Lessons for Green and Resilient Communities from Olympia, Washington

Reader Contribution by Jan Spencer
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Olympia, Washington has some stories to tell that show how citizens are using city programs for greening the community. Neighborhood matching grants usually are modest in size, between a thousand and ten thousand dollars. The grant money is matched by citizen sweat equity.

Grants are applied for, usually in coordination with a neighborhood association or with its endorsement. The project is citizen driven, on public property, must serve the public good and typically involves still more players in the community.

Over six years ago, neighbors in Olympia’s Northeast Neighborhood recognized an opportunity to turn a problem into a benefit. This 1960’s era suburban neighborhood is similar to many others all acrosFoto the country. One fifth of an acre properties, three bedroom homes, sidewalks, streets with curbs. Middle class, mostly home owners, maybe a bit on the progressive side politically. Importantly, Northeast has an active neighborhood association.

There is a grade school in the neighborhood and a lot of kids can walk to school. Some kids could have used a street right of way that had no street but it was cluttered with construction debris and overgrown with trees, shrubs and the ever present blackberry thickets. That right of way could have reduced the walk to and from school for some kids by several blocks but it was impassible.

Several people in the neighborhood looked at that overgrown and cluttered right of way and saw an opportunity. Wouldn’t it be nice to make something positive with that right of way?

Several years later, after a great deal of discussion between neighbors, meetings between the city and the neighborhood association, a plan was agreed upon with matching grant money.

In 2011, the Joy Avenue Pathway and Edible Forest Gardencame into being. After extensive planning and many work party, the overgrown right of way is now a winding one block long gravel pathway that connects two formerly separated streets. The jumbled and overgrown piles of concrete have been repurposed into an artistic sitting space. The space is much more open and inviting. At both ends, there are signs explaining the project.

Even better, the small park included new landscaping – dozens of different perennial edible plants – fruit and nut trees, berry bushes, perennial vegetables. The entire block long right of way has become a food forest with a pathway.

Now, kids can walk home from school, take the green short cut and grab a healthy snack at the same time. Could be some kids go out of their way to take the new short cut.

The relatively straightforward Joy Street project has lead to a new program in Olympia called “Neighborhood Pathways.”

The three additional pathways completed since Joy Avenue were more complex and  involved stormwater issues, property issues and utilities, so they required a great deal more professional participation and cost.

City attorneys have also called for greater caution and regulations having to do with liability. At the present time, the Pathways program is taking a break.

In the meantime, a related but new citizen initiative allows neighbors to turn unused right of ways into neighborhood gardens. The Northeast Neighborhood is proposing the first project. The block long right-of-way is adjacent to a correctional facility for boys aged 12 to 21.

A local non-profit GRuB(Garden Raised Urban Bounty) will help plan and plant the annual garden along with the Victory Farmers(veterans transforming their mission to one that cultivates life, while nourishing their families and peers) and local non-profit Edible Forest Gardensthat plants perennial gardens of fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and perennial vegetables.

The boys at the correctional facility will care for the garden and harvest the food. The Northeast Neighborhood Association will apply for a $4000 neighborhood matching grant to pay for supplies and provide volunteers to help put in the garden. The nearby church will share their property for more garden space.  This is a project with many participants!

Meanwhile, other neighborhood greening projects are happening in Olympia. These also involve neighborhood grants and neighborhood associations.

Important to know, this level of neighborhood association support for greening projects is the result of green minded people becoming involved with their neighborhood associations. Involvement means helping to set the association’s agendas. Repeat –  If people interested in these kinds of green and resilient projects become involved with their NA, they can influence the NA to take on projects that help make the neighborhood more green and resilient.

Many cities have neighborhood and matching grants programs and other tools for greening neighborhoods.  NAs typically welcome newcomers. Neighborhood associations are the base of the civic pyramid.

In Olympia, five neighborhoods have planted fruit and nut trees and a full food forest at public schools. All have these projects have included neighborhood associations and matching grants.

The Bigelow Neighborhood Association used matching grant funds to plant heirloom historic varieties of fruit trees at the Bigelow House Museum, a pioneer house built in the 1850’s. The nearby Bigelow Highlands Neighborhood Association received funds to plant numerous fruit and nut trees and berry bushes in the Capital Vision Community Church’s Community Garden. The Northeast Neighborhood Association helps to fund a yearly Love Our Local Festival. In 2015, a number of neighborhoods received funds for a ten day Olympia Village Building Convergencethat installed placemaking projects all around town such as painting intersections to slow traffic, constructed neighborhood bulletin boards, made public art, installed bee hives and more.  The Olympia Convergence was modeled after Portland’s famous yearly Village Building Convergence.

The take home message is this.

1] Many cities have tools and resources to work with for creating green and resilient neighborhoods and communities. It’s a matter of knowing they are there and then making use of them.

2] Neighborhood associations are perfect for taking a leading role for helping organize these actions while ad hoc groups, non profits, communities of faith are all potential participants.

3] Becoming involved with any non profit, faith, neighborhood association or ad hoc group means you can help shape the group’s agenda for taking on green and resilient projects.

4] These green and resilient actions are the training wheels of a more local culture and economy – the skills learned, the friendships made, the groups learning to cooperate with each other. Green and resilient initiatives will only become more compelling given the trends. We can expect to see people and groups taking on far more ambitious green and resilient projects as current trends deepen and gain more attention.

Jan Spencer has been transforming his quarter-acre suburban property for 15 years. The project shows what home economics and suburbia can look like — taking care of more needs closer to home, including food, energy, water, and culture. Read a draft preface for his forthcoming book, Notes from the Suburban Frontier at www.SuburbanPermaculture.orgHe is available for making presentations about transforming suburbia, economy and culture. Find his contact info, CV and more topics he can address on his website, and click here to read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts.


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