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The Urban Trailblazers: AP Diaz, Sara Nelson and Jon Scholes

Seattle leaders dedicated to revitalizing the city’s most vibrant district

Alayne Sulkin

Published on: April 01, 2024

AP Diaz Sara Nelson and Jon Scholes
AP Diaz, Sara Nelson and Jon Scholes. Photo credit: Will Austin

In the heart of Seattle’s urban landscape, three visionaries stand at the forefront of a movement to breathe new life into the city’s downtown core: AP Diaz, the steward of Seattle Parks and Recreation; Sara Nelson, Ph.D., the esteemed council president for Seattle City Council; and Jon Scholes, the driving force behind the Downtown Seattle Association. All share a common devotion to revitalizing the city’s most vibrant district.

Diaz’s unwavering commitment to preserving and enhancing public spaces leads the charge in ensuring Seattle’s parks remain integral to the city’s fabric and identity. Nelson, fueled by her academic background in cultural anthropology and a passion for equitable policy, champions initiatives to create a safer, cleaner and more inclusive urban environment for all residents. Meanwhile, Scholes, drawing on his childhood fascination with bustling cityscapes, harnesses his role as president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association to spearhead initiatives that will transform downtown into a thriving, dynamic hub for locals and visitors alike.

Together, these three trailblazers epitomize the spirit of urban renewal, driving forward with determination, innovation and a shared vision of a brighter future for downtown Seattle.

Jon Scholes

Since childhood, Scholes has been captivated by the vibrancy of urban spaces, sparked by visits to iconic cities like Boston, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. This early fascination with cities, coupled with a passion for public policy and community betterment, laid the foundation for his journey into civic leadership.

What drives him most in his role is the opportunity to effect positive change in one of the world’s premier urban hubs, despite the challenges Seattle faces, including complex issues such as homelessness and transportation. Patience, he admits, is the greatest challenge. Transforming a city requires time, persistence and collaboration. He finds solace in the incremental progress made by a motivated and engaged team, board and community.

For Scholes, success is defined by a downtown that is healthy, vibrant and inclusive. It’s a vision that requires optimism — a touchstone guiding his leadership. He believes unwavering positivity is essential for navigating the complexities of urban revitalization. Scholes extends an invitation to ParentMap readers: “Come downtown!” He extols familiar family-friendly attractions, including Seattle Center to Seattle Art Museum and the Museum of History & Industry, with a promise of even more excitement to come for families.

AP Diaz

From deputy city attorney for Los Angeles to the head of Seattle Parks and Recreation, Diaz’s trajectory into civic service took an unexpected turn — a journey fueled by a deep-seated passion for community well-being and the transformative power of public spaces.

After 24 years with the city of Los Angeles, Diaz planned a “brief stint” in public service, which evolved into a lifelong dedication. Transitioning from general counsel for the LA parks department to its executive officer, his love for parks flourished, laying the groundwork for his eventual call to serve in Seattle under Mayor Bruce Harrell.

For Diaz, the driving force behind his work lies in amplifying the perception of parks as essential infrastructure — integral to a city’s fabric, identity and collective well-being. As superintendent/director of Seattle Parks and Recreation, he sees himself as both an advocate and a caretaker, tasked with advancing the department’s mission and stewarding Seattle’s cherished parkland.

Navigating the diverse needs and desires of stakeholders presents Diaz with challenges and opportunities. He finds joy in embracing and understanding the unique perspectives of nature enthusiasts, athletes and environmentalists alike. For him, progress is marked by leaving an enduring, positive impact on the city and its inhabitants, a legacy that transcends generations.

With “Parks make life better” as his guiding principle, Diaz encourages ParentMap readers to engage with their local parks, share their visions for improvement and champion the invaluable role of public spaces in shaping the future of Seattle. In his vision, every park visitor — whether parent, caretaker or little dreamer — plays a vital role in preserving and enhancing Seattle’s park spaces for generations to come.

Sara Nelson

Nelson’s journey from academia to civic leadership is a testament to her unwavering commitment to the betterment of Seattle’s communities. After earning a doctorate in cultural anthropology, Nelson decided to bail on academia, a decision that stemmed from her desire to remain in Seattle. It was that pivotal moment that set her on a path of public service.

In her role as president of Seattle City Council, Nelson is motivated by her deep-rooted fascination with human behavior and power dynamics. Her academic background, which focused on the intersectionality of gender, race and class in public policy, continues to inform her legislative work.

Challenges abound in Nelson’s position. For someone who doesn’t gravitate toward public speaking, it can be a daunting task to preside over televised meetings twice a week. Yet her love for policy and dedication to delving into legislative intricacies drive her forward, alongside administrative responsibilities and the imperative to support her colleagues’ success.

For Nelson, progress and success are measured by the presence of families in Seattle’s public spaces, a key indicator of a city’s ability to function. Ensuring safe, clean and accessible amenities for residents, students, small-business owners and parents alike is her overarching goal. It’s a deeply personal mission for Nelson, who has experienced Seattle from various perspectives, including as a small-business owner, graduate student and parent.

Accountability serves as Nelson’s guiding touchstone, manifesting as a commitment to thorough legislative analysis, stakeholder consultation and continuous evaluation of outcomes. Encouraging ParentMap readers to engage with city hall, Nelson emphasizes the importance of their voices in shaping policies that impact families’ quality of life.

In her daily routine, Nelson prioritizes staying informed through Seattle Channel, a resource she values for its insightful coverage of city meetings and events. As she extends gratitude to ParentMap for its invaluable support during her sons’ upbringing, Nelson underscores the significance of community engagement in driving positive change.

Nelson extends a heartfelt invitation to ParentMap readers: “Your voice is important. Email me, as it’s crucial that we hear from you.” Nelson shares a vision of a safer, cleaner and more livable Seattle, alongside her fellow superheroes.

What book or podcast are you recommending right now?

Scholes: “How to Know a Person” by David Brooks because how we relate to each other –- whether a friend, colleague, family member or romantic partner – is the most important, challenging and enriching endeavor in life. We come to know ourselves by how we reflect off others.

Diaz: I love Downtown Seattle Association’s “Seattle Makers” podcast for learning about all our amazing civic leaders. I recommend John Judge’s “The Outdoor Citizen: Get Out, Give Back, Get Active” as an inspirational and a call-to-action read about our environment and the responsibilities we all share in being good nature citizens.

Nelson: I’m not reading anything I’d recommend right now, and there are too many podcasts for me to choose from, so I don’t try, because I get decision fatigue. Please someone just tell me what to listen to!

How can parents teach children to repair a broken world?

Scholes: Demonstrate optimism and always hold hope. Teach your children to learn, grow or find something to appreciate in every experience and encounter, no matter how challenging. We find our identity through struggle.

Diaz: To watch and observe the resilience in nature and the environment. Our planet faces incredible stresses, devastation and natural erosion each and every day, but also shows up every day in inspiring sunrises and sunsets, blossoming flora and fauna, and oceans filled with life and calling for exploration.

What daily habit or routine is most important to you?

Scholes: A walk with music in my ears, either downtown or in the mountains. It’s a time to relax, reflect, think and breathe in fresh air.

Diaz: Sharing at least one compliment with another person, giving at least one smile, and doing at least one “kitchen dance” — which also makes life better! Nelson: Having dinner at the table with my family if I’m not at some event (which I often am). Second most important is getting up really early to drink coffee and read the news.

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