Across Seattle, volunteers are laboring to make a greener city for the community outside city parks and on greenbelts.
Through the Green Seattle Partnership, a combination of volunteer, city staff and contract crews work to restore these greenbelts by removing invasive plants and establishing native plants, Seattle Parks and Recreation Public Relations Specialist Karen O’Connor said. The city has been active in neighborhood greenbelts in Madison Valley and Queen Anne for sometime — since 2010 for the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt in Madison Valley, 2006 for the Northeast Queen Anne Greenbelt and 2012 for Southwest Queen Anne, O'Connor said.
The Harrison Ridge Train volunteers meets every Thursday to improve the Harrison Ridge trail, situated along 32nd Avenue East between East Denny Way and East Thomas Street.
Kevin Castle, a volunteer consultant, researches which plant species do well in this native habitat.
She said volunteers will work hard to spare tender, native plants like Indian plum that have survived despite the sheer volume of ivy, blackberry and holly.
The volunteers are currently removing invasive plants to make room for 150 native plants, which they will be planting in the fall, Forest Steward Linda Becker said.
Among the native plants will be Douglas fir, western red cedar, salal, snowberry, red flowering currant and a diversity of other plantings,” Castle said.
Since the greenbelt doesn’t have water systems, the volunteers lug buckets of water from their houses to help sustain the plants after the rain season is over, Becker said.
Removing invasive species is hard but important work.
Holly, ivy, clematis and blackberry take over native plants, harming the ecosystem and taking away habitats for local wildlife, Becker said.
Holly is one of the toughest invasive species to remove.
“You can't dig it out because it spreads with its roots, which are really quite deep, so they have to be treated with some sort of herbicide from above,” Becker said.
While volunteers pull out the ivy and blackberries themselves, a professional arborist is on hand from the city to treat the holly, Becker said.
People plant holly all over the city, often unaware of the harm it causes, Becker said. English ivy, fragrant water lily and butterfly bush are other common invasive plants sold at local stores.
Black cottonwood is a native species, but it prevents Douglas fir, red cedar and evergreen trees from growing under it, so Becker hopes to prevent it from spreading.
“If we couldn't hold back cottonwood, we’d end up with not an evergreen forest at all,” Becker said.
According to its website, Green Seattle Partnership is a collaborative effort between the city, Forterra and volunteers “working together to create a sustainable network of healthy forested parkland throughout Seattle, supported by an aware, engaged public.”
Forterra is an environmental organization that buys up properties so they can become public land instead of getting developed, Becker said. The city supplies volunteers with tools and training to maintain the greenbelts.
“There are projects along major public stairways, near playgrounds and ballfields and event plantings near Interstate-5,” O'Connor said. “In this way, the work is made visible so people can see their investment and can learn about the importance of the work and how to get involved.”
Howard Langeveld, forest steward for the Southwest Queen Anne Greenbelt calls these green spaces “the lungs of Seattle.”
“These greenbelts are designed for trees, shrubs, flowers and herbaceous plants, for the birds, mammals and insects,” he said. “They help clean the air, water and soil, and they provide a sound buffer between industrial areas and residential areas above.”
COVID-19 has put greenbelt maintenance training on hold and limited the number of volunteers, but Becker hopes the Harrison Ridge group will expand after restrictions are lifted.
“We need to get a hardcore group of people that get together on a regular basis because that's the only way to keep the restoration activities,” Becker said.
Most Harrison Ridge Greenbelt volunteers live in the neighborhood and are in their 70s. A bigger issue in recruiting younger people is most can't afford their own homes or to pay Seattle rents, so many are only temporary residents, making it hard to form a dedicated group of volunteers.
“We had one fabulous volunteer last fall, and he has moved to Tacoma because he can't afford a place in Seattle,” Becker said.
Volunteering in local parks also highlights the Seattle homeless crisis.
“Initially, I worked over near Prospect and Elliot Avenue West. I spent three years there, and it just seemed like the homeless situation was too rough for my volunteers,” Langeveld said.
He said volunteers encounter tents on newly planted areas and a great deal of trash.
Langeveld wants the greenbelts to feel safe for neighbors and children.
“The ultimate goal is to restore 2,750 acres of forested parklands and commit to long-term stewardship and maintenance to safeguard over decades of investment from the city and its residents,” O’Connor said.
Green Seattle Partnership is also working to dismantle institutionalized racism, O’Connor said.
“GSP intentionally invests in neighborhoods that have not traditionally seen the same level of attention that some parks have received since the park system was created over 120 hundred years ago … We put people at the center of the restoration program while also building resilience in the urban ecosystem,” O’Connor said.
Langeveld’s goal, which he set when he started working in 2010, is to make the greenbelt all native plant life in 26 years. Currently, the Southwest Queen Anne Greenbelt volunteers are meeting once a week to remove invasive plants.
Becker's goal is to expand the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt, which is about six and a half acres, and turn more of it into native Northwest indigenous plants and have a commitment with some younger people who are going to live in Seattle for a long time.
Becker dreams of families working on their local greenbelt and having it be a key nature outlet for neighborhood kids.
“Some of the trees and other native plants we install today will endure for centuries, much longer than some of the traditional gray infrastructure that supports our city life,” O’Connor said.
To learn about volunteering for the Harrison Ridge Greenbelt, email HarrisonRidgeVolunteer@gmail.com.
Visit the Green Seattle Partnership.