Let’s Make the Duwamish River the Center for a Sustainable City

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Duwamish River and Industrial District, 1999

Cities thrive when they integrate the vitality of urban life with their natural surroundings.  That’s why so many of us live here and wouldn’t trade our access to Puget Sound, the Olympics, and Mount Rainier for anything.

But at the heart of Seattle is a waterway that we turn our back on:  the Duwamish River — a Superfund site that is traversed by more than a dozen thriving salmon runs on their way to spawn in the Green River Watershed.  How do they get through Seattle?  Perhaps by holding their breath.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Many big cities have taken neglected and polluted waterways and turned them into centerpieces.  San Antonio’s Riverwalk is a classic example, developed over decades and envied around the country, but it is only one of dozens of cities that have taken once gritty waterways and restored them.  Even the Cuyahoga River, famous for igniting the environmental movement by catching fire in 1969, is now, after 40 years of restoration work, becoming an environmental and community asset for Cleveland.

And we have an extraordinary opportunity to do something even more revolutionary with the Duwamish.  The Duwamish, although it has contaminated sediments, has a relatively clean water column supporting the aforementioned salmon runs and areas of ecological health.  It also has two historic residential communities, South Park and Georgetown, a thriving Port that has a strong commitment to environmental stewardship, and many acres of industrial land that could support many more jobs and sustainable industries.

We must stay the course on the Superfund cleanup, and at the same time use it as a way to provide jobs, training, and careers for the people of the adjacent communities, and to develop an environmental infrastructure for new industries.  Industries that are part of the ‘climate economy’, providing green jobs building wind machines, processing local food, recycling wastes by turning them into resources, and creating sustainable products.

In addition to supporting the communities in ensuring that the cleanup works for them, I am also proposing that we create an Industrial Development District (IDD) in the Duwamish.  The IDD will provide stormwater and drainage infrastructure and sustainable energy and water systems that new businesses can buy into.  Rather than each business inventing its own environmentally responsible practices, we can create an Eco-Industrial Park, where environmental responsibility is built into the fabric.

The Duwamish River is a sacred site to the Duwamish Nation, which recently completed a longhouse on its shores and is committed to its restoration.  Wouldn’t it be fabulous if Seattle could create a new model of sustainability centered here?