As the U.S. government gears up for a new census and the Puget Sound region faces economic uncertainties, what do the patterns of regional growth tell us about where we've been headed? How much has been sprawl? Where are we becoming denser? I short, how has the region been shaped or re-shaped in the last 50 years?
The term "megalopolis" was coined to describe the world’s largest continuous urban region, now extending from Fredericksburg, VA to Portsmouth, NH, with around 40 million people. The Seattle urban area isn’t in that league yet, to be sure, but what some call Pugetopolis has grown from a population of 789,000 in 1950 to 3,148,000 in 2000, a growth of 2,259,000, or 300 percent! This growth has certainly been amazing to those of us who lived through it (I missed the start, arriving in 1955). Considering the sheer magnitude of change, almost a quadrupling, I don’t think the region has done too badly at accommodating all those added people.
Our urban complex is overwhelmingly linear, north to south, growing along SR 99 (now called the I-5 corridor), as it is hemmed in on the east by the Cascades and by our attempt to contain urban expansion through the Growth Management Act, and it is hindered to the west by Puget Sound. In 1950 and 1960 there were only two cores: Seattle and Tacoma and they were still separate! The 1950 urban area included the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Lakewood, most of Shoreline and Renton, and part of Highline, with a toehold to the east on Mercer Island, Kirkland, and what would become Bellevue. The urban boom of the 1950s extended the Seattle area up to Edmonds, Lynwood and Bothell, and east through Bellevue, and south to the rest of Highline in to Kent; Tacoma added more of Lakewood and Parkland.
The 1960s boom brought dramatic expansion, so that by 1970, the urbanized areas had merged, extending now from Fort Lewis all the way through Everett, with the inclusion of formerly independent Puyallup, Auburn, Issaquah, Redmond and Everett. Urban growth didn’t slow in the 1970s. By 1980, two new separate urbanized areas appeared: Bremerton and Olympia, with the urban core extending ever farther, now to Spanaway, Gig Harbor and Bonney Lake, Soos Creek, Mill Creek and Marysville.
In the 1980s suburban expansion was still dominant: Bremerton added Silverdale and Port Orchard, Tacoma spread southeast, and the Seattle imprint spread almost to Maple Valley, adding the Sammamish plateau and Woodinville, North Creek and Silver Firs.
All this growth led by 1990 to a consensus to try to curb rampant urban spread via growth management. Yet the 2000 map reveals continuing geographic expansion, very dramatically around Bremerton, amazingly south and east from Tacoma, reaching Buckley and even Enumclaw; reaching east from Seattle to even Mirrormont and Lake Ames and Duvall; and northeasterly to Monroe, Lake Stevens, Granite Falls and Arlington. Admittedly the census bureau used heroic measures to connect some of these outlying communities into the official urbanized area, I think in error. Many remain physically separate, although they have certainly become bedroom suburbs.
The current urban realm is coming up against the urban growth boundary in many areas. Still, the pattern of growth 2000-2009 is the same as from 1990-2000, overwhelmingly suburban, but there has been some growth in downtown Seattle, Tacoma and Bellevue. Much of the growth in the main cities has been in housing units, as the population grew only modestly, because of smaller household size and the suburbanization of families.
These 50 years of urban expansion are viewed by critics as classic "urban sprawl," but this is not mainly true. Rather it has mostly been urban growth necessary to accommodate a population four times as large, another 2.3 million people. Perhaps surprising to some, the average density, which did decline from 1950 to 1970, in the postwar suburban boom, has risen over the last 30 years.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!