Peering into Rainier Valley's secret world of feathers and leaves

When we're not busy uncovering the high jinks of our mayor and his wealthy backers, or striving to save low-income housing from destruction by developers, or urging the city council to hold Seattle Authority accountable for its use of public funds, we both have a pastime for relaxation and renewal - watching birds.

John likes to do his birding at the Montlake Fill, observing pheasant chicks hiding in the grass, ducks in their breeding plumage glory and killdeer faking broken wings to distract from their young. Carolee has been known to go farther a field, most recently to Alaska, but she loves to watch birds in her yard here in Rainier Valley.

Right here in the city a secret world unfolds to those who know how and where to look. Anna's hummingbirds, the males with shining magenta heads, guard their favorite flower patches. Flickers drum on light poles and hollow trees and even gutters in the spring to announce their courtship. Sharp-shinned hawks swoop down to seize an unsuspecting chickadee. In migration, flocks of warblers flit through treetops heading north. In June the downy woodpeckers bring their young to the suet feeder in Carolee's yard - like taking the kids to McDonald's.

Making space for nature

To live with nature in the city is a profound experience. It lifts us out of our immediate concerns to realize we are part of something larger, a network of living beings. But this is an experience that has little or no value in our urban planning decisions. As Seattle grows denser, and as trees are removed to make room for bigger buildings, there is less and less room for any other species besides us-and those rats of the avian world, starlings, pigeons and house sparrows, are all foreign invaders.

"Laws shielding trees from the chain saw are limited in some cases, non-existent in others. A growing push to squeeze larger homes, apartment buildings and businesses onto every inch of city property is increasingly putting trees at risk, " wrote Lisa Stiffler in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer last year. She quotes city arborist Liz Ellis, "The city is not known for denying a project in order to save a tree."

In Rainier Valley we have lost hundreds of large mature trees to light rail construction and the redevelopment of Rainier Vista and New Holly - 350 trees at Rainier Vista alone. True, saplings are promised to replace these trees. But birds can't wait 30 years for saplings to grow up.

Trees equal health

Even if you can't tell a robin from a crow, it matters that we're losing mature trees. Because an environment that is good for birds is good for people, too - particularly people living in poverty. The Human-Environment Research Laboratory at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has conducted studies on the positive impacts of trees and greenery on poorer city neighborhoods.

Living in crowded, noisy, barren settings contributes to chronic mental fatigue. The Human-Environment Research Laboratory concludes that green views and access to green spaces in urban areas can help people cope with daily stresses associated with poverty. "Green spaces also contribute to a healthier environment and foster a sense of community, making them particularly valuable in inner-city neighborhoods."

Another project found that "apartment buildings surrounded by trees and greenery are dramatically safer than buildings devoid of green. The greener the surroundings, the fewer crimes occur against people and property. Compared with apartment buildings that had little or no vegetation, buildings with high levels of greenery had 52 percent fewer total crimes, including 48 percent fewer property crimes and 56 percent fewer violent crimes."

The report goes on to say that "a large body of research indicates that time spent in nature lessens mental fatigue, inattentiveness, irritability and impulsivity - behaviors that psychologists recognize as precursors to violence. Greenery helps people to relax and renew, reducing aggression.

Questionable sacrifices

It's a bitter irony that our leaders sell us on the necessity of making Seattle a more crowded, paved and de-natured place in the name of environmental preservation. We are told that by sacrificing our green spaces in the city, we can prevent sprawl, and that land will be saved "out in the county" that might otherwise have gone to building more homes. There's a segment of the environmental community that buys this line.

However, take a drive in the Snohomish Valley and see what's happening to all the open space out there. It pains us to see those farmlands, (great wintering habitat for raptors and swans, by the way) turn into subdivisions. But losing our urban forest in Seattle does nothing to stop that conversion, and it may actually make it worse.

When you crowd too much of the region's job growth into Seattle, some of those new workers will compete for city homes, driving up housing prices. Others will live in the suburbs and commute longer and longer distances in their cars, polluting our air and clogging our freeways. This calculus won't change no matter how many condos and $2,000-a-month apartments get built downtown; no matter how many lower-density Seattle neighborhoods get up-zoned.

It's better to locate some of those jobs in existing underutilized commercial areas around the region and closer to where those job-holders are going to live anyway. Right now we're pouring our transportation dollars into systems largely serving downtown Seattle, leaving the rest of the region underserved. This only fuels auto dependence and further sprawl.

The immediate solution to the loss of green space in the city would be to build in more protections for our existing tree canopy into the land use code. Add more trees to the city's "heritage list" and bar their removal even if they're on private land. Require developers to leave more green on sites they do develop, ensure adequate buffers, and don't let the issue of views take precedence over tree protection, as is often the case.

But in the long run we simply cannot allow so much growth to overwhelm the natural and human-made character of our city - upzoning and ripping down and sawing down our physical heritage under the guise of "preventing sprawl".

For more information on the benefits of nature in urban settings, visit the Human-Environment Research Laboratory web site at

Outside City Hall is a monthly commentary from the Seattle Displacement Coalition.

Carolee Colter and John V. Fox may be reached via[[In-content Ad]]