We live in a time of multiple crises: A global pandemic resulting in death and tremendous economic loss, a warming planet causing increasingly severe consequences for humans and natural ecosystems, and a racial-justice reckoning exposing the racism that persists in our public institutions, culture and economy.
In the midst of these extraordinarily difficult challenges, Pacific Northwesterners should draw inspiration from our history of dreaming big and then rolling up our sleeves to work together to make them real. This legacy was embraced during Navigating Sustainability in a Time of Great Change, a convening to collect the hard-won wisdom our region has gained during the COVID-19 pandemic and then working together to meet this moment of crisis.
The virtual conference brought together 150 engaged individuals from across our region — old, young and ages in-between — to grapple with the challenges, adjustments, lessons and long-term implications of our experience with the pandemic. The panelists and speakers were among the most vital leaders in our community, including Microsoft leader Brad Smith, Urban League President Michelle Merriweather and Quinault Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp. We benefited from the wisdom of Gov. Jay Inslee and former governors Dan Evans, Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire, and community champions like youth leader Isha Sangani and environmentalist Denis Hayes. But at the end of the day, the work was done by the participants themselves, during meetings across a dozen different discussion groups.
Our conversations culminated in the Blueprint for Regional Resilience, a call to action to fight climate change, advance economic recovery and heal our divisions. As one attendee put it, “This is a time for introspection and to rethink what makes our communities and neighborhoods welcoming and flourishing; we can’t waste this opportunity.”
With that spirit, here are some of the learnings and recommendations that can move us toward a truly sustainable region.
Community: We learned from the necessary isolation of the pandemic the true value of community. We must redouble our focus on building our communities sustainably, affordably and equitably for people and their families. The social connections of our communities define us and create the basis for a thriving local economy.
To strengthen communities we should create a next generation Growth Management Act (GMA) that focuses on economic inclusion, racial equity, social cohesion, and environmental and human health. Policymakers should create new metrics and measures to reduce displacement and gentrification, carbon from transportation, and public-health inequities, and address the regional misalignment of housing and job-growth distribution.
Human Value: We learned from the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests this summer that it is far past time to disassemble the systemic racism embedded in our public and private systems. Every single person in our community has inherent value, and we must change and reorganize institutions and cultural norms that have undermined the ability of Black, Indigenous, Latino and people of color communities across the state to thrive.
One way to do this is to dramatically strengthen our social-care infrastructure. People of color — and in particular Black and Indigenous people — have borne the brunt of the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. It is time to reweave our frayed safety net by investing in traditional social measures like health care and affordable high-quality child care, and also by creating new wealth-building opportunities through homeownership and support of entrepreneurs and small business owners. Let’s not forget that widespread homeownership has only been possible through robust government support.
Economy: We learned that the “essential workers” who have held our society together through the pandemic aren’t protected or compensated in the way they deserve. Our region will be more prosperous when we build an intentionally inclusive economy where all our neighbors can participate, including Black, Indigenous and other people of color communities, women and those in rural communities who have been left out of the region’s wealth boom. Our economy won’t truly recover from COVID-19 until everyone can fully participate. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I do not think of political power as an end. Neither do I think of economic power as an end. They are ingredients in the objective that we seek in life. And I think that end or that objective is a truly brotherly society, the creation of the beloved community.”
Under this pillar, policymakers could draft and adopt a Washington Sustainable New Deal with guaranteed employment and also protections for essential workers. It should expand what we mean by a green economy — of course jobs in the green energy sector, but also jobs in those fields that are inherently low-carbon, such as the arts, education or elder care. The program needs to be comprehensive and inclusive of Black, Indigenous and people of color communities, rural residents and women.
Environment: We learned from the wildfires and smoke that devastated our forests and made our air unhealthy that climate change is hurting our homes and health. To protect our lands and ourselves, we must decarbonize our region, with an emphasis on two of the biggest contributors: our buildings and our transportation networks.
Policymakers should look at ways we can decarbonize our building stock. We should bolster new sustainable technology and products that could be manufactured right here in Washington state, such as compressed laminate timber (CLT) and other locally-sourced building materials. We should provide incentives to grow this industry in rural parts of our state while also holding these technologies to full-life cycle standards of sustainability. We should structure incentives and direct investments so that the economic benefits (especially jobs and wealth creation) accrue equitably with a focus on rural and Black, Indigenous and other people of color communities.
Since this summer’s convening, the crises have become more urgent, and the Blueprint’s recommendations even more necessary. Our economy is now more fragile, our health care system more severely challenged, our communities under greater strain. Yet the promise of a better, more sustainable future for Pacific Northwest families is absolutely achievable if we act smartly and together.
We need only look to the past for guidance how to act with urgency, advance justice and create a flourishing community. We think of the generation, and especially of Jim Ellis, that created Forward Thrust to clean up our air and water. We honor The Gang of Four — Bob Santos, Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas and Larry Gossett — who redefined who our public spaces belong to and what inclusive community means. We admire tenacious legislators like Ruth Fisher who led in creation of the Growth Management Act and Sound Transit to modernize land use and transportation. And we celebrate those individuals like Rahwa Habte who created third places — homes away from home in our cafes, bookstores and cultural spaces.
Like these other moments in our history, the Blueprint recommendations demand an all-in commitment from each of us — individuals, elected and civic leadership, government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, business and financial institutions and academia — to act with purpose now. Already, the Sound Cities Association, a forward leaning consortium of King County suburban cities, has agreed to explore the Blueprint in the months ahead.
This is our all-hands-on deck moment. Lucky for us, today — like in times of crisis in our region’s past — we begin this urgent effort with committed leaders and an engaged community. And you are a part of that. Your voice — asking local and state leaders to take action on the recommendations in the Blueprint — continues the legacy of the generations before us.
You can find the full Blueprint for Regional Resiliency and all its 43 findings at https://earthdaynw2020.org/navigating-sustainability-conference/