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Climate Ready Parks

By Todd Burley and Craig Chatburn

Seattle has a large parks system, with nearly 500 parks spread over 6,400 acres. It includes saltwater coastlines, old growth forests, playfields, plazas, meadows, and more. With such a diverse and expansive system, making broad changes can take some time. So, Seattle Parks and Recreation has identified several “climate ready parks” as demonstration sites to show how sustainable practices can not only adapt to changing climate conditions, but also benefit our urban habitat and the health of our residents.

What does it mean to be “climate ready?” In Seattle we are already experiencing hotter and drier summers, intense winter storm events, and other impacts from climate change that combine to make our plants and animals more vulnerable. (Read our Climate Resiliency in Seattle’s Parks and Recreation System report.) Parks professionals must adapt to this new reality and do our best to predict how to prepare our landscapes for likely future conditions.

The living assets that SPR manages such as trees and other vegetation will require additional support in the face of climate change. We have mapped drought vulnerable trees in our parks to prioritize efforts to ensure they are more resilient. Providing sufficient mulch is critical, and these trees will receive leaves from adjacent trees that will be topped with arborists wood chips to their dripline (under branches). In addition to this, we are selectively reducing mowing under trees with large surface roots to ensure we do not accidently wound the trunks or roots of these trees. The resultant conditions improve pollinator and wildlife habitat and builds a healthy soil ecosystem that retains water and provide additional nutrients to them.

SPR plants thousands of trees each year, and as we do so it is imperative that they have a solid chance of living out their full life and continue to provide health and habitat benefits. We are now choosing primarily native evergreen trees that sequester carbon, absorb stormwater, and provide habitat all year long. We also prioritize climate resilient trees – whether native or near-native – that are predicted to do well in the coming climate conditions. These new trees will now receive five years of establishment support (watering, mulching, and weeding) to give them a successful head start.

Our turf areas offer additional opportunities to support a climate resilient system. SPR manages over 950 acres of passive turf that is not used for active recreation such as sports fields. Some of these areas can be managed more like meadows, allowing grasses to grow (storing more carbon, building soil, and providing habitat), and be enhanced with floral resources to support our struggling pollinator species such as butterflies and bees. Beyond these passive turf areas,

SPR is identifying areas to establish designated meadow habitat that will have additional plants to enhance this ecosystem.

Additional habitat improvement will be made in these demonstration parks. Surplus utility poles (which can contain persistent preservatives) that are used as borders will be replaced with large nurse logs important for many animals and helpful in retaining water and building soil. Using logs from trees removed in our parks for health reasons will also reduce carbon emissions and costs associated with disposing of these natural resources offsite. Hedges such as invasive English Holly and English Laurel will be removed and replaced with native plants that fit the space and improve habitat.

Many of these practices are already being implemented throughout our parks system as part of our standard maintenance. However, SPR is designating several parks to highlight these practices around the city to assess what works best and show how they not only create climate resiliency, but also save money and time while providing public benefits. Visit Upper Woodland, Ravenna, Magnolia, Myrtle Edwards, Pratt, and Lincoln Parks to see our progress. And keep a lookout for more climate resilient parks in the near future! We hope you’ll get out and enjoy these parks and let us know what you think.