Thatcher Bailey’s last task before he left the Seattle Parks Foundation this past month was to add his signature to a letter addressed to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and the City Council. It urged them to work to solve “a spiraling public health and safety crisis” in Seattle parks.
For the past 10 years, Bailey had served with distinction as the Seattle Parks Foundation president and CEO, a position he calls “my all-time favorite job.” The Foundation helps raise money to refurbish and build new parks around town. Bailey decided to leave when he had an offer to take over as interim executive director at the Friends of Waterfront Seattle. He couldn’t resist the chance to help the city create a new park on the central waterfront.
In signing the troubling “Dear Mayor” letter on behalf of the Parks Foundation, Bailey was joined by more than a dozen citizens representing community councils, neighborhood associations, and business-improvement districts throughout the city. The call to action detailed instances of deteriorating conditions in the most seriously affected parks. Among those cited were Ballard Commons, Junction Plaza, Cal Anderson, Denny, Freeway, and Westlake parks.
At the same time, the letter rightfully expressed concern for the hundreds of unhoused individuals who have congregated in those park spaces. These unsanctioned encampments — technically illegal under city ordinance — are partly due to inadequate shelter space within the city, a second major crisis.
There’s no dispute that homelessness must be addressed and the homeless treated humanely. The city faces the need to provide much more shelter space. The answer lies in producing more small-house villages, more leased and purchased hotel and motel spaces, and encouraging production of even more low-income dwellings across the city.
These twin crises — parks and homelessness — occur at a most unfortunate time. The city has opted to leave unsanctioned encampments mostly in place during the pandemic rather than risk spreading infection. Complicating solutions is the fact that the city budget has taken a blow because of reduced tax receipts. Many other shelter spaces, such as churches and libraries, are also closed by the pandemic.
This ill-starred combination of factors has left numbers of parks dangerous and chaotic at the precise time when people have the most acute need for getting outdoors and for recreation space. The citizens’ letter outlined declining conditions at the most affected parks, perhaps none more so than Cal Anderson Park on Capitol Hill. That inner-city park, ground zero during the CHOP occupation and protests, continues to be the scene of major fires, violent incidents, and threatening behavior toward neighbors. The park’s lights and bathrooms have been damaged and not fully repaired.
After receiving the citizen letter, Mayor Durkan quickly announced a Clean Cities Initiative. She said the city would be spending $5.6 million to combat the crisis of mounting garbage and trash associated with unsanctioned camping. She set up four new “community clean” response teams. They will operate in the city’s four quadrants. One of the foremost aims according to the mayor: To keep parks safe and accessible for all.
That’s hopeful, if slightly overdue, news. Seattle’s parks are fragile. In the past, the city has ranked as one of the nation’s top-ranked parks systems with 93 percent of the city residents living within a 10-minute walk to one of the 485 parks. Seattleites have long believed those parks and playgrounds are essential to their physical and mental health. Polls consistently show 80 to 90 percent support that view. The politically savvy say failure to support parks risks a lost election. Whenever parks have been on the ballot, they invariably win.
When reached at his new job, Thatcher Bailey summed up the situation this way: “We have two crises — parks and homelessness. We must solve them both. But we cannot expect to solve the one crisis on the back of the other.”