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Originally published August 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 14, 2008 at 10:25 AM

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Guest columnist

We need to expand our definition of "sustainable" communities

How do we make existing communities sustainable? How do we transform distressed communities — places plagued by crime, poverty or...

Special to the Seattle Times

Sustainability meeting

National and local leaders in community development are meeting in Seattle today to discuss goals for sustainable community development. The event is hosted by Impact Capital, the Washington affiliate of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and will feature LISC president and former vice president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Michael Rubinger.

How do we make existing communities sustainable? How do we transform distressed communities — places plagued by crime, poverty or lack of opportunity — into healthy places to live, work, conduct business and raise children? The answers go beyond green.

Seattle has a solid record on working toward sustainability the way we're used to understanding it — in relation to the environment. We're moving away from plastic shopping bags and water bottles, shifting to composting and introducing green fleets of cars. While these practices are good and certainly "sustainable," we need to think more broadly about what it takes to sustain a community.

Sustainable community development goes beyond green measures, addressing the full range of a community's needs such as housing, health care, education and public safety. It expands our definition of sustainability to include physical and social environments as well as the natural environment.

Several Seattle neighborhoods have already embraced this approach.

Ten years ago, if you walked down Rainier Avenue through Columbia City at 8 o'clock in the morning, you wouldn't see much of anything but boarded-up buildings and broken beer bottles. The street would be empty.

These days, you walk through Columbia City in the morning and you see business owners opening their doors, children walking to school, neighbors stopping to chat on the sidewalks. Seniors who live in nearby affordable-housing complexes shop for produce at the farmer's market. The streets are clean, the crosswalks are well-marked and the coffee shops — both locally-owned and chain — are humming.

The revitalization of Columbia City is broadly sustainable — it addresses the needs of elderly residents, working families and local businesses, and continues to evolve to meet the neighborhood's needs. It also shows that sustainable development must come from the community itself. Columbia City residents banded together to activate their neighbors, create powerful partnerships and leverage outside investment.

The Delridge Neighborhood in West Seattle and the International District are two more examples of city neighborhoods embracing a broad definition of revitalization and sustainability. Both have developed vibrant community spaces and vital services that connect residents and address the full spectrum of their needs.

The Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in Delridge embodies the spirit of comprehensive, sustainable development. The Delridge Neighborhoods Development Association rehabbed this historic building into affordable housing for low-income artists and an arts and cultural center with a dance studio and 150-seat theater. The center offers various youth arts programs and acts as a community meeting space.

The International District's Village Square 1 and 2, developed by the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority and its partners, is one of Seattle's most innovative nonprofit housing and community developments. It includes a community center, a public library with multilingual materials, a health clinic, child care, a long-term assisted-living facility and 57 affordable housing units.

Youngstown and the International District's Village Squares also illustrate the role of broad-based partnerships in sustainable community development. Both projects were a long-term collaboration of residents, nonprofit community-development corporations, local government and the business community.

Community-based development goes beyond housing to include recreation and public safety. Simple physical improvements such as lighting alleys, improving relationships with local law enforcement and expanding recreational opportunities for youth can build trust and keep crime down.

A great local example of this is the NFL's Community Football Field Grassroots Program, which provides communities and schools with financing and technical assistance to improve local football fields. Thanks to this program, the Rainier Playfield in Seattle will be renovated to include new goal posts, a storage box, refurbished bleachers and an upgraded scoreboard, allowing the Rainier Athletic Association to expand its program schedule.

Like communities themselves, sustainability is multidimensional. And like the varied personalities of Seattle's neighborhoods, there are countless innovative ways to achieve it. Delridge, Columbia City and the International District are setting the standard. How's your neighborhood doing?

Heyward Watson is the CEO of Impact Capital, a community-development nonprofit that helps transform distressed communities and neighborhoods into healthy places to live, work, do business and raise families.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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