Is Seattle's growth unstoppable?

Walling off migration is not possible. But there are ways to downsize our ambitions to a Lesser Seattle, which might be good for America and the environment.
A sea of cranes. (Crosscut Flickr contributor <a href='http://www.flickr.com/photos/xine/'>Christine Howard</a>)

A sea of cranes. (Crosscut Flickr contributor Christine Howard) None

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.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 6:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Pundits utter "sprawl" like a dirty word not to be mentioned in polite company. However, isn't sprawl synonymous with suburbia, i.e. new houses for people who want...a new house? What is wrong with aspiring to the American dream? Frankly, I'd rather live in a historic walk-up at the city core but who can afford that? Thus, I joined the ranks of non-environmental Neanderthals and purchased a house in the 'burbs and contributed to the "sprawl" in our city. I don't feel guilty, either.

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute, this one nearly put me to sleep. I appreciate your attempt to right a wrong, but solving this problem is beyond responsible planning or clever programs. It just has to run it's course, and then whoever is left can pick up the pieces and start over.

Our policies and leadership are dum and dumber. They have given the populas false hopes of affordability, preserving community character, and creating a city for all.
Growth management has done nothing but caused sprawl because it ignored the realities of a free market capitalistic society. And, we have ignored the power of the "American Dream" when average citizens make their decisions about what is important to their quality of life.

I can break down the three phases we have gone through that got us into this dilemma.

1. Post worlds Fair when we locally go interested in dusting ourselves off because WE wanted a better and higher quality of life. That gave us a clean Lake Washington, sewage treatment, Forward Thrust Bond issues, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market and the defeat of a couple of proposed freeways. ALL derived from PRIVATE lesdership!

2. Then we strived to be recognized nationally and started competing with other Cities to show how good we were. This caused the needs of our residents to take a back seat to development and projects that were primarily designed to attract national vsitors and bring people here to enjoy our successes.

3. We are now in the Globalization phase of Seattle and environs. Who cares about the needs of our neighborhoods, our children's education, the ability to get to and from our destinations. We now care about getting conventioneers from the airport to downtown, selling ourselves to developers and businesses who promise world class attention and popularity. We have chased out our families into surrounding cities(not suburbs any more) to seek affordability, quality education, convenience, and integrated commuities that used to be ONLY in Seattle.

So, we have pooped in our own nest and now we have to live with it for a while. The economy will actually help straighted things out by slowing things down and giving us a chance (hope) that real sensitive solutions can be designed to help us get back to ourselves.
And, the best way to do this is to throw out the dunderheads who call themselves leaders and attract private quality people into those slots who bring with them pratical solutions that deal with our core issues of affordability, attracting back our families, improved neighborhood education, and make us a CITY FOR ALL, not the city we have become only for the WEALTHY and TOURISTS. Afterall, isn't that how we started out?

Art

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear Knute,
I am struck that neither you not the other preservationist among the respondents, raised historic presevation issues in the context of this long piece on density. I look forward to seeing how the National Trust for Historic Preservation new 'Green Office,' (I am sure to have the name wrong)-- located to my great surprise and pleasure located here in Seattle -- comes up with appropriate strategies for encouraging density while preserving the historic fabric of our cities. It is a very important issue that the trust appears (I wasn't there) to have brought to the forefront during its initial Seattle press conference last week. I hope we can have a public conversation about this matter too.

MJH

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 9:47 a.m. Inappropriate

My grandfather always said there would be room here... and was amazed that people would choose to live here.

The socio-economic factors, and basic weather, along with communication of this among similar minds spells continued growth even with well intentioned curbs and directions.

But you overlook a lot of factors that many find difficult to chat about.

Not to sound like Malthus, but you overlooked the impact of the region’s geological time bombs: the pending mega quake and possible eruptions of our collection of five semi active volcanoes. These are interesting to read about, but most are in denial or willing to roll the dice.

I am amazed at the folks willing to buy a new home in Orting right at on the valley floor. Mt. Rainier WILL erupt again. I am not sure I would be willing to bet my biggest investment that a Lahar will not happen in my lifetime. We can’t get out of the parking garage after a concert or game, let alone the two lane road with Lahar warning sirens going off.

Then there is the "Mega Quake: of January 1700, one of more than a dozen such that seem to cycle about every 500 years. A 9.0 that shakes for 4 minutes today would pretty much clear the region. If the geologists are correct, I would start packing around 2200… but averages are just that. It could come earlier or later.

