Cultural Climate Action
Water Conservation as Social Justice with Ellen Southard & Marin Bjork of Site Story
May 10, 2023
Terry sits down with Ellen Southard and Marin Bjork of Site Story, a local service organization focused on sustainable issues. Ellen and Marin discuss the importance of water conservation, healthy filtration systems, and the importance of water infrastructure in communities, and how Site Story is working to make these systems more sustainable and accessible.
Learn More About Guests Ellen Southard and Marin Bjork
Ellen Southard is the founder of Site Story, an organization dedicated to community enrichment through human-centered sustainable initiatives. For nearly two decades, Ellen has worked on creating green stormwater infrastructure and low impact development projects. Site Story currently runs the 2030 District Stormwater Program, and is also a strategic partner with Salmon Safe. Ellen is an Oxfam Ambassador, and also serves on the Puget Sound Partnership Ecosystems Coordination Board and Puget Sound Partnership Environmental Caucus. She received her Master’s in Diversity and Social Inclusion from Cornell University in 2019.
Since 2013, Marin has supported Site Story in a variety of urban projects and developments to integrate sustainable strategies and encourage placemaking through community design. Marin is a licensed landscape architect and works across all phases of research and community design planning for Site Story’s range of projects. Marin is passionate about stormwater policy development and its ability to improve communities and ecosystems. She earned a Master’s degree in Whole Systems Design, as well BA’s in Norwegian and Anthropology.
Terry Phelan: Welcome to the Living Shelter Podcast, where we explore ways to create healthy, energy efficient and joyful places to live. I’m your host Terry Phelan, a Pacific Northwest native, and an architect with over 30 years experience designing with a focus on sustainable options. Our goal at Living Shelter is to help you expand your toolkit so you can help build a resilient future that includes comfortable and sustainable places for all of us to live. Our guests share their years of experience and one or more of the many facets of the green and natural building industries. With topics from material choices for health and wellness, to energy efficiency and regenerative site design, and some big picture ideas from thought leaders we think you’ll find inspiring.
In this episode of Living Shelter, we’re going to dive into water as a resource and as a means of healing on multiple levels. In our maritime Pacific Northwest, it can be easy to believe we have plenty of water, and that conservation is not that important. But water needs filtration between its use, or interaction with our infrastructure, and entering the water table or waterway. We also have lots of buildings, roads and other impervious surfaces that affect the condition and availability of clean water for people and marine life.
Enter Site Story, a local service organization whose work intersects community initiatives, engagement, conservation, green building, culture, and interpretive education. They believe all these elements are foundational to revealing our stories in place. They are Ellen Southard, and Marin Bjork. And join us here today to talk about some of their exciting projects and initiatives. Welcome, Ellen and Marin.
Ellen Southard: Thanks, Terry; it’s great to be here.
Marin Bjork: Great to be here.
Terry Phelan: So, one of the things I love about Site Story is that you were working in placemaking, and storytelling — the fact that story is part of your name kind of reveals that — explain a little bit about what is, what is placemaking?
Ellen Southard: I think placemaking is really how you can define the individual character of a neighborhood or community. You mentioned culture, and that’s something we really focus on, we want to embrace cultural history and cultural diversity within our communities. And it’s an intersection with the built environment and nature. And I want to, also Marin is an expert at placemaking as a landscape architect, so I want to give her a chance to answer that question, too.
Marin Bjork: And people are definitely an important part of placemaking. You bring them together, help them find a way to describe the place that they want to be building, and you find ways to help them build it. And there’s just so many ways to go about that. But especially when we have big problems to solve, I think placemaking is a great tool for bringing people together, educating, learning together, and then finding new solutions together. That will make a higher quality of life for all of us.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, I think a lot of our work is about, is around community planning. It’s also about human ecology. It’s where humans impact nature, and where they come together to solve nature’s problems and to protect and recover natural systems. And I think that’s a lot of how we approach the philosophy of our work and how we engage communities, too, is reminding them that even in the most urbanized environment, you’re part of nature, and there’s a way to bring nature back into urbanized places,
Terry Phelan: How do you engage communities? What are some of the tactics or methods that you use to get community and people in a community to respond to ideas about changes in their community, and how to make a personal contribution to that?
Ellen Southard: I think at the forefront of our work is we want everyone’s voices to feel valued. And so we’re very encouraging, and I think we’re pretty accessible. And Marin and I, we have a lot of fun at work. And we want to make sure that when people are talking about their communities, and they’re coming together to look at projects, like right now we’re working on the growth management plan, the comprehensive plan with the City of Sammamish. And we’ve put together some exercises that are focused on empowering people’s voices and having them feel like they’re at the seat of decision making in terms of how to make investments. We created a game called Sammy Bucks, which is based on Sammamish dollars, and how they could invest those dollars. We encourage people to tell stories and to tell their story. So that’s an important part of it. I’d say the other really important part of it is to meet people where they are. Yeah, so we go to the churches, we go to the community centers, I mean, we had a great interaction on the Sammamish project for Valentine’s Day where a lot of the Sammamish Boys and Girls Clubs made valentines telling the city what they liked about the city.
