Throwing Neighborhoods Out With the Neighborhood Councils

City Hall’s anti-geographic rhetoric holds no water.

Earlier this year, on a visit to Department of Neighborhood director Kathy Nyland’s office in City Hall, a Seattle Weekly reporter noted a sticker on her door that read “HALA yes!” “I didn’t put that there!” Nyland was quick to say. You couldn’t blame her for being defensive.

The Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda had badly frayed the relationship between City Hall and the neighborhoods Nyland’s office ostensibly represented. Of particular concern were the recommendations favored by developers and tenant-rights advocates that allowed duplexes and triplexes in parts of the city heretofore reserved for single-family homes. That recommendation, adopted by Mayor Ed Murray with the stated intent of quelling the city’s skyrocketing real-estate prices, was seen by many in the leafy hinterlands north of the Ship Canal as a direct strike against their “neighborhood character.” Nyland was stuck in the middle.

However, the Department of Neighborhoods could stay neutral for only so long. On Monday, it made its move. In a 10-page report released with little fanfare, the department issued a stinging indictment of Seattle’s neighborhood-based district council system. Created 30 years ago, Seattle’s councils, 13 in all, are a manifestation of Seattle as a “city of neighborhoods,” a formal place at the table for the quirks and nuances of Seattle’s various burgs. But per the Department’s report, the councils also represent “a valid, yet narrow, niche” and “don’t work for everyone because of the existing barriers to participation.” In other words, they were packed with old, rich, white people.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because Murray said essentially the same thing when he pre-empted the department’s report with a surprise announcement last Wednesday that he would dissolve all formal relationships between the mayor’s office and the councils. (For more on Murray’s announcement, click here). The mayor’s announcement rendered the Department of Neighborhood’s report a ceremonial shovelful of dirt on the district council system’s grave. And yet the report is worth pondering, as it seems to indicate a new City Hall stance toward not just neighborhood councils, but neighborhoods in general—that stance being that they are completely overrated.

“Every community group, including District Councils, should welcome new and emerging community groups and organizations into their membership,” reads one section of the report that is impossible to argue against. But then things get weird. “This could prove challenging as many of our existing systems and programs largely define ‘community’ as being primarily geographic in nature, leaving out those who build and experience community around non-geographic concepts, like language, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or issue-based interests.”

Geographic concepts? Is that all South Park and Wallingford and Lake City and Rainier Beach are?

This mind-set should get rooted out of city government before it takes further hold. Neighborhoods, unlike religions or languages, are at their very essence the product of city governance: The city decided where the houses would go and where the businesses would go, where the crosswalks would go and where the playgrounds would go. For those charged with overseeing the further development of the city to now suggest that the functioning of these individual neighborhoods should be of no more concern than the functioning of a particular immigrant population or tax-bracket is, simply put, a dereliction of duty.

This isn’t to say there weren’t problems with the neighborhood council system as it existed prior to Murray’s action last week. It was indeed dominated by older, richer white people. This too the Department of Neighborhoods report bore out. But to use the lack of diversity—a condition that plagues all sorts of institutions in our city—as a pretense to summarily dismiss the very concept of neighborhood-based decision-making makes little sense.

The Department of Neighborhoods is scheduled to develop a new community-input framework to replace neighborhood councils over the coming months, and present it to the City Council in September. As it does, it should maintain its worthy goal of finding ways to include more diverse voices in conversations about our neighborhoods. But in doing so, the city should also ensure that the neighborhoods it helped create remain more than just “geographic concepts.”

This editorial has been modified for the sake of clarity.

Talk to us

Please share your story tips by emailing

More in News & Comment

Patti Cole-Tindall (Courtesy of King County)
Patti Cole-Tindall is officially confirmed as the new King County Sheriff

After serving as the interim sheriff since January, the King County Council… Continue reading

World War II veterans in Auburn, Wash. File photo
Washington ranks 7th among states for number of World War II veterans

12,364 WWII veterans are living in the state, with a total population of 517,912 military veterans.

Photo of promotional recruitment banner used by Auburn Police Department at Petpalooza. The banner features Auburn Police Officer Jeff Nelson, who is awaiting trial for the 2019 murder and assault of Jesse Sarey. Photo courtesy of Jeff Trimble
Auburn police use photo of embattled officer on recruitment banner

Families of people killed by Jeffrey Nelson, who’s awaiting trial for murder, speak out over use of his photo at Petpalooza.

Use your King County library card to explore the outdoors

KCLS cardholders can check out a Discover Pass for two weeks to explore public lands.

Monkeypox virus. Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.
King County identifies first presumptive monkeypox case

The illness is not as easily transmitted compared to COVID-19, according to health officer.

This screenshot from Auburn Police Department bodycam footage shows an officer about to fire his weapon and kill dog on May 13, 2022.
Auburn police shoot dog, and owner claims it wasn’t justified

See videos of attack as well as bodycam footage of officer firing at dog.

File photo.
King County Council approves creation of Cannabis Safety Taskforce amid rash of dispensary robberies

The multi-agency task force will cooperate to find ways to improve safety in the cash-only industry.

Screenshot from ORCA website
New ORCA system launches for regional transit across the Puget Sound

Overhaul includes new website, mobile application and digital business account manager.

Most Read