Healthy and Well-Connected Communities
Not long ago, Forterra, the largest conservation and community-building organization in the Northwest, focused exclusively on conserving natural lands, mostly in small parcels. But in recent years, the Washington land trust has taken on a wide range of community-based projects:
- Helped to create a community garden for Bhutanese and Burmese refugees.
- Organized trainings to empower residents, including those historically underrepresented, to influence local decision-making.
- Helped a Native American tribe relocate their village to higher ground out of the tsunami zone.
- Advocates for urban light rail networks and bike and pedestrian-friendly streets.
A New Agenda
This new agenda came about when the land trust’s leaders surveyed their considerable achievements – 100,000 protected acres – in the context of the larger landscape, and saw them falling short. Forterra’s marketing director, Natalie Cheel, says, “We recognized that if we’re going to conserve a majority of the land and we know the population is growing, we have an obligation to make sure that our communities are great places to live—attractive and affordable.”
With this new approach came a new name, reflecting a mission that goes beyond traditional conservation: Forterra, “for the land.” As Cheel says, “Our work in communities is still for the land. Communities are a huge part of the solution.” Forterra is not alone in arriving at that conclusion. Across the country, many land trusts are exploring ways to make their work more valuable to more people, where they live.
To this end, Forterra has slowly integrated itself into neighborhoods in the Puget Sound region to support and enable economic land development while at the same time improving the health of the communities and encouraging conservation of resources. With the assistance of a multi-year grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, the trust has created attractive and affordable options for living in urban areas in its efforts to decrease the pressure of sprawl. Forterra has built an arsenal of strategies and programs to improve Washington’s cities and neighborhoods so these communities are better equipped to handle their growing populations, and to entice new individuals and families to move into more densely populated areas:
- Park improvement
- Community gardens
- Urban agricultural gardens
- Increased density around transit stations
- Transit development
- Affordable housing
- Well-connected transit systems
Sustainable Suburban Policy in Federal Way
In 2012, Forterra worked with the City of Federal Way and community members to develop new policies and codes to support urban agriculture – community gardens and new small food businesses. Forterra is now working with the city, which is located between Seattle and Tacoma, to redesign the community’s streets to be inclusive of walkers and bikers and to achieve a connected transportation system for all.
In March 2012, the city of Federal Way passed the Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan, outlining its vision for an accessible and well-connected bicycle and pedestrian system. Forterra and partner Cascade Bicycle Club helped gather community support for the plan, which included bike boulevards and neighborhood greenways to increase safety for walkers and bikers. A key advantage to greenways are that they feature inexpensive treatments like painting “sharrows” on already-safe streets and adding speed bumps, trees and crosswalks, instead of requiring expensive reconstruction.
Forterra is working closely with the City Planning and Public Works departments to involve community members in implementing the plan.
Building Community Involvement
Forterra started by finding people in Federal Way who were already riding bikes or walking around town, even though it’s not yet very safe. Staff held a “Trails to Transit” event and then hosted a “Bike to Work Day Commute Station” with bananas, bagels and coffee to attract current cyclists. Then Forterra hosted monthly leadership meetings with these residents, who helped develop a community-based outreach strategy.
Forterra and the community leaders decided to start with a neighborhood greenway in one part of the city – a 4-mile loop connecting houses, schools, churches and shopping centers in the Westway and Twin Lakes neighborhoods. They developed a survey and greenway map to gather community input on key destinations, danger zones and desired improvements, and are going out into the community to get that feedback. Forterra hosted a table at the Westway neighborhood BBQ during National Night Out on August 6th—with the surveys and maps in both English and Spanish, and bike decorations for kids—and was out at similar events at the Twin Lakes picnic, city farmers market and back-to-school BBQ in late summer.
Once Forterra collects input from residents it will create a master map for the greenway and work with city staff and elected officials to identify funding to start building improvements such as street paint and crosswalks. Over time, the trust plans to do similar work in other neighborhoods.
As Forterra’s leaders have realized, great communities and great landscapes go together. And the more people who feel that conservation directly improves their lives, the more people who will get involved as donors, volunteers, activists and advocates. Ultimately, that means more land can be protected, and its future is more secure.
Learn more about this project and Forterra »
Writer: Rose Jenkins and Meredith Riley
Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photo: Becca Meredith