Terry Phelan: Oh, how sweet.
Ellen Southard: So, that youth engagement is really important. We focus on multi-generational engagement, as well as making sure that we’re bringing diverse people to the table who might not always be heard.
Marin Bjork: Yeah, that I would say that that was definitely a fun activity. And initially, it might be a lot of cold calling, as people, it takes a little bit for them to get to know you and why you’re calling and kind of go, “Oh, okay, you’re calling about that again. Yeah, we want to do something.” And that was completely the experience we had with the Boys and Girls Club; it took a little while to get through because they’re very busy. And, and once we made connection, and they were throwing out lots of ideas. And I think they even brought treats to the city staff, didn’t they?
Ellen Southard: Yeah, they made chocolate covered strawberries, and like cupcakes and things like that, to thank the staff for inviting their opinions. So that was a beautiful, rewarding. It was a great gratifying exchange.
Terry Phelan: I love that I think that children’s voices are not always heard outside the home, or, you know, the school. And the fact that you’ve invited them to participate, just area made them feel good to be included, and be involved and feel like they’re making a difference.
Marin Bjork: And it starts an expectation, I think, for an individual that is invited to speak, and then they expect us to have their voice heard. And so then as they grow, and there’ll be looking to include others. And I think that that spirit of generosity, the inclusion is, we’re gonna get a lot farther, if we can find more and more ways to do that together.
And we follow up with tools, too. We want to make sure that those neighborhoods know that they’ve been heard. So sometimes it might be an infographic, the survey results… In the case of the City of Sammamish, we’ve been working on blogs after there’s events. And we share what the community opinion was, and the numbers of people that showed up, and who showed up. So, transparency is at the core too, is letting people know that yes, they were heard. And here’s who we heard from.
Marin Bjork: And that is the beauty of websites today. There’s such a quick turnaround with information that we can get that uploaded and people can see evidence of the impact.
Terry Phelan: Right. Do you find that there’s a different level of engagement with different communities, say, City of Sammamish versus, let’s say, in the Duwamish? Because I know you’re doing some work there that we’ll talk about here in a minute.
Ellen Southard: Well, in the Duwamish, first of all, it’s just been an extraordinary opportunity. We focused on, in the Duwamish, we focused on meeting with community groups who had already built trust in their neighborhoods. And also it was extremely important that we had multilingual outreach and that we, you know, that we had language capacity. And so, it was very important to partner with the Duwamish River Community Coalition and also the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps. And in the case of the Duwamish, we shared a lot of information about what the challenges were there. And again, we actually created tours for the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps so they could see some of the stormwater solutions that were in other parts of the city so they could start to imagine how we could bring certain solutions to them. And for folks who might be listening in, what’s happened in the Duwamish is the largest Superfund site in America.
Terry Phelan: Right. That was something I wanted to make sure that we talked about. I don’t think people realize that right here in super green, progressive Seattle, we have the largest Superfund site, cleanup site, in the country.
Ellen Southard: In the country. Yes, it’s highly affected by industrial uses and port uses. And in fact, has the lowest, or I guess it’s the highest, mortality rate, lowest longevity. I live in Fremont. And folks in the Duwamish, will have by actuarial standards, probably have 11 to 13 years less of a lifespan than people who live in the Fremont neighborhood. So, it was really important to us that we be able to participate in social and environmental equity there. And admittedly, had met quite a few people from the Duwamish. And we’re inspired to work with them. And we specifically wrote a grant with Salmon Safe and Boeing so that we could help support that community. It was just, it was an amazing opportunity. And the youth just energized us.
Marin Bjork: Yeah, they were fantastic to go on the tour with number one to walk through South Park and to kind of see what we’ve been working on there, right next to the bridge and the bioswale that comes down, and of course, neglect of permeable paving. And so, what does that look like? And you’re like, oh, we can start to be a detective at our own communities to go, okay, what’s going on here and what needs to happen. And so that was an interesting conversation with them as we walk through there, and then moving on up to Fremont and looking at our Cadillac version of bioswales. They’re so beautiful, and they’re lovely. I mean, they’re great example. They do a lot of — they’re work horses. But then when we got to the site next to the Weber Thompson watershed building, how fascinated they were by the concept of Living Buildings. So there were opportunities left and right to talk about different sustainability pieces, but getting to travel and getting to talk about place. It opens new doors that plant seeds for later. So I’d be really excited to see, if we ever get to meet any of these kids again, and find out what they thought about it from their perspective over time.