The old barriers to growth were more physical... hills, thick woods, floodplains, raging rivers. The new barriers to growth may yet again prove Malthus right.

The more you read about the region's geology, the more optimism you need.

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 10:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Much food for thought. Too much to digest in even a Town Hall discussion. Time again for an organized and on-going public discussion/debate? A Seattle 2050?

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 10:42 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm happy about "in/up" growth within reason, and not happy about "out" growth, within reason.

This article is typical Mossback. There are some good points, but there's also a lot of debatable opinion stated as fact, like the idea that density and growth equal higher cost. In truth, when you add supply, the new supply tends to be more expensive, but the old supply tends to get cheaper.

(Here's my periodic disclosure that I work for a general contractor. That means my comments on growth should be taken sort of like a Boeing employee's comments on the airline industry.)

mhays

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 11:55 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm not sure that anything short of the collapse of civilization itself, forcing everyone back into an agrarian economy, can stop cities from growing more and more urban and rural areas from growing emptier and emptier. We can lament the "loss" of some kind of Old Seattle, or we can embrace the inevitable with sensible density and environmental (and historical preservation) strategies.

Rural renewal will never happen until the Farm Bill dies in its current form AND rural society becomes more accepting of difference. I don't see either happening within the next generation, which makes sensible strategies for urban growth all the more important in the meantime.

smacgry

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 12:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I found Knute's comments on a re-ruralification facinating and on target. Please read Kathleen Norris's book 'Dakota' that is a fascinating series of unsentimental essays on the economic struggles of small towns in South Dakota.

A few thoughts. This country has lost its food security with the over globalization of the food system - very dangerous in the climate of terrorism. Also, the current global food system that ships food all over the world is heavily energy/carbon dependent - it cannot last.

Also, the end of the post-WW2 boom era is over. President Carter sounded the warning in his (in)famous malaise speech but he was right. The Reagan revolution built illusory wealth on massive deficit spending and pushing consumerism into overdrive. That is all over. It is a matter of time before Asia decides to no longer fund our deficits (treasury bills) and even in the recovery spending habits for the savaged middle class will never be the same. This will also support rural lifestyles that tend to have a certain degree of self-sufficiency the suburban/urban lifestyles can lack.

bjorn

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Food certainty is definitely crucial, particularly as transporation gets more expensive and populations in some countries become even more out of balance with their ability to produce.

This is one of the major reasons we should be working harder to reduce sprawl.

PS, another qualm with the article: Infill policies don't attempt to "prevent" sprawl. The only way to do that is to stop sprawl through direct measures like downzoning. Infill simply reduces the population pressures that are a major force behind sprawl, while also reducing travel distances and therefore reducing regional transportation demands.

mhays

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 1:29 p.m. Inappropriate

"a lot of debatable opinion stated as fact, like the idea that density and growth equal higher cost. In truth, when you add supply, the new supply tends to be more expensive, but the old supply tends to get cheaper."

The commenter who shared his version of the truth with us need not continue making periodic disclosures , it's all too obvious. He's brave though, I have to say that, to in times like these to be bringing up supply and demand and the way things the existing stock was allowed to trickle down. Most of his fellow lobbyists are careful not to mention any of that any more because this is a very good time to talk about and understand all that.

And then there is this so called "infill," aka bulldoze old city, built NYC here and now, but all 100 year old new modern (no "phony" craftsman for them). Most neighborhoods have been fooled more than once now so time will tell. BTW, true infill? Most welcome.

afreeman

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 2:09 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm sure these advocates of "rural renewal" will be the vanguard marching out of the cities and into the countryside.

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

If you want my bio you can find it at Seattlescape along with various blog entries about urban issues. Just a proposal writer.

As for townhouses, I'll take the craftsman style anyday.

Do you have any points, or just off-topic attacks?

mhays

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

This growth problem just needs some Bird Flu mixed-in with a little civil war. We do live on a self-regulating planet, after all.

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 3:20 p.m. Inappropriate

so boring, once again, isn't it amazin how often a mossback can get mileage out of a beaten old dog like this story!

mikerol

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 3:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Growth is dictated by the input in shortest supply--commonly referred to as the law of the minimum. The notion that "we" should limit growth is as absurd as the notion that "we" should stimulate growth.

Growth does incur greater costs. Joseph Tainter, author of "The Collapse of Complex Societies," shows how maintenance costs increase over time--commonly refer to as diminishing returns. BTW, it's an Archeology Book, so it extends beyond the tip of your nose.

