Space Needle and a wildfire smoky sky.
Seattle in the summer, under wildfire smoke on August 19, 2023. With climate hazards increased over the years, the resilience hub program aims to offset their impacts. (Clifford Heberden).

The City is working to implement resilience hubs, which advocates have pushed to be community-led.

Anticipating climate change’s impact on residents, the City of Seattle is planning the implementation of resilience hubs in various neighborhoods around town.

With priorities set for overburdened communities, the creation of these new community centers represent an opportunity for Seattle residents to get needs met.

Kristin Brown, spokesperson for the Office of Sustainability & Environment, described resilience hubs as a network of trusted, community-serving facilities that can support residents before, during, or after a disruption, and in their daily lives. Resilience hubs can help the City of Seattle respond to the growing impacts of climate change such as extreme heat events, wildfire smoke, and flooding, she said.

“They can support local communities’ response to climate change-related emergencies and increase resiliency year-round,” Brown said. “They are facilities designed and managed to support residents, coordinate communication, distribute resources, serve as facilities of refuge during emergencies, and reduce carbon pollution while enhancing quality of life.” 

During smoke season or extreme heat events, the hubs offer a climate-controlled space with clean, healthy air, which is crucial for Seattleites whose homes lack air conditioning or smoke filtration. 

The hub program offers an opportunity to address community needs related to emergency management, emergency response, climate change mitigation and social equity, while providing chances for communities to become more socially connected.  

“Other cities across the U.S. have successfully implemented this strategy including Baltimore, Los Angeles, and our neighbors in Vancouver, B.C.,” Brown said.

The foundational work

K. Baja, (“Baja”), Director of Direct Support and Innovation for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, founded the resilience hub concept in her time as Climate and Resilience Planner with the City of Baltimore. 

Back in 2012, Baja was working on the City of Baltimore’s All-Hazards Mitigation Plan and couldn’t believe FEMA only required the city to hold two community meetings for something so tied to preparedness, resilience and community need.

“I started talking with folks and kind of going out and doing more interviews, more sitting on stoops and having conversations learned that people didn’t really want to interact with the City because they didn’t trust the City,” Baja said. 

People wouldn’t go to cooling centers or heating spaces because so much distrust between community members and local governance had built up over time. 

So instead of just proceeding with making plans and building kits with community members, “we slowed the process way down and decided to hold these sessions where people were expressing what their needs were, and then expressing how they wanted to be approached in relation to building community resilience,” Baja said. 

Recognizing the history of harm within the City of Baltimore, the resilience hub program aimed to empower community organizations that were already trying to do this work.

“We started working with existing community spaces, community centers that people trusted and went to,” Baja said. “We found community-based partners that owned their own facilities, or actually community members who had access to certain spaces that were trusted in the neighborhood, and started testing [resilience hubs] out that way.”

In over a decade of doing this work, Baja found that the best resilience hubs, the ones that are up and running and serving the community year-round, are housed in spaces that aren’t owned by local governments.

“There are so many lessons learned across the country from different resilience hubs,” Baja said. “But essentially, the way that these are best implemented is if they’re not new buildings, and if they’re not city-owned facilities.” 

A couple doors up from Boylston Avenue and E Pine Street, discarded belongings and pillows lay underneath advertising for real estate. With the resilience hub program being designed, can homelessness be addressed through resilience building? (Clifford Heberden)

Present hubs

Currently, Brown said the City of Seattle seeks to pilot resilience hubs in South Beacon Hill and in the Duwamish Valley neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown.

An example of the functions these hubs can provide can be found in Northwest Seattle, where the Phinney Neighborhood Association [PNA] is already organized to meet some of its community’s needs.

Steph Yeo, Communications Director for the PNA, said two of the association’s campuses offer cooling stations for extreme heat events and they’ve created a hot meal program which offsets the rising food costs for overburdened communities.

In 2022, the organization conducted a survey to identify the needs of its community. 

The main issues identified were housing stability, food and healthcare access, supporting employment, reducing social isolation and increasing inclusion of marginalized groups.

“Our strategic priorities coming out of the survey were to focus on creating belonging, making connections, forging partnerships and advocating for social change through our programming, actions and words,” Yeo said in an email.

In more climate-driven measures, the PNA set up an emergency hub in the upper lot of its Phinney Center campus, located at 6532 Phinney Avenue N. The hub is designed to be a rally point for community members during disasters such as earthquakes, floods and major fires.

Underneath the old neighborhood emergency siren, perched on the ridge, the organization ran a drill on September 9 for volunteers and neighbors to practice community response and cooperation.

For Nancy Huizar, a local environmental justice activist and consultant, running NH Consulting, this work began in 2017. They have been working with organizations like the Beacon Hill Council to build up resilience efforts through community partners.

Working outside of city governance, Huizar has been working on a strategy that builds relationships between neighbors and also “creates that capacity for us to support each other when they go through a time of disaster.”

“When emergencies happen, the city is often not the first responders, your first responders are your neighbors,” they said, mentioning conversations they’d had with survivors of Hurricane Katrina in their time at Got Green.

“Resilience hub as a concept is now melding into the mutual aid that we’ve seen with the pandemic,” Huizar said. 

Huizar said a resilience hub network would help seniors, people with disabilities, and those experiencing homelessness, access the resources and supplies they need.

“Even thinking about Covid, a lot of folks weren’t prepared but imagine if we had been a little bit more organized, even within just our streets, how we could have shared resources like toilet paper, or cleaning supplies, or food when it was really hard to go get groceries,” Huizar said.

Huizar said in Beacon Hill, homeless folks have relied more and more for community groups to have access to basic necessities and community resources.

Considering the differences between Seattle’s various neighborhoods, Brown said every resilience hub will be unique and will need to reflect the needs of the communities they serve. 

“Resilience hubs require a combination of capital investments and programmatic investments in education, training, and operations so that the hubs and community members are ready for disruptions and contribute to year-round resiliency,” Brown said.  

The case of the Duwamish Valley

In October and November 2022, the non-profit community-based organization Duwamish River Community Coalition (DRCC) and its Duwamish Valley Youth Corps partnered with University of Washington (UW), public health agencies and the City of Seattle to conduct a community survey to identify community strengths, needs, and priorities for climate change and disasters in South Park and Georgetown.

The Duwamish Valley experiences a convergence of factors, such as high rates of pollution and poverty, that leave its residents as one of the most vulnerable communities to environmental impacts and hazards in Seattle.

The survey indicated “environmental and climate hazards are a high priority for community members, who are deeply concerned about air pollution, including worsened air quality from wildfires, extreme heat, and flooding from storms and sea level rise.”

The City of Seattle has made the Duwamish Valley neighborhood one of its environmental justice priority areas.

Informed of the City’s Duwamish Valley Resilience District (DVRD) work, 62% of survey respondents indicated they or a member of their household would make use of a resilience hub during emergencies.

As a close-knit and connected community, residents had voiced through the survey a strong support and desire to be involved in resilience building efforts.

Shortly after the completion of this survey in December 2022, the South Park neighborhood experienced flooding from a high tide compounded with heavy rains, displacing over 40 households, in some cases permanently.

“If we say we care about people, we care about centering justice and equity, then the biggest piece of centering that is actually shifting power, capacity and resources, and allowing community members to have self autonomy, their own self determination,” Baja said. 

For Baja, the implementation of resilience hubs is a huge opportunity for government to look at budgets and start allocating resources to community centers and spaces without trying to dominate control over them. 

The goal rather, is to provide resources so that people have what they need, in order to proactively set up spaces of belonging for themselves to continue to enhance community connectivity and care. 

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for government to step back from ego and from control and put themselves in the passenger seat,” Baja said. “I think it’s a huge opportunity for government to demonstrate trust for community and community wisdom.” 

The entry to Capitol Hill’s Public Library branch sees community members in need walk through its doors every day. The Seattle Public Library has evolved to meet those needs and offer community services. (Clifford Heberden)

Public Libraries, an insight into hubs for Seattle?

In a 2022 article for Crosscut, Hannah Weinberger reported on Seattle librarians becoming a new source for community care, “increasingly playing a part in emergency response to climate-related events.”

“Public libraries have a long history of being responsive to our communities’ changing needs,” said Elisa Murray, Digital Communications Strategist for the Seattle Public Library.

While libraries are not official emergency response centers, Murray said that in recent years, the Seattle Public Library [SPL] has moved even more in that direction, with a focus on equity and partnerships with community-based organizations and patrons to understand and respond to community needs, particularly the needs of most vulnerable residents.

“With temperatures rising and wildfire impacts an annual occurrence, our libraries are increasingly serving as a refuge from the heat and wildfire smoke,” said Daniel Tilton, Assistant Managing Librarian for the Quick Information Center. “We are in the process of making significant improvements to a number of libraries to prepare them for these scenarios.”