Terry Phelan: Right. I was just thinking to be able to track these, these young people, say in 10 years, find out where they are, where they’ve decided their career path is going to take them, and feeling that gratification of learning that you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life, and the ripple effect of what that difference can be. You’ve mentioned a couple of different things here that I want to come back around to. But I want to go back for a minute to the Duwamish. And just help people understand what’s been going on there and why this work is so important there. The fact that it’s a Superfund site, of course, means that it’s highly degraded on the environmental front. And I’m guessing that’s a lot of pollution from diesel from shipping and industry in the area. What else has been affecting that?
Ellen Southard: Well, there’s legacy pollution from all the industrial manufacturing there and different, you know, different land uses, and land use over time where there were different requirements from an environmental performance perspective. I mean, a lot of that legacy pollution predates the Clean Water Act, of course, so you have legacy pollution in the soils. But then you also, because it’s a major part of port operations, and close to the airport and close to Boeing, you have carbon issues in terms of air quality, and that’s probably the biggest impact of all on human health there is the air quality.
Terry Phelan: Okay.
Ellen Southard: But the other thing is, is that the carbon doesn’t just end up in people’s lungs, it ends up on the ground, and when we have heavy rainstorms, that carbon gets released into the waterway into the Duwamish waterway, which is also a salmon bearing river. It’s important to the Duwamish tribe. And there’s also a large number of different cultural identity groups there that fish as part of their diet. And so, you know, you’re not just worried about what’s out happening on the ground or in the water, you’re worried about what’s happening in people’s lungs. But then we have to have concerns about how much fish can people eat. And when you are from an underserved population, and you live below the average income, you might actually really depend on that fish, for your diet and to feed your family. And you have the fishing industry of the Duwamish tribe. And so all of that — there’s an interconnectedness in there that you can’t avoid.
Terry Phelan: A whole web of life that’s happening.
Ellen Southard: Yes. And then when we had the interruption for several years of the West Seattle Bridge, which is a major transportation corridor to get there, you had more and more vehicles in less highway. I mean, you could see trucks lined up for hours with their engines running. And, I mean, you put all this together, where you’ve got these traffic jams with vehicles and big trucks, and you’ve got carbon in the air.
Terry Phelan: I never thought about how air quality might affect water quality. That’s an a-ha moment for me. I know the Duwamish tribe is there and the fisheries have been greatly affected by the pollution but I haven’t connected the air with the water.
Ellen Southard: Well, and then it’s, you take that next step in that ocean acidification is accelerated in colder temperatures. And the Puget Sound is a very cold body of water. I mean, typically its highest temperature is 58 degrees. And so, ocean acidification accelerates in colder water and the Duwamish feeds into the Puget Sound. So that has that has an impact on more fish than just what’s running up the Duwamish because then that pollution is spread throughout Puget Sound, and it impacts a wide variety of marine habitat and shorelines.
Terry Phelan: Yeah. Okay, that’s a lot to absorb.
Ellen Southard: It’s a big, complex issue.
Marin Bjork: Not to mention the flood, the perfect storm situation we just had back in December.
Ellen Southard: Right, the king tide.
Marin Bjork: The king tide with copious amounts of rain and the flooding that hit South Park. And when you have soils that have been best not to be disturbed, basically labelled for them…
Terry Phelan: All that bubbling up of things that should have been left undisturbed.
Marin Bjork: So there are a lot of issues that we’re still learning a lot about, but especially in climate resilience and thinking about our bigger storm events that are happening during a winter, we have a lot to think about. Yes, how we plan our landscapes and how we resolve stormwater issues — are the opportunities to be cleaning this water as it moves from our parcels out to water bodies, and what are the best strategies for that and where.
Terry Phelan: You’re listening to the Living Shelter Podcast. I’m your host Terry Phelan, and I’m talking with Ellen Southard and Marin Bjork of Site Story, about the confluence of water and social justice. So, you mentioned the South Park bridge, and you mentioned Fremont, and the work that you’ve been doing in Fremont: the Green Bridges project. I want to spend a little time there. What exactly is the Green Bridges project and how is it making a difference?
The Green Bridges project is a very unique situation where private landowners, developers, were willing to take — they were motivated by salmon recovery in Puget Sound — and were aware of some of the science around stormwater impacting salmon. So, this work occurred on the Aurora Bridge in Fremont at 34th and Troll, and then down below, adjacent to the Lake Washington Ship Canal at the end of Troll Avenue, and basically a number of us, KPFF, Weber Thompson, Salmon Safe, and the COU LLC, Steven Grey and Associates, came together to do the first-of-its-kind project of taking polluted stormwater off of bridges and moving it through bioswales before it’s released into the Lake Washington Ship Canal. And part of the research that’s been done has been that when Coho salmon, who are the most vulnerable of the species in the Lake Washington Ship Canal, were exposed to that polluted stormwater, they typically die within two hours of that exposure. And the Salmon Safe team of which I was part of, we did extensive water testing, and we discovered that there was a number of petroleum products, zinc, copper, that sort of thing. But there was also a chemical called 6-ppd quinone, which we now know is from tire dust. Wherever tires are, you’re going to find 6-ppd quinone. And that is probably the most lethal to marine habitat that is in that stormwater and that you’re going to find in stormwater coming off of every roadway in the world, because every tire manufacturer uses that chemical to preserve the rubber.
Terry Phelan: I knew that tire dust was an issue, I didn’t realize that it was a water quality issue.
Ellen Southard: Yes, yeah, it’s a big water quality issue. And there’s lots of scientists in our region studying it, like Washington State University and NOAA, and they are looking at the research that we did. But yes, that was a big factor. And there was a lot of other factors in terms of permitting and creating public benefit on private land, and how, you know, how do you permit a project, where you had a wide variety of government agencies and create new policies, and it’s really enlightened people in the Northwest. And now we’ve got more and more neighborhoods asking for these types of projects.
Terry Phelan: Oh, that’s so cool.
Ellen Southard: Marin, did you want to talk about the soils, and the importance of the soil and the bioswale?
Terry Phelan: I was just going to ask what, what exactly is a bioswale? I think people have heard the term, and our listeners may not know exactly what it is — similar to a rain garden, but in a larger application, I’m guessing, but I’d love to get your expert explanation.
Marin Bjork: So, that’s pretty much it. And so bioswales are a tool we can use in the landscape to slow down water, detain it for a little while, and let it slowly infiltrate either into the ground if the soils are appropriate, or move on through the landscape, eventually to another point where it would be eventually either put into the sewer, connected tied into the sewer, or actually deposited into a water body. Along the way, if that swale, the depression, is vegetated, then there the soils when they’re alive, are doing work on the microbial level. The plants can do work themselves, so phytoremediation, as well. And vegetated swales and healthy soils are some of the best things we can do for removing pollutants out of stormwater runoff as it moves through. Plants can do a very mechanical job of just stopping debris. So, helping to filter out silt, as some of those plants can be selected for uptake of metals. And so, there can be longer term roles that we as managers of these bioswales will have to take in order to manage for those plants’ health and for the bioswale health. So, they might have to uptake them and replant them. It’s not my realm, but it is possible. So, you pull in the right scientists and the right evaluation to be able to monitor those things. But from Dr. Jen McIntyre, who did a lot of the work that early on told us about the Coho and the 6-ppd quinone, we know soil and sand can do so much work for us. I think they all they did was run stormwater through the soil, and then exposed the Coho to it and the Coho survived. So, like, that simple action of moving stormwater, polluted stormwater through soil can actually clean it enough that we’re not killing the fish immediately. So, when we stop and think about what soil is — it’s living — it’s so easy to walk by soil and not really understand what’s going on. And again, I’m not a soil scientist, but I think the biggest thing that I’m taking away is that we need to feed our soils. We need to realize that they’re alive. We need to keep thinking about how to keep them at their healthiest state because they do so much work for us. They are one of the biggest places to sink carbon. Healthier soils will actually keep moisture in the ground, and so help our plants to better survive a dry summer. Healthier soils and biodiverse planting groups can actually help one another thrive. And they keep on giving. So, as we look for little simple things we can all do: grow your soil.
Terry Phelan: Building your soil.
Marin Bjork: Yeah, with organic material, I mean, arborist chips is one of the simplest things we can all be doing to build our soil if we don’t have a direct plan, just keep putting arborist chips and mulch on top of our soil.
Terry Phelan: And those break down over time. And in the meantime, they hold the moisture in and keep the weeds down.
Marin Bjork: And I happen to be on the no-till side; there are a lot of people who don’t necessarily prescribe to that, but the mycorrhizeal relationship of in the soil as well, is, I think, critical to helping to continue to build that soil as well. So, anything we can do to minimize the disturbance of the soil and let those little critters in there do their job and keep giving them fuel, then we’re going to get better and better healthier soils that are going to serve us over time as well as all the plants over time.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, that’s a great point. So, if you have a bioswale, or you have a rain garden, you don’t really want to walk on it. You want to you want to keep from stopping and compacting the soil.
Terry Phelan: We want to keep it loose and able to absorb.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, and bioswales and rain gardens are considered green stormwater infrastructure. So it’s really replicating nature and nature’s natural systems to counter the built environment and the disturbance of land.
Terry Phelan: I want to loop back to salmon. You mentioned the Coho and you mentioned Salmon Safe. And I know a little bit about Salmon Safe. I’m not sure how much our listeners know. What is Salmon Safe? And how long has it been working for us here in the in the Salish Sea area, as I like to call Puget Sound.
Ellen Southard: So, Salmon Safe has been around about 20 years, I got involved in 2007. It’s an eco-label, and it’s an eco-label that applies to land practices. So, it applies to farming and viticulture. It applies to urban development and campuses. It’s basically an eco-label that’s based on land use, and its criteria is focused on the biological needs of the Pacific Northwest salmon. It was founded in Portland. And so, you know, one of the important things is it’s an eco-label. (Some people might know about Built Green or LEED or the Living Building Challenge in terms of ratings for buildings.) This is based on sites and it’s based on using healthy materials. It’s also based on water conservation and preserving water for salmon. It’s based again on those natural systems. So, Salmon Safe encourages green stormwater infrastructure. It encourages using native plants, drought tolerant plants. And then it’s all about operations and maintenance and how you maintain the land over time. It’s pretty unique in the sense that it is tied to food systems as well as the built environment and urban land use. So, if you want to be part of problem solving, one of the things you can do is buy Salmon Safe certified food, Salmon Safe certified wine and beer. Or you could Salmon Safe certify your urban site. Like for instance, Vulcan Development, which is one of the larger more eco-friendly developers in the Pacific Northwest has done about 20 projects with Salmon Safe, because they really care about marine habitat. It’s also a science-based system. So, they have scientists on staff or, you know, part of their team, salmon biologists, landscape architects. They have a specialist that understands building materials. So, for instance, one of the more popular building products right now for commercial use is zinc cladding. Well, zinc is detrimental to the health of marine habitat. So, they look at what is on the outside of the building that is kind of where they really closely intersect with the building. And then they teach contractors how to manage their sites for salmon. So, it’s a very holistic and integrated approach to land management.
Terry Phelan: There was something I remember hearing that Salmon Safe isn’t just about saving salmon. But it’s the whole ecosystem around salmon, and how the orcas in our region, they feed on the salmon. So, if the salmon go away, the orcas go away.
Ellen Southard: That’s true. So salmon are an indicator species. If we can protect salmon, we can protect every species. It’s critical to orca survival, that we recover our salmon populations. Orcas, 92% of the orca diet is salmon. 82% of that 92% is Sockeye, which is an endangered species. The other 10 is Chinook. And so, if, if we don’t save the salmon, we’re going to lose the orcas too. So it really is, it’s the canary in the coal mine, so to speak, but in this case, it’s the Puget Sound.
Terry Phelan: Everything is connected.
Ellen Southard: Everything is connected. And when you think about the Pacific Northwest, salmon fishing provides over 200,000 jobs. And in Washington, it’s providing 14 billion to our state’s economy. Not to mention, you know, if you’re a tourist and you go to Pike Place Market, the first thing you’re going to do is go to one of the fish stands. You know, Bruce Springsteen was just here and caught a salmon. Spiritually, you cannot divorce the spiritual well-being and the financial well-being of indigenous people from salmon. A lot of our codes and approaches to zoning are based on salmon and based on honoring our tribal treaty rights. So, when I mean, part of the depth of our commitment to salmon is serving indigenous people. I mean, when we think about the work that we do around salmon recovery, and water quality, indigenous people are at the forefront of our concerns.
Terry Phelan: And I know the Duwamish tribe, as reflected in what’s going on with Superfund site at the Duwamish. And I know, you know, the whole social justice issue of tribes has been at the forefront of my thought process about how we honor this region. And you know, the ancestors that used to take care of it. I know that you’ve worked with tribes, on some different levels, even have received an award for your work with tribes. What are some of the things that you’ve been helping tribes recover?
Ellen Southard: Yeah, you know, probably one of the, I mean, obviously, the, the bioswales. And looking at water under the bridge, so to speak, and taking the polluted stormwater off bridges has been an important part. With Salmon Safe, of course, we’ve been able to focus on salmon recovery populations for tribes. I serve on the Puget Sound Partnership Ecosystems Board, and a lot of our work is really focused on how do we, I mean: recovering the ecosystem is supporting tribal treaty rights. And that’s a big part of it. So, I’m actually the vice co-chair of the Ecosystems Coordination Board for Puget Sound Partnership and I actually get to work with Dave Herrera, who is a tribal leader from the Skokomish tribe. And a lot of our work is dedicated to making sure that the way of life of indigenous people is preserved through salmon recovery and the recovery of Puget Sound.
Terry Phelan: So, what exactly is the Puget Sound Partnership?
Ellen Southard: Yeah, so the Puget Sound Partnership is a state funded and EPA funded organization that is focused on Puget Sound recovery and recovery of marine species. It is not a governing body, but it is a body that advises the government. Both the Feds, as well as, mostly, the state and works closely with a large collaboration of conservation districts and other government agencies that are focused on Puget Sound recovery and salmon recovery. We are equivalent to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in that sense.
Terry Phelan: Okay.
Ellen Southard: So, Chesapeake Bay is the largest estuary in the country and Puget Sound is the second largest estuary in the country. And Puget Sound Partnership began under Governor Christine Gregoire. I think around 2005.
Terry Phelan: Okay. And is that a public/private partnership? Or is it all on the public side?
Ellen Southard: Well, I would say it’s a public/private partnership in that we have private entities that serve on the board as well as public, like, the business community is represented. The shellfish communities, you know, the industries are represented, I happen to represent the environmental caucus. So, the caucus is made up of 36 environmental nonprofits within the state of Washington. And so, I was appointed by the caucus to serve on the board.
Terry Phelan: Okay.
Ellen Southard: So, it’s a really large collaboration of science, government, public sector, private sector, and NGOs coming together to solve these problems. But the staff of the Puget Sound Partnership is funded by the state.
Terry Phelan: Okay. Okay. And you say it’s been around for about 20 years.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, close to 20 years. And of course, you know, probably in a nutshell, part of our work is really to ensure, as much as possible, that we’re, as a state, committed to the Clean Water Act.
Terry Phelan: Okay.
Marin Bjork: We just celebrated, last summer, 50 years of the Clean Water Act.
Ellen Southard: Yes, we did.
Marin Bjork: And I do believe that there was a special visit from the staff of the EPA on a United States tour of significant sites that have made impacts on clean water. Ellen, do you want to talk about that?
Ellen Southard: Yeah, thanks for reminding me Marin. I got to meet some of the new leaders of the EPA. So, the EPA absolutely loved our bioswales projects in Fremont. And they kicked off the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act at the bioswales. It was a major kudo to the work that our team did there. And it was quite the honour. So, I got to speak at that event. But they did a tour around the country, and they kicked it off at the bioswales in Fremont under the Aurora Bridge.
Terry Phelan: What a feather in your cap. I’m sure you were very proud.
Ellen Southard: I forgot to mention that.
Marin Bjork: It’s good work. I mean, our region is trying to find unique and innovative ways to do this work on big and small scales. And I think, you know, one of the things that came out of that work was this desire to go, “Okay, now that we have this beautiful version that really shows what we can do, how do we make this more affordable? What other things can we do?” And that is some of the work that we’re attempting to find the right money and be able to bring the right people together to be able to even do something as simple as grattix box under some bridges or under ramps, where we’ll collect the grattix box.
Terry Phelan: What’s a grattix box?
Ellen Southard: A grattix box actually was designed by two people at the Port of Vancouver, Washington. They combined their names to come up with grattix. But essentially, grattix boxes are a rain garden in a box.
Terry Phelan: Oh, how convenient.
Marin Bjork: So, it makes it much easier to install. And in small places that maybe just don’t have the land or the ability to gain access to maintaining or constructing the bioswale to do that work. We’ve been coming up with ideas and talking with people about different ways that grattix boxes might be seen as placemaking tools and bring people together.
Terry Phelan: Are they visible? Is this something that could be like, painted, something to reflect the place? So another placemaking tool, perhaps?
Marin Bjork: Yeah, we did one kind of concept project for Fremont, where we were looking at another portion of the bridge that needed to collect a little water closer to the troll itself. And again, very constrained space, that a grattix box could really be a great, great tool. So, we kind of pictured a series of them coming down the hillside and then next to the stairs, there is a great opportunity to think about how could the grattix boxes be wrapped with interpretive elements? And so we started integrating those concepts together and came up with a concept just to help people imagine what could happen. And that’s where we start. We start with how do we imagine something new? How do we get people to come along for a ride? How do we get them to contribute their ideas and then as this grows and gains steam and momentum, and when we find funding and can pull all these things together, then we’ll have projects. But I think these will be probably a very easy yes for a lot of communities to think about doing, you know, taking that first step.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, that’s a good point. And that’s part of the that placemaking idea is, there’s a lot of communities here that care about installing some sort of green stormwater infrastructure to improve the ecological function and the health of their own neighborhood. And the grattix boxes are cost-effective. And again, it’s taking that pollution off of a roadway or elevated highway or a bridge and getting that water through the soils before it’s dispersed into Puget Sound or a nearby lake or river. So, the grattix boxes are actually a really great solution, say, for a neighborhood group that maybe doesn’t have a lot of funding. Or it’s a humbler neighborhood that doesn’t have the opportunity to raise a lot of funds. Like when we raise funds in Fremont, we had the support of some of the tech agencies.
Terry Phelan: Right.
Ellen Southard: And so, what we’re really wanting to do is, as Marin said, is make it accessible all over the city. No matter what neighborhood you live in, and no matter what your economic background is, how do we help solve this problem of stormwater at various scales, and still reflect the culture and identity of a neighborhood?
Terry Phelan: You’re listening to the Living Shelter Podcast. I’m your host Terry Phelan, and I’m talking with Ellen Southard and Marin Bjork of Site Story about the confluence of water and social justice. Speaking of social justice, and your work with the tribes, I am curious, you mentioned an indigenous award. What was that for?
Ellen Southard: Yeah, that was quite the honor. So, we shared some of the work we’ve been doing around the bridges and our thoughts about placemaking. We entered a competition with the Museum of Native American History in Arkansas, and the selection committee was made up of indigenous people from various parts of the country, and they awarded us the Indigenuity Award for how you would incorporate indigenous knowledge in urban projects. So, it was it was quite the honor.
Terry Phelan: Yes. Yeah, I didn’t realize it was a national award. I was thinking that it was something that was based here in the Northwest.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, no, the Museum of Native American History is in Rogers, Arkansas, and actually is sponsored by the Walton foundation from Walmart. But they do a lot of work with indigenous people and with various tribes, mostly in the Midwest in the South. And they brought together a selection committee of indigenous people to choose a project that they thought was ingenious, so to speak. So, we showed them our concept work, and just really what the what is possible.
Terry Phelan: Well, congratulations.
Ellen Southard: Thank you.
Terry Phelan: It’s inspirational. Speaking of inspirational, I’d like to hear from each of you as to what you do for inspiration. What inspires you, personally, to keep this work going?
Marin Bjork: This is gonna sound corny. My grad school work really hit the nail on the head for me. The professor that I had was Nancy Rodell at the University of Washington, and I did my thesis with her. And the concept of eco-revelatory design was woven throughout the entire three years I was there. A lot of our studios had him by her education centers, or, ecological museums involved in them in some way. And that just really hit home because this idea that place has existed before us, and will exist after us really just captured me. And so, finding ways, and I mentioned the word earlier, of being this detective, being able to see place in a whole new way. Eco-revelatory design is learning how to read a landscape so that you can understand something that was there before, knowing what questions to ask. And it’s not just that soil scientists are really good at like walking through a canyon. They can just tell you like, for the last millennia, what’s been going on. But how do we do that in an urban space, especially when things change so fast, you know, think about the dot com, and everything that changed in the South Lake Union area, how quickly that changed. And thinking then of the Denny Regrade, and that there’s no evidence of that to some degree anymore. And yet, Denny Park was our first park in the city of Seattle. And it would have been towered by this hill that was there that made it kind of difficult to get around. But we found ways to build on it, but to find a way to communicate that to people over time, so even though they’re just arriving and learning about what is Seattle today, that they have some sense of the changes that humans have made, but also what might have happened geologically. Geomorphologically. And I think that when they were digging one of the parking lots in South Lake Union, they were digging down pretty deep. And they found a Columbia woolly mammoth tusk.
Terry Phelan: Oh, my gosh!
Marin Bjork: Do you remember?
Terry Phelan: I don’t remember.
Marin Bjork: Yeah. So of course, a lot of things stopped at the moment, they had to dig it out. And was there anything else in that area, the Burke Museum came in. I believe that they ended up taking the tusk and doing a mold of it. And they’re studying it, but I believe they didn’t find anything else. There was no other. So how did it get there? Was it brought by another human to that location? Did it come down in a glacial flow? What happened? And so, as we discover those things, I think it’s the anthropological background, I have this kind of interest in time and space and how people impact place. I want those stories to be linked. And one of those crazy ideas I always had was that street signs at the intersection should be a timeline, so that you could like, maybe today with QR codes, you could put your phone up to it. And you can learn something new about that location about what might have been there a hundred years ago.
Terry Phelan: Oh, that’s such a cool idea.
Marin Bjork: So those are the kinds of crazy — just like, how do we get people to be curious, and to stop and take a moment to look around and ask questions. And that happens on habitat that happens on buildings and energy efficiency, and these all these many topics. But I think that really is what keeps me grounded in this work is, when people light up and get curious.
Terry Phelan: Thanks for sharing that. Ellen, how about you?