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 5:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Excellent article. It is nice to see an article about Seattle growth in perspective to other factors. What is true for Seattle is true for many cities throughout the country. The toughest challenge for most cities in the 60s and 70s was to avoid becoming filled with slums. Seattle managed to avoid this, with its combination of strong inner city schools, churches and community organizations. Now, the toughest challenge for cities is trying to preserve the nice neighborhoods while keeping them affordable. As more and more people feel comfortable living in inner cities (whether they used to be slums or not) the cities face increasing housing prices, a loss of historic housing, or both.

Along with the remedy that Mr. Berger prescribes (growth in other areas of the country) we should also consider the density of the suburbs. When people talk about density, they often suggest higher density for areas that are already fairly dense (city neighborhoods). In many cases, this makes sense (especially along thoroughfares well served by transit, like 15th ave. in Ballard) but there is a limit to how dense a city can become before the neighborhood loses it's character (like much of the rest of Ballard). An approach that makes more sense would be to have housing in the suburbs resemble housing in a medium density city neighborhood (like Ballard 40 years ago). The houses are on small lots and the houses themselves aren't huge. Such housing would be desirable and affordable by many. I can't find reference to it, but a study in the 70s (under the Nixon administration) determined that the best way to increase the affordability of houses is to decrease the size of the lots. Much has changed since then, but I believe that conclusion to still be correct. Like so much of what drives growth, this is controlled not by market forces, but by the government (specifically, in this case, zoning laws).

RossB

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 7:03 p.m. Inappropriate

The City correctly pleads it is merely trying to accommodate the people that successful economic promotion entails,. The new Quality Growth Alliance that claims to have the electeds backs also claims we should not just accommodate growth, we should make it happen!. They don't seem to have heard of the alternatives. Like the one mentioned by Wade above. Alternatives are multiplying rapidly. See, steadystate.org, Many more are covered in James Speth's new "The Bridge of the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Closer to home is Bill Rees, of the University of British Columbia, who conceived the concept of ecological footprints as a more whole system response to carbon footprinting. Rees and the many he has inspired are litterally refining progress. So should we, Seattle likes firsts.

afreeman

Posted Tue, Feb 24, 11:15 a.m. Inappropriate

My wife and I lived in a small town for several years and loved most of it. We knew the neighbors and could easily walk out of town in just a few minutes. The part I didn't like is what brought me to Seattle: my $22,000 a year small-town pay and limited educational opportunities. You could give me a free house in that town and I still couldn't afford to live there! (By the way, the lovely historic downtown was dying after Wal-Mart built a Supercenter out by the highway.)

joshuadf

Posted Tue, Feb 24, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

The "quadrupled since 1950" statement sounded wrong, and it is.

The King/Pierce/Snohomish/Kitsap area had 1,196,172 people in 1950, and about 3,633,000 in 2008 (triple). Add Island, Thurston, and Skagit and we grew from 1,295,408 to about 4,074,000 (a little over triple). King County grew from 732,992 to 1,884,000 (not even x2.6).

We've grown a little since the 2008 estimates, but probably less than 1%.

http://psrc.org/publications/pubs/trends/d1jul01.pdf
http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/cociseries/cocity1960_2008.xls

mhays

Posted Wed, Feb 25, 1 p.m. Inappropriate

The quadrupling refers to the growth of the urbanized area population from 800000 in 1950 to over 3.2 million in 2008, and is correct.

Constitutionally, population movement in the US cannot be constrained. This was reaffirmed in the 1930s. But the growth of central Puget SOund will probably be less than many seem to fear. Not only will key economic sectors be weak for some unknown time, but costs of living in the Seattle region are very high, especially for families. So much of the momentum for growth may go out to the region's smaller metro areas,like Bellingham, SPokane, the TriCities and especially undiscovered Yakima. Considering the growth in the last 60 years, while the region has problems,as do all others, and I believe the region is wonderfully liveable and resilient.

DMorrill

Posted Wed, Feb 25, 1:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Crosscut said "Our population has quadrupled since 1950." That's incorrect.

At best, they could have worded it differently so the statement would be correct, like "Our urban area population has quadrupled."

Of course, that would require people to understand the term "urban area" in its formal meaning, including the density standard and the fact the zone expanded to include areas not counted in 1950.

mhays

Posted Wed, