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Creating a Healthy Environment Amidst a Pandemic

By Todd Burley

Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) supports Healthy People, a Healthy Environment, and Strong Communities through all our work. In 2020 this effort took on a whole new meaning, as the benefits of parks became even more evident and Seattleites looked to our public open spaces to seek connection and respite. We shifted our resources to support our residents during the COVID-19 pandemic while also making real progress on our Healthy Environment goals. Here are some of the ways we did so.

Access to Parks
Equitable access to parks is an ongoing priority for SPR, as shown by the fact that 94% of households live within a 10-minute walk to an access point at one of our parks. For people living in dense urban settings, having public open space nearby is crucial to health and well-being. We opened one new park, Fritz Hedges Park, expanded three others, and also held 67 work parties to complete 25 trail projects, increasing access to our natural areas and the benefits that connection to nature provides.

Sustainable Management
As part of the Green Seattle Partnership, SPR added 64 new acres to our urban forest restoration program and planted 57,568 native plants, including over 12,000 trees! We also used 45% less water than we estimated we would need on our irrigated land while maintaining the health of our turf, a great example of how we are supporting the three aspects of sustainability – economic, social, and environmental considerations.

Environmental Operations
With more than 485 parks, SPR is responsible for many day-to-day environmental matters. For example, we inspected 4,515 storm drains and cleaned the 1,359 that needed it. We also continue to promote recycling and compost in our facilities and parks, diverting over 45,000 cubic yards from the landfill in 2020 (that’s 14 Olympic size swimming pools!). And as technology improves, we are increasing the number of battery-powered tools in our small equipment inventory such as leaf blowers and chain saws, including 45 new ones in 2020. Our staff work daily to ensure our parks are not just healthy for people, but for the environment we depend on as well.

Energy Efficiency
Recognizing the importance of reducing energy use from our buildings as part of Seattle’s commitment to reduce our carbon emissions, SPR implements energy efficiency projects every year. In 2020, we completed efficiency projects in nine buildings, reducing their energy consumption by 30%. In addition, with our partners at Seattle City Light and the Office of Sustainability and the Environment, we completed a 30 KW solar energy project on the roof of Magnuson Park’s “Brig” building, providing 30,000 KWH of carbon-free electricity each year. Our community, and the world, tell us that we cannot wait to address climate change, and we agree.

New Opportunities
2020 created new ways of helping create a healthy environment, too. When our grounds crews were shifted to support other needs, much of our turf grew higher than usual. In some areas of passive use, they turned into impromptu meadows in time to support pollinators and other wildlife. This created pleasing areas to walk through and opened up the possibilities to keep some passive turf areas in a more natural state in the future. We are currently seeing where this is possible as we update our Turf Best Management Practices.

Staff adjusted to remote working, too. During 2020, many SPR employees worked from home; in fact, we had 56,143 staff days of teleworking, reducing our carbon emissions while continuing to serve the public. Also, since our environmental education staff could no longer provide programs to the public in person, they shifted to videos, creating 19 videos that received 864 views last year. They also went out to eight parks throughout Seattle and safely handed out Nature Kits to 374 children to take home as part of our Summer in the Parks program.

2020 was not a typical year, yet Seattle Parks and Recreation continues to be committed to creating a healthy environment. We will learn from both the challenges and the opportunities this last year provided, and always welcome your input and ideas. If you have any ideas, or have questions about these metrics, send a note to our Sustainability Advisor at Learn more about SPR’s Healthy Environment Initiative on our website.