Defining Sustainability: South Kelso Revitalization Plan

This is another installment of an ELGL original content series titled “Defining Sustainability” by Beth Otto.  Beth is sharing her perspective on the varying definitions of sustainability and her experiences in implementing sustainability strategies.

Revitalizing South Kelso, WA

Document: The South Kelso Revitalization Plan

Sustainable Communities are about much more than green buildings, bike lanes and solar panels. The heart of this movement is about community development and local resident empowerment. Kelso, Washington is on the leading edge of addressing an issue that many small towns across the country are grappling with: how to transform what used to be a resource extraction based economy into a new, thriving and self sufficient economy, based around empowering the current residents.

The residents of Kelso are doing this by focusing on the neighborhood that has been historically under-invested in, South Kelso, to catalyze revitalization in this neighborhood and the rest of the city. They enlisted the help of a group of Master of Urban and Regional Planning Students from Portland State University to guide the development of the South Kelso Revitalization Plan, a community driven effort. As Steve Taylor, Kelso City Manager retells it: “The community was engaged and we received great input from the start. It is so important to find out what people really want to do in their neighborhood; this makes it a grass roots effort, led by community members, that pulls in related nonprofit organizations. There are a number of organizations here who jumped on this opportunity because it furthers their mission.”

The Plan seeks to build capacity, self sufficiency, and social capital within the neighborhood by investing in the people, as well as improving the physical appearance and historic character of the neighborhood by investing in places.

The development of a Neighborhood Association will help residents identify and then communicate their needs to all levels of government, fundraise for project implementation, and build moral and volunteerism. Community members are already moving on this strategy and have the first meeting planned. Amy Mullerleile, City of Kelso Assistant to the City Manager said: “this process of organizing and advertising the first meeting has been truly collaborative. People have been actively seeking this out and asking how they can make it happen.” Taylor added: “There is a level of genuine interest from the residents and nonprofit partners that makes it very promising that the neighborhood association will be able to get traction and become a viable organization for the long-run. The success rests upon the the work they are doing to make the neighborhood association the voice of the community.” The group will have City liaisons, one of them in the Police Department, which will bolster safety related activities.

Investment in Community Schools will build the educational attainment of neighborhood kids, provide education and training opportunities for residents, and centralize access to services and resources. The Elementary School in South Kelso, similar to many small towns, is the center of the neighborhood and already a gathering point and a source of pride. This makes it a natural location for investment in people.

An economic gardening initiative, focused on the downtown, will help aspiring entrepreneurs take the necessary steps to start a business. The philosophy is that, by building and investing in local talent, more people will have access to living wage jobs, and more money will be circulated in the local economy. “This strategy is going to take a partnership between the City and economic development and business organizations,” Taylor noted.

Small towns, like Kelso, may be more sustainable then we realize. For instance, Kelso boasts a highly walkable residential and commercial core, with close access to industrial and farm land. The historic housing stock has great potential for renovation. Neighborhood beautification and graffiti removal can go a long way toward increasing public safety. As this Plan and this community effort have shown, building community from within and creating opportunities for residents to advance their skills, education, and economic attainment may be the way forward in truly sustainable community development.

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