Neighbors in Seattle decided what kind of community they wanted, then set about creating it. Phinney Center is the hub of that community.
A seed-lending library is part of the offerings from Seattle's Phinney Neighborhood Association.
Photo by Bill Thorness
Many of Seattle’s Phinney Neighborhood Association’s programs and initiatives exemplify the kind of “greening in place” that could be a model for all urban neighborhoods. In the late 1970s, Phinney Ridge was a transitional neighborhood with an elderly population that was passing away or moving on. Young families were attracted to the area’s inexpensive housing — and so were developers who wanted to tear down the older homes to build big apartment buildings. Neighbors banded together to successfully push back the developers, and then they wondered how to have the most positive impact on their neighborhood.
Consensus arose quickly: A community center was essential. A local elementary school slated for closure fit the bill, and the newly minted Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) moved into the breach. Its first initiative was a program to build energy-efficient storm windows for the old, leaky Craftsman bungalows that characterized the neighborhood. Now, 34 years later, the community center is still vibrant and active — and many of those windows are still in place.
“The community sees a need and then we create a solution,” says Bill Fenimore, who became PNA’s facilities director in 2001. “Unlike the top-down model of many organizations, PNA evolves organically from ideas that arise from the people who live here.”
Offerings include a senior center, hot meal programs, daycare cooperatives, an art gallery, outdoor sculpture exhibits, a concert series, and various community-generated classes and events that enrich neighborhood life. The Well Home Program provides regular classes on sustainable home improvement and a library of resources for every imaginable home maintenance project, as well as a Fixers Collective where members employ their do-it-ourselves skills to fix broken stuff together. Plant-care clinics help green the thumbs of many residents, and a farmers market and CSA bring locally grown, organic food to those who don’t grow their own.
The nonprofit PNA relies on multiple revenue streams, including grants, capital campaigns, gifts and annual memberships. Regular online surveys ask members what’s important to them and which programs and projects they’d like to see next. The association recently collaborated with Solarize Washington to bring solar energy to homes in the community, and with Seattle City Light to host a large solar array at the PNA’s Phinney Center. Households and businesses can invest in the array, reaping the benefits of renewable energy without having to install a unit on their own properties.
Sharing is an important part of the PNA model, with multiple book swaps, and libraries for tool sharing and seed lending.
“We’re trying to combat the overconsumption paradigm with both the tool-lending library and the Fixers Collective,” says Todd Shwayder, PNA’s Well Home coordinator. “Not every home has to have its own gas-powered lawn mower, and not everything that’s broken needs to go to the landfill. Borrow tools — we have hundreds — and bring your broken stuff in to see what can be done.”
Want to learn more about our 2015 Homestead Hamlets? Read Joining Forces for More Sustainable Communities to learn more.
K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden.
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