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Originally published Thursday, October 9, 2014 at 5:06 PM

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Guest: Duwamish River Superfund cleanup is a natural and social project

Let’s not forget to address the health of the local human ecosystem as the Duwamish River is cleaned up, write guest columnists Bill Daniell and Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett.


Special to The Times

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THE U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will soon announce its final plan to clean up a 5.5-mile Superfund site on the Duwamish River. Seattle’s only river is the final stretch of the 93-mile river. Recognizing the regional importance of this extensive ecosystem, particularly for salmon, King County and the City of Seattle recently unveiled the Green-Duwamish Watershed Strategy. This comprehensive initiative will use coordinated and multi-stakeholder planning to promote the health of the ecosystem throughout the watershed.

We contend that the health of another ecosystem — the human ecosystem — is equally worthy of comprehensive and urgent attention. The Duwamish Valley holds invaluable opportunities to promote community and economic health, with benefits for the rest of the city and broader region. Like the watershed, pursuing these opportunities will require comprehensive, coordinated and multi-stakeholder planning. Planning must start soon or windows of opportunity would be lost.

The Duwamish River and Valley are intertwined with the human-built and social environments that shape the health of people who live or work there. This area holds the largest concentration of manufacturing, industry and seaport activities in Washington state, providing a robust economic engine and many thousands of family-wage jobs. The residential neighborhoods that surround and mix with the industrial district and Port of Seattle are home to dynamic and diverse communities.

These coexisting industrial and residential communities share many challenges in their built environment. Both are troubled by degraded roads, dysfunctional traffic management, gaps in public transit, outdated stormwater control with sewer overflows and street flooding, and sparse tree canopy. Both communities are threatened by rising real-estate prices and unchecked gentrification. By working together, these coexisting communities may be most effective at fixing their shared problems and pursuing unique opportunities.

The complexity of the human ecosystem in the Duwamish Valley provides opportunities to confront two of the major social challenges facing Seattle: economic growth that is sustainable and equitable, and affordable workforce housing.

Manufacturing and industry jobs offer pathways to middle-skill careers and family-wage income, without requiring four or more years of college. Local industry laments aging of its workforce and declining numbers of younger people attracted to industrial trades, which reflects a national trend. This trend could be reversed here, though, by focusing existing resources on the Duwamish Valley, such as: Seattle Colleges programs; college-industry training partnerships, like at Vigor Shipyards; federal recognition of central Puget Sound as a favored manufacturing community; statewide efforts like Career Bridge; and more.

Much of Seattle’s remaining relatively affordable housing is in South Seattle neighborhoods — but affordable housing is gradually disappearing here and throughout the city. Ensuring a high-quality industrial workforce would require protecting and developing affordable housing. Serving workforce commuting needs would be most successful and least costly if the workforce can live close to work. Industry, neighborhoods and community organizations should work together to protect this irreplaceable resource in and around the Duwamish Valley.

The Duwamish Valley has the potential to be a national model for comprehensive efforts to enhance natural and human ecosystems in an urban setting. We call upon city and county governments to organize a multi-stakeholder task force that would develop comprehensive and coordinated plans to ensure community and industrial vitality in the Duwamish Valley. Opportunities would be lost if they are not seized now, particularly affordable workforce housing.

Decent income, decent housing and robust communities are cornerstones for the health of human populations. We would be honored to host a round-table forum in the Duwamish Valley that can bring stakeholders together to begin discussions about common grounds and shared priorities.

Bill Daniell is assistant dean for graduate studies, and Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett is director of the Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, at the University of Washington School of Public Health.



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