Note: This piece originally appeared in the Seattle Times on June 25th, 2021.
As a city of innovation, Seattle has given much to the world — grunge music, jumbo jets and Chuckits!, for example. But one of its most powerful innovations is both unheralded and endangered — the Neighborhood Matching Fund.
The matching fund is a city grant program that offers monetary support for community projects in exchange for matching volunteer time, donated materials, donated professional services or cash. It’s an ingenious model that empowers neighborhood-level decision-making, encourages innovative collaborations and cultivates social trust.
There are several tiers of matching fund grants. The Small Sparks and Small Matching Fund grants help communities take modest community-building steps, such as hosting events or planning processes. The Large Project Fund typically funds bigger construction projects (up to $100,000) supporting communities in realizing their hopes and dreams.
Seattle owes some of its most beloved spaces to the Large Project Fund in particular: The Fremont Troll, Duwamish Longhouse, Eritrean Community Hall, and dozens of neighborhood parks, playgrounds and community gardens across the city.
The matching fund has been replicated in dozens of cities and towns across the world, thanks to the missionary zeal of Jim Diers, who midwifed the program as the first director of the Department of Neighborhoods.
One would expect Seattle to be matching its construction-crane prowess with a blossoming of newly constructed matching fund-supported community projects.
Sadly, that’s not the case. As a landscape architect who supports community-led place-making projects, I have become increasingly disheartened and alarmed by the decline of city support and the increasing barriers confronting passionate community groups who want to shape the places where they live.
One factor is the rapid rise of construction costs, which has created daunting challenges for impassioned groups raising money for construction. According to the Mortenson Index, for example, the cost of construction in Seattle has gone up more than 50% since 2009.
More striking, however, is how annual city budgets have chipped away at the matching fund. City budgeting data shows the overall funding for the matching fund, after adjusting for inflation, at less than half of its peak in 2001.
In the last few years, the Department of Neighborhoods has even stopped issuing Large Matching Fund grants altogether, focusing instead on projects in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. See the chart below.
Without the Large Project Fund communities are left high and dry when they want to move beyond events or planning to realize their dreams in the built environment.
This is especially tragic since large tangible improvements, like reclaiming an abandoned right of way or rebuilding a playground, result in exponentially more participation and social benefit.
The higher stakes of construction motivate more people to get involved and allow for more diverse participation beyond just attending meetings. And citizen-led physical improvements provide alternative spaces and legacies that counter our city’s dizzying developer-driven transformation.
The profound innovation of the matching fund is that it puts the power back in the hands of the people through the places where we live — our neighborhoods. It allows place-based communities to directly decide what is important to them without forcing them to meet the pre-existing criteria of siloed funding sources.
And by requiring matching volunteer efforts, the matching fund ensures that the process knits together a stronger and more resilient social fabric. The Large Project Fund leverages this for maximum impact.
The matching fund’s decline is indicative of the many ways Seattle’s recent leadership has engineered a shift toward top-down control. Money intended for our neighborhoods is now increasingly directed by hand-picked task forces and committees whose work sits more comfortably within the grasp of the mayor’s office.
The matching fund represents an alternative vision of our city that trusts the wisdom of its citizens and directly empowers them to shape the city in their image. It is a vision that understands that our city’s success hinges upon its ability involve citizens directly in public life through strong, connected and supportive place-based communities.
Former Mayor Paul Schell once campaigned on this vision, promising to triple the budget for the then-popular matching-fund program. With political races for mayor and city council heating up, let’s put the Neighborhood Matching Fund and our neighborhoods back into the center of our city’s decision-making, and our city’s shaping.