Ellen Southard: I’m really inspired by social equity. I was raised in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, in this incredible ecosystem. And as a kid had access to clean water, clean air, beautiful landscapes and beautiful forests. And whether its nature in the city or nature in a rural area, I just really, I want everybody to have what I had. And so, you know, I’m inspired by how we, how we get to that place of some sort of connection to nature and to the planet, no matter how urbanized the site might be, or a neighborhood might be, and how do we create this access to clean air and clean water for the people that live there. I’ve been an Oxfam America Ambassador for 13 years. And we work on climate resiliency issues at a global scale. And so that that has been super inspirational for me, it’s a humbling experience. It’s a gratifying experience, but it’s also a very empowering experience, because I’ve gotten to meet people around the world who are all trying to solve the problem of climate change. And I believe fundamentally, that nearly everyone wants to be part of the solution. And part of the work that we’re doing at Site Story is really trying to create frameworks where everyone feels welcome to be part of the solution. So that’s, that’s what inspires me.
Terry Phelan: I love hearing other people’s inspirational stories, we can all inspire each other. So, with climate change wreaking havoc, we all have, have adjustments in our lives to commit to, I believe. I’d love to hear from each of you before we go, what you might suggest people do. And just maybe one thing that people might consider doing to become more resilient around the changes coming.
Marin Bjork: Just one?
Ellen Southard: Which one do we pick?
Terry Phelan: Pick the first one that comes to mind.
Marin Bjork: Then it’s going to be build your soil. Because that will have ongoing benefit. Build your soil.
Terry Phelan: Build your soil.
Marin Bjork: Get out there. Try not to till, let the soil do its thing. Feed it. Be good to it. Appreciate it. Don’t compact it.
Terry Phelan: Okay.
Marin Bjork: Plant trees.
Ellen Southard: Plant Trees. Yeah. There you go.
Marin Bjork: That’s part of the soil.
Terry Phelan: Yeah, can be, eventually.
Ellen Southard: Drive less. Think about the salmon and think about that tire dust that’s impacting their lives every time you get in the car. And in that vein, I would say vote for transportation systems. I mean that, it goes hand in hand. And that’s part of using your voice, right? And part of being part of the solution is we can make decisions for ourselves, just by going to the voting booth and saying I care about the transportation issue. And therefore I’m, I’m going to vote for a transportation system that isn’t impacting salmon.
Terry Phelan: Yes, voting is one of the most important things that we can all do. That’s how we make our voices heard. And it does matter.
Ellen Southard: It does matter.
Terry Phelan: It does make a difference.
Ellen Southard: Absolutely.
Terry Phelan: Where can people that are listening go to learn more about Site Story, and the work that you’re doing?
Ellen Southard: Well, our website, sitestorynw.com. I will admit that we are very devoted to our projects and probably a little bit less devoted to how we promote ourselves. Maybe by the time this is released, we’ll have some of our new projects posted. This is motivating. But also want to just encourage people if you want to learn more about Puget Sound, you can go to the Puget Sound Partnerships web page, they have a State of the Sound report where you can learn a lot more about what’s happening here. You can go to salmonsafe.org to learn about how you can purchase products yourself and bring those into your home. I believe we gave you some links to some sites that we think are helpful.
Marin Bjork: And the Garden Hotline.
Ellen Southard: Oh, the Garden Hotline, yeah.
Marin Bjork: That is super helpful. Just find your way to spend more time outside and find the way that makes you happy.
Ellen Southard: Yeah, that’s a good point. Especially since we talked about soil, besides the Garden Hotline being a great resource, you’ve got the Master Composter…
Marin Bjork: …And Sustainability Stewards.
Ellen Southard: Yes, sustainability stewards program there that teaches people about soil, but also teaches people about behavior change, like how to sort your recyclables, your garbage or how to compost. So, there’s a lot of good information and no matter what part of the country you’re in, it’s easy to get to the Seattle Tilth Alliance website. So, you know, all the things that they’re applying to, to instruct people in our region applies everywhere. So that’s a great website.
Terry Phelan: Well, thank you both for joining me today and for the work that you’re doing and making a difference in our area with. It was great to have you here.
Ellen Southard: Well, thanks, Terry. Thanks for all you do to educate people, too; I mean, that’s a great podcast.
Terry Phelan: That was Ellen Southard and Marin Bjork of Site Story, sharing stories about water and how making clean water available to all is impacting salmon habitat, and underserved communities. I also want to thank everyone listening in and hope you’ll tune in again for more great content and inspirational guests from the world of sustainable design. The Living Shelter Podcast is a project of Board & Vellum, a multidisciplinary design firm practicing architecture, interior design and landscape architecture for residential, commercial and civic projects. From our studio in Seattle, I’m your host Terry Phelan. Take care and we’ll talk again soon.