In recent years, Seattle has grown at a fast clip. The city's population is pushing 600,000. It's not due to the birthrate — in fact, the Pacific Northwest has one of the lowest in the country and Seattle one of the highest percentages of childless households of any major U.S. city. It's mostly due to in-migration, people moving here from elsewhere in Washington or other states.
As a city that's thrived on growth and booms, we're constantly told that growth is "unstoppable," and not just by the developers. In recent debates, such as the one over density quotas for Seattle light rail stations, we're reminded by greens that growth is coming no matter what. Writing about the controversial Transit Oriented Development legislation back by enviro groups, Erica C. Barnett of The Stranger tells us in bold face type: "You can't stop people from moving here."
On the one hand, Barnett is right. In a recent New York Times columnist David Brooks extolled the virtues of cities like Seattle that present a "you-can-have-it-all" picture. And at a recent conference here on the future of our ecosystem, we were warned that Puget Sound might be the haven of choice for "climate refugees" fleeing from the effects of global warming in places hit worse than here. The burgeoning of Pugetopolis has always been accompanied by the ring of inevitability. We're "God's Country," after all. Or as a Tacoma (the "City of Destiny") paper put it in 1877, "nature's index finger" pointed to Puget Sound as the location of "THE GREATEST CITY WHICH IS TO BE."
But is growth unstoppable? And is it good for us, for the planet? Today's apostles of "smart" urban development argue that cities are environmentally the best route to take. They "prevent" sprawl, they use land and resources more efficiently, they reduce carbon footprints by putting more of us on mass transit or in walkable neighborhoods. Greens argue that growth is inevitable, so we'd better make it greener growth than we've had in the past.
But growth here has also been the result of government policies, not simply the "free" market, or destiny or happenstance. From speeding up permitting by the county to increasing the heights of skyscrapers to issuing demolition permits and zoning variances, local officials work to encourage development, the answer to our prayers in hard times, the hay to be made in good ones.
The Pacific Northwest, and certainly its urban cores, were also boosted by virtue of federal policies. The Homestead Act, the granting of federal lands to the railroads (lands equivalent to the size of California), the military removal of Indian tribes, the Interstate Highway System, the building of army and navy bases, Boeing's defense contracts, land reclamation projects, new dams and cheap hydroelectric power, nuclear energy, trade policies: In countless ways the government has proved more influential than the "index finger of nature" in pointing the way to our growth. Americans and immigrants were incentivized to move here for the public good.
Is it still in the public good? While many greens in Seattle push for more and better urban development and planning, there are many others who are concerned about growth's environmental and social costs to the city and the region. The way it disrupts settled communities, drives up costs, displaces the poor, increases taxes and the cost of infrastructure (consider the multi-billions being demanded for light rail, expanded bus service, a new SR 520, and a Viaduct replacement). Another concern is the way it keeps progress on sustainability out of reach. It's hard to reduce our impact on the planet with more and more people.
Seattle is, like the rest of the country, riding the wave of a global economic bust. Nevertheless, we know that the growth and prosperity of the last decade have not improved our physical environment fundamentally. If anything, Puget Sound's condition worsens, climate change is accelerating, and we have a larger than ever population sitting on — and dribbling oil and chemicals into — one of the nation's most sensitive ecosystems. Surely more people here is not going to make solving those problems easier.
Sprawl and density have both occurred, indeed, been encouraged with the Growth Management Act. Traffic congestion has worsened and Seattle has priced out much of the city's working and middle class. The recession reminds us of something important that many urban greens have pushed aside in embracing the high-growth ideals of the Vancouver, BC urban model: The consumer economy itself is not sustainable, even a marginally greener version of it. Cutting consumption is important, but we live in a world of limited resources and may not be able to innovate ourselves out of the trouble we're in.
In fact, some well-intended innovations (like bio-fuels) seem to be increasing the consumption of precious resources, like the tropical rain forests. The prosperity of a highly functioning economy sets us further back. The recession will force some of us to cut way back on consumer spending (which we're told will postpone economic "recovery") yet it may have sociological side benefits of building stronger communities as we live more locally and lean on friends and family for basic survival. The economic crisis might give us a chance to reexamine basic premises of our economy and the role of so-called sustainable development with in it. Is there such a thing as sustainable growth? Or is it an oxymoron?
Some people think it is. The New England Coalition for Sustainable Population says, "There is no sustainable development without stabilized population." One thing you're hearing more about is population control. International efforts are gearing up to cut global population growth with family planning, economic aid, education, and the expansion of women's rights.
But others recognize the problem is not just in the so-called developing world. The challenges are here too. To make progress on sustainability, we have to be able to control or limit growth. The Oregonian has a story about local academics who are participating in a national "speak out" on population control this month. Says Jon Erlandson, a University of Oregon anthropologist, "...You can reduce your carbon footprint per person, yet if the population keeps growing you're making no progress." Oregon, despite the paradigmatic green urbanism of Portland, has experienced that dynamic:
From 1990 to 2004, the state succeeded in slightly reducing its per person carbon emissions, for example. But the overall level still rose — by 22 percent — the state says, thanks to 700,000 new residents.
Recycling rates have risen most years since 1992. But the amount of trash landfilled has still mostly gone up, despite state mandates to reduce it, with population growth and increased consumption to blame.
Metro, the Portland area's regional government, predicts the population of Portland and surrounding areas, including Clark County [WA], will about double by 2060, from about 2 million people to 4 million.
Growth in Oregon and the rest of the relatively affluent United States packs a double whammy, said Richard York, a researcher and sociology professor at the University of Oregon who's also participating in the population speakout. That's because increasing affluence, while reducing fertility rates, greatly increases consumption of resources and environmental damage, York says.
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