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.
Walling off the Northwest, Ecotopia-style, is not feasible, nor desirable. But if federal policies have shaped and populated the region, are there policies that could steer people elsewhere, to regions where growth is needed, or beneficial, perhaps even greener?
There certainly are parts of the United States that are de-populating. A map (pdf) of rural counties that have lost 10% or more of their population shows plenty of out-migration from the Great Plains, the upper Midwest, and even some of the Great Nearby. The Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, western Minnesota, eastern Montana, west Texas, Wyoming, parts of Idaho, Oregon and Alaska have seen rural counties shrink. The heartland is emptying.
America is an industrial society and most Americans live in cities and suburbs, not on family farms anymore. But these shifts aren't simply due to demographics, bad weather, new technologies, boredom with Jeffersonian ideals, or the joys of condo living. They are due to changes brought about by the federal government. Trade and tax policies have driven out small manufacturers or moved crops overseas, and they've given rise to big box retailers that in turn have wiped out the business districts of small town America — along with highway systems that bypassed main street. On a recent road trip to the Southwest, I was amazed at how much work it was to find local, small town cafes anymore, how easy it was for people to give up looking and settled for an Arby's or McDonald's.
Agricultural subsidies have pushed small farmers out of the business and given huge payments to a few small, large, corporate-syle farms. A 2007 study by the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska found that the Department of Agricultural was funneling millions more dollars to a few hundred big farm operators than to literally millions of people living in struggling rural counties. We used the old Homestead Act to populate the frontier. We've used the Farm Bill to drive people off the land and to encourage farming that's bad for the planet and our diets.
Many of these communities would love to have their people back. As I've traveled and talked with farmers in eastern Washington, many have lamented that their children or siblings can't be supported by the family farm any longer. They've had to take jobs in cities instead of working for themselves. Getting people back into declining rural counties, including doctors, nurses, and entrepreneurs, could be encouraged by directed incentives, the kinds of policies that have helped rebuild inner cities. One possibility: The New Homestead Act, a collection of programs pushed by North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan most recently in 2007. It didn't pass, but the senator's office tells me the bill will be reintroduced this year. It this new New Deal era, it couldn't be more timely.
Some of the New Homestead Act's ideas have already gained traction in other bills. Congress' last farm bill in 2008 included at least one innovative program: The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, which makes grants to rural entrepreneurs. Most rural businesses, aside from agribusiness, are small businesses or sole proprietorships with less than 10 employees. Seeding small ventures in rural communities will help keep small towns together and can draw back young people from city and suburb. Loans and grants can help set the stage for renewable energy start-ups. The program only got $4 million in funding, about the amount some Wall Street bankers make in a month. Advocates would like to see it funded at more like $25 million. The Micro program was pushed by Colorado Senator Ken Salazar, now Obama's Secretary of the Interior.
Another possibility for rural renewal: Free land. A number of rural communities are trying to attract settlers on their own with offers of free or low-cost land on which to build homes and businesses, places like Hendrum, Minnesota, Marne, Iowa and Mankato, Kansas.
The social and environmental benefits or rural renewal are real. One is helping communities come back from poverty and the point of no return as they diminish beyond their ability to stay alive. Another is that businesses that folks run themselves, from farms and ranches to the local general store, are the norm in rural areas. Supporting them is an antidote to corporate ownership. Farm areas are also potential hot-houses for the development of alternative energy, from wind to corn to solar. Smaller, family owned farms could also offer the promise, with federal help, of returning agriculture to more sustainable, pre-corporate farming methods that can benefit the whole food chain. Plus, rural support could also cultivate and re-engerize walkable, livable communities — an ideal embodied in the towns of the heartland that have been painstakingly replicated in new urbanist developments and Seattle's own "urban village" concepts.
Rural renewal would also have tangible benefits for cities like Seattle, which is doing well in being a good customer of local producers. Farmer's markets are proliferating here, but good urban policy should include supporting strong agricultural policies so we can move toward 100-mile diets. If push comes to shove, our urban pea patches will never keep us fed. Strong farms are part of our security.
Such a partnership could also help us by fostering a fuller spectrum of life choices that are healthier and more sustainable than simply scrambling to accommodate "unstoppable" urban growth. It is not enough to preserve adjacent farm lands, we ought to be thinking more about scale, including downsizing the ambitions of Pugetopolis while helping to restore potential and hope in other regions. Steering growth elsewhere could help us make environmental progress without undercutting our best intentions. The essence of sustainability is knowing when to say "enough."
A Lesser Seattle, not a Greater Seattle, could be part of the recipe for a better country.
NOTE: Authors Knute Berger(Pugetopolis) and Timothy Egan (The Good Rain), with David Brewster moderating, will discuss Seattle and Pugetopolis in a Crosscut-sponsored event at Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Avenue in Seattle, Wed. Feb 25, 2009 at 7:30 pm.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!