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In Kent, a garden empowers those most impacted by climate change

A community garden in Kent is in the spotlight as an example of climate action that empowers people who are disproportionally impacted by climate change.

The Paradise Parking Plots Community Garden fills more than an acre on a hillside that used to be an underused parking lot. The church next door donated the land.  

King County Executive Dow Constantine highlighted the project when he unveiled his latest Climate Action Plan. A first public hearing on the plan takes place Wednesday, before a committee of the King County Council.   

“We de-paved the area. And we took away about 50,000 square feet of asphalt and built each one of the plots,”  Tahmina Martelly says, as she leads a tour. She’s the resiliency programs manager with World Relief Seattle, which spearheaded this project. 

Martelly says people from 23 countries are tending the land here. Their national flags fly above the 50 plots, and there’s a central gathering place. Most of the gardeners are immigrants and refugees. Martelly herself fled Bangladesh at age 9.

“The best way for people to feel rooted in a new place is to have access to land,” she says.  

The changing climate drove the design. Experts predict heavier rainfall in the future, so multiple rain gardens here filter runoff, which keeps it from polluting sensitive rearing areas for salmon fry in nearby Mill CreekFive huge cisterns capture rainwater. Martelly says they deliver 80 percent of the water the gardeners need, saving money on utility bills.

“And so not only do we use it for irrigation, but it directly affects the watershed and the salmon production. It's a win-win, she says

There also are compost bins, so the growers can bring any food waste back and turn it into fertilizer; most of them live in apartments that don’t provide compost pick up.

And the gardens, which the community helped design, have become a hub for collective climate action. Martelly says the inclusion of people of color in policy decisions about climate change in the proposed 2020 action plan — and others who are hit hardest or hit first by the impacts of climate change — is important. She feels this community garden helps illustrate why: immigrants and refugees who live nearby were included in the planning from the start.

“Usually it's already designed and then you're invited to participate," she says. "But what if we included people from the very beginning?”

She says this project provides the answer: it creates a sense of ownership for people who don’t have land of their own and don’t normally feel like they have any say in climate issues.

“Because if you're trying to have three jobs and put food on the table, you don't really care what's happening to the orca or the salmon," she says. "That seems too far away. Or a climate change seems like such a big problem. You don't think about it.”

This garden brings it home and provides small actions and changes people can make collectively, to help them care and feel like they can make a difference.

But the biggest benefit for the gardeners — the thing that draws them in, Martelly says — is that they can grow familiar things that they’re missing. As we walk through the plots, she shows me dragon tongue beans, mulukhiyah, amaranth, bitter melon and spiky, bright green hairy gourds — to name just a few.

A hairy gourd (with its trademark spikey skin) growing at Paradise Parking Plots Community Garden in Kent.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX
A hairy gourd (with its trademark spikey skin) growing at Paradise Parking Plots Community Garden in Kent.

“So really a lot of things (that) you are not going to find that at your local grocery store,” she says.

Martelly says people also share their seeds and recipes, pooling their knowledge from many different cultures. All of these vibrant exchanges have transformed what was long an underused space.

“It was just a giant empty parking lot. It's the parking lot I learned how to ride my bike in. That's how long this has been here,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said at the unveiling of the 2020 Climate Action Plan last month. She added that now, the garden has taught her about "culturally responsive food."

“I will be honest. It's not something I'd ever thought of," Ralph says. "But now when I go to the grocery store, I look around and that's the phrase that's in my head. And I want to make sure that every resident in my community has a food supply that makes sense to them, that they're used to cooking, that helps them feel like this is home.”  

The mayor says this project has brought people of all ages and different cultures together. She hopes other communities all around the region will look to it as a model for climate action.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to