By Todd Burley
Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) is not immune from the impacts of climate change, as we described in the last blog post in our Climate Resiliency series, Climate Resiliency: Impacts to Seattle’s Parks and Recreation System. Extreme heat, sea level rise, intense rain events, and more are the new reality in our region, and SPR must adapt to this reality in order to maintain a resilient parks and recreation system.
While climate change is a long-term concern, we are taking actions today to mitigate the impacts from our new reality. Our upcoming strategy Climate Resiliency in Seattle’s Parks and Recreation System breaks down these impacts and actions into several categories: Plants & Animals, Saltwater Shorelines, People, Infrastructure, and Facilities.
Over 750,000 people rely on Seattle’s parks and recreational programs for exercise, respite, and health. Our parks are free and accessible spaces to cool down on hot days, which are becoming more common with climate change. SPR’s 489 parks provide trees for shade and clean air. We have also installed heat pumps and other systems in some of our community centers to provide clean and cool air during extreme heat days.
SPR also has 11 spray parks, 22 wading pools, and many swimming beaches that offer opportunities on hot days to cool off safely. Ensuring these water features are adequately staffed during the summer is a priority for SPR as we endure the impacts of climate change. We are also converting all our artificial turf fields to cork infill instead of rubber, which reduces heat exposure for players.
Access to healthy local food is an important climate justice issue, and SPR’s Urban Food Systems Program manages about 700 fruit trees that are available for harvest, hosts dozens of P-Patch community gardens, and supports healthy food programming in our community centers.
Plants & Animals
SPR manages over 6,400 acres of parks and open space, most of which is covered by forest and fields, including an estimated 500,000 trees. The changing climate means we must adapt to longer and hotter summers, intense winter rainstorms, and more pests. The Green Seattle Partnership forest restoration program is already planning ahead by planting climate resilient strains of native evergreen trees and shrubs and watering new plants for four or five years to help with establishment. Our arborists inspect trees regularly to identify and manage health concerns. And new plants are now chosen from a climate-resilient plant list to ensure long-term survival of these species.
On the ground, SPR uses a “smart” irrigation system that ensures plants get the water they need without wasting any. Our crews also spread mulch under trees and in garden beds to retain moisture in the summer and release it slowly during winter rainstorms. And in our turf areas, we have raised all mowing heights to a minimum of three-inches and expanded our meadow areas, which strengthens plants for extreme weather (while also supporting more wildlife habitat).
SPR manages about 11 miles of saltwater coastline, most notably at regional parks like Discovery, Alki, and Lincoln Parks. The Beach Restoration Program, while originally meant to support salmon habitat, has also helped strengthen beaches against storm surges. The Green Seattle Partnership continues to remove invasive plants and place native species in many of our forested shorelines. By stabilizing steep slopes and increasing nearshore habitat, these shorelines can better withstand rising seas and increased rain intensity.
Maintaining aging infrastructure is not new to SPR, however the added impacts from climate change are a new challenge. Along Seattle’s coastline where sea-level rise and king tides are already present, we are removing seawalls and restoring natural beaches, such as at Lowman Beach Park. In our natural areas, the Seattle Trails Program works to ensure heavy winter rains are diverted under or around trails and bridges are rebuilt to account for winter storms.
SPR is lucky that most of our buildings are not within the impact zones for sea-level rise or near steep slopes. However, with miles of saltwater coastline to manage, we now incorporate sea-level rise projections into our planning. We also partnered with Seattle City Light to install a solar-powered microgrid at Miller Community Center that can act as an independent clean energy emergency shelter during disasters and have added emergency generators to all our community centers that are designated Tier 1 priority shelters. In addition, SPR has installed water reuse cisterns, including our largest, a 300 cubic foot tank at Northgate Community Center.
Climate change has both short-term and long-term impacts. SPR takes its role as a steward of public space in Seattle seriously and is both taking action today and preparing for tomorrow to continue to provide the parks and programs Seattle’s residents rely on. Our next blog post in this series will focus on additional actions we can take to prepare for the impacts of climate change.