difference,” said Steinbrueck.
This habitat restoration project is part of the Port of Seattle’s South King County Fund and the Forterra Green City Partnership program. The commissioner explained that the Port’s South King County Fund was initially directed primarily at environmental justice and airport-impacted communities, but it now also extends to economic and workforce development.
“We are in a recovery COVID-19 period. We can work on our equitable recovery strategy through this funding and keep it going. You can’t have true environmental sustainability without environmental justice,” said Steinbrueck. BIPOC communities are more impacted by environmental injustices, which is why the Port’s South King County Fund supports BIPOC small businesses and organizations such as PIE.
Hien Kieu is the executive director of PIE, which creates opportunities for refugees and immigrants to find green jobs. Through their different partnerships for employment, Kieu said PIE opens the door for refugees and immigrants to explore and build their green pathways, helping them career-wise and educating them, for instance, about the impact that forest restoration has on their community. “The main challenge that young refugees and immigrants have is not enough engagement. Mostly [among] the newly arrived, because during the time they’re trying to settle themselves, … there are many things that they don’t know about,” she said. Another issue involving young immigrants and refugees is how society perceives them. Hien said that the career benefit goes beyond each individual. She said that the forest restoration jobs, for example, will send a greater message to the broader community: “It says that we are a community that cares and is involved in creating this — a healthy environment.”
But another critical part of the Hilltop restoration project is addressing the language barrier. During the Restoration Habitat project tour, Matta and Kieu asked the Port of Seattle and City Parks’ partners if the action plan for Hilltop Park would include signs, posters, QR codes, and information in different languages, especially in a community where most residents are People of Color. “I just asked about language access to invasive species,” Matta said. “Where’s there a [physical] site that you could find in Spanish on what is an invasive plant or a native plant?”
Matta believes the Latino community is missing valuable information that benefits their jobs, such as gardeners. He said, “I grew up as a farmer, and as a pasatiempo, it ain’t pulling weeds. That was hard work and not nice. But as I got older and educated, I realized the value of these trees. They speak to you. They remind me of my mother and my stepfather, and now I want my grandkids to have a yard where they can learn to build a relationship with nature.”
“I want to create places for you, hoping that these organizations connect not only for the young Latino but also the East African community, the Asian community, everybody,” said Matta.
In response to the Burien City Council’s request, Carolyn Hope, parks director for the City of Burien, said that the department adopted a program of volunteers in conjunction with Forterra to help the county’s cities impacted by the airport. The volunteers will do a stewardship program.
“The plan has a target of having 40% forest canopy across the city, but it prioritizes the projects based on inequities within our community and really with a focus on social mobility,” Hope said.
Burien’s Park, Recreation & Cultural Services have worked with the DNR for an environmental justice forestry initiative grant. This grant application incentivized students to work in the park, aspiring to get high interns and BIPOC community members to become forest stewards. Hope said, “We are partnering with them in the sense of writing a site and training. We are working on finding community leaders who can help us, introducing us to other people, translating our documents into several languages.”
According to Hope, another goal addressed in their plan is to set a group of people who speak foreign languages as translators. This group will help others understand everything related to the restoration of Hilltop Park, from vegetation to how the community will benefit from it.
Andy Gregory is the senior program manager for environmental engagement at the Port of Seattle. He also manages the South King County Fund Environmental Grants Program (SKCF EGP), one of the funding sources given to this particular project. He said, “Over the years, a lot of environmental organizations have been historically white-led, and a lot of the resources go to the Seattle-based sort of white-led, nonprofit organizations, and so we have really tried to be super intentional about how to build the capacity in South King County for BIPOC-led organizations to be positioned to apply for receive funding and manage these programs.”
Hilltop Park habitat restoration is an intentional project. Many departments in Burien worked together — city parks, police, human services, and the business community — along with the Port of Seattle, DNR, EarthCorps, Forterra, and PIE. All residents are welcome to enjoy walking around the area as these organizations commit to restoring more spaces in Burien.
“We’re in tough times economically, so how do we shift responsibilities? How do we get our staff prepared?” said Matta. “How do we engage community leaders or community folks to help us with the overall plan of building the America of tomorrow?”
Editors’ Note: A previous version of this article stated that the City of Burien’s Parks, Recreation & Cultural Services department “adopted a program of volunteers in conjunction with Forterra” in response to a request from Burien’s mayor. This article was updated on 08/23/2021 to clarify that it was the Burien City Council that made the request. The article was also updated to recognize Gabbi Gonzales, project manager of the Green Burien Partnership, in the photo with Mayor Jimmy Matta.
Caroline Guzman is an animal and wildlife photojournalist based in Seattle, WA. She covers stories involving animal abuse, animal law, wildlife conservation, and more. Follow her on Instagram @imcarolineguzman and on Twitter @carolineguzman, or contact her via email at email@example.com.
📸 Featured Image: Overview of Burien’s Hilltop Park. (Photo: Caroline Guzman)
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