To respond to the crises patrons are experiencing, Tilton said the Seattle Public Library set up the Social Services Team, which his department heads.

“Some of the most common requests of vulnerable patrons that our Social Services librarians respond to are help finding and connecting to emergency shelter, day shelters and hygiene, emergency supplies (which we distribute primarily at the Central Library), low-cost or free transit passes, and free phone service through our Courtesy Phones at the Central Library,” Tilton said.

By helping the most vulnerable patrons connect to resources that fill their basic needs, as well as provide library spaces that are safe and welcoming, Tilton said the Public Library hopes they can successfully access the many other services it offers in its buildings.

“In the Library’s experience, community engagement – often through community-based organizations – is essential to responding to community needs and having the most equitable impact,” Murray said. “While free Library services benefit all, they can make the most impact for marginalized communities when community members have a voice in developing culturally sensitive and accessible programs and services.”

As the City moves forward with the resilience hub program, Murray said it is too early in the project to understand the impact that hubs would have on libraries and patrons, “but the project’s goals of supporting local communities’ response to climate change-related emergencies and increasing our resiliency year-round is very timely and promising, as the impacts of climate change increase.”

“We’re excited to learn more about the hubs as the project evolves and help our patrons understand and connect to these resources once they become available,” Murray said.

Next Steps

Brown said increasing resilience to climate change is a citywide effort and not just an OSE endeavor. The department is currently coordinating with the Office of Emergency Management, the Office of Planning and Community Development, City Light, King County and more.

“Looking ahead, OSE will be ramping up the work needed to commence broader resilience hub planning efforts with other City departments and the Mayor’s Office,” Brown said.

In 2022, OSE indicated the City had allotted $2.4 million from its Green New Deal Opportunity Fund as a planning and development investment. In 2023, the OSE’s program saw an additional $1.5 million JumpStart Fund to implement its studies. 

Resilience hubs need capital investments to decarbonize and weatherize physical buildings, as well as programmatic investments. 

In the 2022 same ordinance, OPCD received $1.35 million in an ordinance from 2022 to invest in “future resilience hubs strategy. According to Brown, OPCD and OSE are coordinating a strategy for this body of work; none of this budget has been spent yet.

To create a program where every Seattle neighborhood has a fully staffed and resourced resilience hub may take considerable investment. By comparison, the Seattle Public Library’s annual budget exceeds $100 million. The pilot program won’t reach that scale, but could take more funding than currently allotted, considering capital investments needed for climate-resilient buildings.

Brown said the OSE has brought a Resilience Hub Advisor on board to help manage their efforts. The Office of Sustainability & Environment hopes to have concrete next steps to share with the public in the coming months. For now the pilot program appears focused on South Beacon Hill and the Duwamish Valley, but it’s possible OSE’s announcement could point to the next set of neighborhoods where it aims to expand.

Within the communities and cities Baja where has helped implement resilience hubs, the programs have allowed community groups to celebrate their work and think about their spaces in bigger, more expansive ways to care for each other. More importantly, the resilience hub work has helped build trust and safety for the communities they serve.

In DC, Baja said when there were shootings in the neighborhood, the first thing children did was run to the hub, because they knew it was a safe space to be in, a space where they would be taken care of.

“They didn’t even run home, they ran to the hub first,” Baja said. “[This work] is expanding upon the already beautiful and amazing work that community organizations and community members are doing.”

Huizar thinks that right now, the Office of Sustainability and Environment is interested in building a strategy around letting community groups lead the charge in resilience building. 

“Some of the folks in that office have really demonstrated their commitment to supporting community-based organizations,” Huizar said. “So I think the folks who are in that office will be really supportive, and I guess, be more of a hands-off and let this be a community-driven process.”

In 2024, the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment will lead a period of community engagement that will inform the development of the City’s Citywide Resilience Hub Plan. 

According to Brown, this document will outline how the City plans to develop and support resilience hubs and will include potential locations for future hubs and community partners excited about the project.

“I truly deeply hope that they don’t just create a City of Seattle resilience hub plan without it being anchored and run by community, because then essentially, they would just be replicating a place of harm,” Baja said.

More resources and information about resilience hubs and their implementation can be found on the USDN’s resource page.

Article Author
Clifford Heberden

Clifford Heberden (he/him) is a freelance journalist focused on the environment, climate and justice. A French native, Cliff moved to Washington State to pursue his journalism degree and then began publishing articles with Salish Current. Now a Seattleite, Cliff accepts 70 degrees as sunbathing weather. His Twitter handle is @cliffbutonline.