Resilience hubs have been taking off in other states over the past decade, while the idea has been simmering in Seattle for at least a few years. Elected leaders and some residents see them as a way to keep more people safe from climate disasters in the short term, while making the city’s infrastructure and communities more resilient, green and sustainable over the long term.
Local hub projects, though, have only recently begun receiving the money and research needed to launch facilities. Between JumpStart Seattle levy funding, mayoral and Seattle City Council support, and a federal grant to develop hubs at the regional level, resilience hubs are getting closer to opening here.
The city is designing a resilience-hub strategy as advised by the Green New Deal Oversight Board, while the city’s Office of Emergency Management is coordinating a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant that could enable people in eight Puget Sound counties to bring hubs to their neighborhoods.
“Our community members have been thinking about this strategy and talking about it for years,” said Lylianna Allala, climate justice director for Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. “Some of our most brilliant ideas are coming straight from the people that are experiencing the impacts first and worst. And so I’m really glad that we’re able to work in partnership to enact the strategy.”
Resilience in all senses of the word
Being community-tailored — and thus unique to each community — resilience hubs are by design somewhat hard to define. But they focus on resilience in three key ways: They help people shelter from disasters in locations that are safe and trusted. They give people tools to strengthen community bonds and skills that improve their overall self-reliance. And the buildings themselves are resilient — powered with green energy that’s sustainable and reliable in a crisis, and reducing pollution in communities that often bear the brunt of it.
The idea didn’t spring up overnight. But the name did.
Soon after starting as Baltimore’s climate and resilience planner in 2012, Kristin Baja set up dozens of community listening sessions, and discovered a disconnect between the communities she wanted to serve and their feelings about the city’s emergency shelters. People generally distrusted city-run shelters, and wanted more support in handling crises.
Baja recalls coining the name “resilience hub”: “I remember being in my office really, really late, [thinking] these need to be holistic, year-round, and the community has to have a lot of ownership and self-determination in the site. They can build relationships, they can come together … and government, instead of running 70 different types of outreach campaigns, they can funnel all that information into a trusted space and not overwhelm community members with different outreach programs.”
Baja tested four hubs in Baltimore, and eventually started writing white papers and guides on best practices around resilience hubs for the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, where she now serves as the director of direct support and innovation.
While they take different forms, successful hubs are built around five design concepts, Baja said:
Services and programs, like year-round classes and meetings, that are helpful in emergencies but also in daily life;
Communications tools like radio, Wi-Fi, and other ways of information-sharing during and outside of a crisis;
Buildings and landscape improvements like water storage, farms and gardens;
Cost-effective, reliable power, especially including off-grid battery storage, that helps hubs be resilient;
Operations plans that help the hub function during disruptions, during recovery, and every day;
And each of these need to be accessible for people of all abilities.
At least 135 different hubs were in the works, in varying stages of readiness, as of mid-2022, Baja said, with at least 10 hubs actively up and running across the country, including in California, Maryland and Massachusetts.
The ones that are excelling center people’s daily needs, not specific disasters, she said. When COVID hit, many hubs were already primed to serve as resource centers for food, water, Wi-Fi and child-care assistance, and became places to access information about vaccines and, sometimes, get vaccines.
One hub that is up and running well is the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory Hub in Boyle Heights, California, which Baja has been working with since 2018. The hub was a natural expansion of the conservatory’s existing capacities and programming, said Executive Director Carmelita Ramírez-Sánchez. For instance, the conservatory already had a lot of radio and arts offerings before the pandemic. It used those resources to help neighbors keep up with public health notices about COVID, Baja said. “A resiliency hub doesn’t need to be complicated or super-fancy, [but] it does need to be welcoming, and ebb and flow with the needs of those who it will serve,” Ramírez-Sánchez said.
Hubs coming to Seattle
Over the past year, Seattle has shuttled millions of dollars toward developing a resilience hub strategy, urged by the Green New Deal Oversight Board.
Last year, the mayor’s office announced $2.4 million to fund hub development, including a study looking into needs and potential hub placement. The City Council is adding $1.5 million in JumpStart levy dollars to implement recommendations from that study.
“In every way, I think something like a resilience hub can actually create the interwoven programs that we are seeing a growing need for,” said councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored a related budget proposal. “We want people to be able to go there to be able to find refuge from extreme climates as well as seek assistance for job security, food assistance, Wi-Fi … What the community decides is needed, is what we fund and invest in.”
The federal government is also expanding resilience-hub opportunities in the region. On Sept. 23, 2022, FEMA gave the city a Regional Catastrophic Preparedness Grant that the city Office of Emergency Management’s Kate Hutton says is being directed toward developing resilience hubs in as many as 30 communities in eight Puget Sound counties. The city Office of Emergency Management project will involve working directly with communities to create tailorable and scalable models for hubs, and identify neighborhoods that want and need them.
Allala from the Office of Sustainability and Environment says Seattle hubs would be in places that make sense for people where they live, even if that means they’re not in city-owned spaces like community centers or libraries. “It’s not about asking our residents to go to a place that we as the city have, like, anointed,” she said. “They’re identifying that for themselves and for us, too.”
Consuelo Crow from the city Office of Emergency Management says the regional hubs will be similar, and the goal is to create a model that is scalable. Tacoma is also pursuing resilience hub projects, she says.
At least one hub is in development in Seattle, at Bethany United Church of Christ campus on South Beacon Hill. OSE will receive $455,000 this year from the JumpStart Fund to put toward a South Beacon Hill resilience hub. The planners are weatherizing and looking to sustainably electrify the church campus, which includes a farm, child care, organizations like Got Green, Nurturing Roots, the ReWa Beacon Hill Early Learning Center, the Black Power Epicenter Cooperative and more. The community picked this trusted and already popular gathering site as a location for the hub.
Councilmember Tammy Morales, who represents Beacon Hill, sponsored the related budget action for the Bethany UCC hub, which is also receiving funding from climate-focused charities.
“These organizations are active in the community, they have constituencies that are mostly people of color … who don’t necessarily have a lot of time to think about climate emergencies,” Morales said. “I think it’s important that there are opportunities to create space like this, especially when it is driven by community members and neighborhood organizations that are really focused on ensuring that vulnerable communities have a place to go in the event of another heat event or smoke event.” She hopes the process of building hubs will provide green jobs and skills training that can be used for building green infrastructure elsewhere.
Leaders behind the South Beacon Hill hub aren’t quite ready to share more details about their plans publicly, said Green New Deal Oversight Board Co-Chair Maria Batayola via email.
In addition to the South Beacon Hill hub, Allala said a coalition of organizations in South Park and Georgetown have shown interest in a hub, and are working together to make that happen.
Allala said it’s unclear how many hubs might be needed, but that the city will need to figure that out through outreach and engagement efforts.
But it’s certain that they won’t be everywhere — and that too is by design.
“The concept of resilience hubs isn’t necessarily to support the entire city’s population, but rather to focus on our most overburdened communities,” Allala said.