Regional leaders meet tomorrow, April 24, to adopt Vision 2040, the new growth management plan crafted over the past several years by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). A few days later, 250 leading citizens will attend an event sponsored by the Urban Land Institute called "Reality Check." They will use the PSRC plan, Lego blocks, and maps to test their grasp of future regional growth.
Growth discussions are in the air, and at stake are quality of life, commerce, and the metropolitan area's natural resources, including Puget Sound. The regional council's plan is an important document. But its ambitious scope has already been outrun by the growth it is intended to shape. What follows is an overview of Vision 2040 and its flaws, and recommendations for correcting course.
The key expectations
At the heart of Vision 2040 are expectations developed by the Puget Sound Regional Council for the central Puget Sound area from 2000 to 2040. That region – King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties – will add 1.7 million people to the 3.2 million people already living here in 2000, for a total population of some 4.9 million.
Under the plan, that population growth is presumed to be channeled mostly to the areas where it can the least impact on quality of life and the environment, and efficiently use existing and new public services, such as transportation. Specifically, 32 percent of the added population – 540,000 new people – should join the existing populations of the five "metropolitan cities" of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bremerton, and Bellevue.
Twenty-one percent – 363,000 new people – should join the existing populations of the 14 "core cities": Auburn, Bothell, Burien, Federal Way, Kent, Kirkland, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Puyallup, Redmond, Renton, SeaTac, Tukwila, and unincorporated Silverdale.
These 19 cities together are designated to be "regional growth centers."
Other smaller cities should take another 20 percent of the new people – 329,000. Unincorporated areas get 21 percent of the new people – that's 362,000. And rural areas should expect to see only 7 percent of the growth, adding just 118,000 people to less than half a million who already lived in those areas in 2000.
That is how it is supposed to work. But an examination of actual population growth and distribution from 2000-2007, the first seven years of the plan, puts Vision 2040 widely at variance with actual data. The plan about to be adopted is already out of date.
A lot turns on Vision 2040 – namely, the health of the four counties' critical natural systems and the health and survival of Puget Sound. And transportation improvements have long been planned – though many seem inextricably stuck in limbo for lack of funding – to emphasize corridors that connect the major population and job centers drawn in Vision 2040.
Everyone agrees that the challenges of achieving growth in the desirable fashion embraced by Vision 2040 will not be easy. The plan sets the targets. It does not promise the outcomes.
The plan vs. reality
Vision 2040 is an unusual plan because seven years of its 40-year time horizon have already elapsed. That means we can measure seven years of actual performance against the 40-year goals. So how are we doing so far? Actual performance to date presents a fascinating but very discouraging picture.
We first might ask whether the overall rate of population growth has matched that staggering prediction of added population by 2040. The answer is that growth since 2000 is right on target. Seven years into the forecast period, the population growth to date [223K PDF] has hit 18 percent over the year 2000 baseline: 307,000 new people have already joined the region's population in the march to 40 years of expected total growth of 1.7 million.
But that might be the only aspect of plan performance that is on, or even close to, target.
Population statistics for the individual cities are available through 2007. So we can easily see how population growth has fared to date in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton, the five metropolitan cites where 32 percent of the new population is expected to settle under Vision 2040.
If results to date were on target, 98,000 of the 307,000 new people already added to the region from 2000 to 2007 should have located in those five cities.
Oops. The actual number (discounting annexations in Bellevue and Everett) was 41,000, including Bremerton, whose population actually shrank by 1,500. That's 13 percent of the actual population growth so far, not 32 percent as targeted in Vision 2040. It's not surprising that this share of total growth was so small. While the region's population as a whole grew by 9 percent over those seven years, each of Seattle and Tacoma grew their own populations by only a little over 4 percent. Bellevue and Tacoma were not much better, and Bremerton struck out.
What about Vision 2040's 14 core cities – Auburn, Bothell, and so on? According to Vision 2040, 21 percent of the new population should collect in those cities as a group. If that had happened with the overall 307,000 new people regionwide, 64,000 new people would have joined the populations of those 14 core cities.
Oops. The actual number was 38,500 (taking into account annexations in Federal Way, Kent, Redmond, and Puyallup, and ignoring Silverdale, for which a separate number is not available). That's just under 13 percent of the actual 307,000 regional population gain in the seven-year period – nowhere near the 21 percent envisioned in Vision 2040. Again, it's not surprising that the share of total growth was so small. Only three of those cities – Renton, Redmond, and Puyallup – matched or exceeded, in their own population growth, the overall 9 percent growth for the region as a whole for 2000 to 2007.
The stark fact is that of 1.7 million people expected to join the central Puget Sound region from 2000 to 2040, 307,000 of them had already materialized by 2007 – right on target. Yet more than 80,000 of that 307,000 are missing from the regional growth centers – the largest cities and the core cities where the Vision 2040 growth strategy tells us they are now supposed to be living!
Where the growth is actually happening
Where are all those people? That's a good question. The Puget Sound Regional Council seems not yet to have provided a clear answer.
A few unhappy hints, however, can be drawn from the available 2000 to 2007 city population tables. Returns are now in for some of the cities that have not been designated in Vision 2040 as the regional growth centers. Those are outlying cities, generally, whose populations push against rural and natural resource areas, which stretch out our everyday transportation requirements, and which represent the press of growth in the four county region against its edges. As all observers can witness with their own eyes, this is the surge of new development to the north, south, east and west beyond the boundaries of the four-county area.
Arlington, for example, grew by almost 4,000 people – a 33 percent jump. Marysville grew by 5,700 people, a 20 percent increase. Mill Creek grew by more than 3,000 people, up 26 percent. Monroe grew by almost 2,500 people, an 18 percent jump. Another 9,600 people in surrounding areas were re-drawn within Arlington, Marysville, and Mill Creek by annexations. (All of the figures I cite in this article take into account population shifts involving annexations – so all the comparisons are apples to apples.)
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