Photo depicting a young girl in a red smock dress sitting on a rock in a park, holding a pinecone.

Community Land Conservancy Sees a Green Future for Communities of Color

by Amanda Ong

This Oct. 20, 2021, was the kickoff event of the Community Land Conservancy (CLC), a BIPOC-led land conservancy 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 over three years, since 2018 when the King County Open Space Equity Cabinet made new goals for property acquisitions in historically underserved communities. The Open Space Equity Cabinet hoped to meet these goals by partnering with and compensating relevant community groups to advise on the code and policy changes necessary. Thus, the CLC went into development and today comprises one full-time staff member and five advisory committee members. 

“The established land conservancies are all historically white-led,” Dr. Sean M. Watts, a member of the CLC advisory committee, said in an interview with the Emerald. “There is a deep lack of understanding of the issues that Communities of Color face. And the most obvious solution to that is to create a People-of-Color-led land conservancy.” 

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

“But this inherently pushes the focus of land conservancies to rural areas. You want to acquire the largest parcel of land and set it aside,” Watts said. “You can read between the lines on that — how that does not serve Communities of Color. It’s focused on areas where there are the least number of People of Color. It is focused on the opposite of housing and development.”

Watts, like most members of CLC’s advisory committee, has roots in community-focused organizations and the public sector. The owner of SM Watts Consulting, Watts has formerly been the director of community partnerships at the Seattle Parks Foundation, an AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation, and founding director of the UW Doris Duke Conservation Scholars 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 houses between ages 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 over there.’ I knew we would … be moving and within a year as our rents increased.” Watts hopes the CLC can address conservancy alongside affordable housing to create affordable and livable neighborhoods and hopefully decouple the tendency for socioeconomic status and ZIP code to determine who has access to tree-lined streets and nice parks.

What Watts faced growing up is called green gentrification, and it is a persistent issue in underserved Communities of Color. Green gentrification happens when underserved communities see improved parks, access to nature, and improved infrastructure, only to see accelerated displacement of residents as whiter and wealthier folks flood into the community.

CLC case studies. (Graphic courtesy of CLC)

Green gentrification is in fact the first issue the CLC tackled with their kickoff engagement session, “Housing or Parks? A False Dilemma,” on Oct. 20. While the CLC aims to bring green spaces into underserved communities, the issue can be much more complicated than we might think. Firstly, aside from pushback from developers who would choose to monetize space and develop high-rises over parks, Communities of Color themselves may fear green gentrification. However, if a park is built without consideration for the local community’s needs and is under used, it can become a site for criminality.

Watts remembers once working with a community that had an opportunity to improve playfields at their local community center. However, members of the community made a strong case not to improve the space. Community members were worried not only about green gentrification but that the space would become so covetable, people would come from farther to use it, that it would need to be reserved, and that they would eventually even need to pay money to reserve the field. Though the field was currently in disrepair, it was the most usable to community members this way. 

However, this does not mean we can stop pushing for green spaces in underserved neighborhoods, as lack of access to nature can have severe community health effects. A national study of formerly redlined cities showed that formerly redline neighborhoods had a greater urban heat island effect. Without greenery in these areas, heat is trapped in, raising the baseline temperature. In heat waves, this can kill. “The links between nature and health are deep and well-documented. Lacking access to nature means elevated rates of obesity, of childhood asthma, of exposures to toxins that nature would otherwise be cleaning up,” Watts said. 

On the other hand, Watts also says that access to nature drastically improves health. Studies show that birth and childhood development outcomes improve, stress levels reduce, and concentration and outcomes in school improve. Studies have even shown that simply having a tree outside your window during post-op recovery speeds up your recovery time, and showing videos of nature to people in solitary confinement can reduce violence and aggression.

Here in King County, and especially in higher-density areas of BIPOC in South Seattle and south King County, gentrification and displacement are rampant. Green gentrification is happening here, and with it, negative health and social impacts. With lack of access to public space, BIPOC neighborhoods also lose access to community space and tight social cohesion — the thought of checking in on an elderly neighbor during a heat wave, for example, is less likely to cross one’s mind. The ability to organize to change these issues in the first place becomes stifled. Without community to support each other, individual and community health effects are further aggravated. 

Following 400 years of slavery, segregation, and white supremacy, land access is a major repercussion of the lack of reparations given to Black communities. Forty acres and a mule never happened, and Black communities have been historically disenfranchised from the benefits of nature. Today, we have a responsibility to repair. 

“We have to get really serious about addressing the systemic exclusion of People of Color in land-use issues across the board,” Watts said. “Everything from housing, [to] businesses, to nature access, conservation, and environment. There is a study that showed that it will take 228 years for Black families to reach the wealth of the average white family. Repairing that is going to take a lot of money.” 

CLC staff structure. (Graphic courtesy of CLC)

The CLC’s work thus begins with fundraising and finding a strong executive director. Before they can begin necessary work, they will have to bring together the funds. But for now, the conservancy is driven by its desire to serve Communities of Color in a sector that is often neglected.

“We are just simply wanting to make sure that access to nature and community gardens and nice places to walk and places to have a barbecue with your family are part of the discussion,” Watts said. “… it’s important to convey that we must demand to have both livable and affordable neighborhoods.”

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program 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, a member of the CLC advisory committee. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Sean M. Watts)

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