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City Summit: Does Seattle really do neighborhood living?

Mayor Ed Murray Credit: John Stang

In a recent "civic health" survey that looked at 51 large metropolitan areas, the greater Seattle region ranked No. 1 in citizen involvement in community, school and neighborhood groups, No. 2 in buying or boycotting goods based on moral values and No. 3 in volunteering. 

But in two other categories the area did not fare as well, checking in at 37th when it came to exchanging favors with neighbors and 48th in terms of how frequently people speak with their neighbors.

“When it comes to social cohesion, when it comes to neighborliness, our numbers are not so hot,” said Diane Douglas, executive director for the Seattle City Club, which published the Civic Health Index.

She made her remarks on Saturday at the Seattle Neighborhood Summit, organized by Mayor Ed Murray's office.

One of Murray's goals for the summit was to foster conversation among neighbors. Another was giving Seattleites a chance to discuss neighborhood concerns with city staff and officials.

“This summit is about engagement,” said Murray in his opening remarks. “We have to be able to listen to each other.”

The event featured comments by former city councilmember Jim Street, a discussion about the qualities people would like to see in the next permanent Seattle Department of Transportation director and tables with representatives from over 20 city agencies.

The diversity of the city's neighborhoods and residents was reflected by the issues attendees raised.

Ayan Mohamed attended with a group of about a dozen Somali residents from a number of neighborhoods, including Othello and Yesler Terrace. She said they were concerned about schools, housing and especially crime. Mohamed said she would like to see more outreach from the police department in south Seattle. "The only time we see police," Mohamed said, "is when someone gets killed, or there's a car crash."

Focusing on the city's pedestrian master plan is the priority for Jack Whisner, a Ballard resident. "The most pressing issue is the lack of sidewalks" in north Seattle, he said. Whisner also mentioned to a Department of Planning and Development official at the event that he believed a recently opened Starbucks drive-thru in Ballard is creating hazards.

Melanie Mayock, who lives in Ravenna, said she feels that renters sometimes get overlooked in the neighborhood planning process. Even though she rents, Mayock said, "I'm still interested in what happens in my neighborhood."

As a councilmember during the 1980s, Street took the lead on an ordinance that created what is now known as the City Neighborhood Council. The neighborhood council is a citizen-led advisory group, with elected members from each of the city’s 13 recognized neighborhood districts. It is intended to help the city coordinate neighborhood planning and budgeting.

The council also helps guide the city's distribution of neighborhood matching funds. The funds are used to match donated labor, materials, services and cash for community-driven projects with city money. Awards are capped at $100,000 for large projects.

During his comments at the summit, Street noted that neighborhood values and overall city planning goals do not always coincide. "There's a tension," he said, adding later that "the neighborhood effort is not going to take care of everything." But he said that neighbors can tap into their "tremendous capacity" to do things for themselves. He recalled a Lake City park that local residents built in the 1980s with financial help from the matching fund.

In the questions and comments that followed Street's remarks, audience members brought up a variety of topics including micro-housing, gun violence and the minimum allowable amount of space between residential buildings.

Murray didn't directly address the Civic Health Index but he told the audience: "The idea of a neighborhood has an idea within it called 'community,'" adding that community is about working together. 

Check out Crosscut’s City Beat page for all the news and commentary about Seattle.

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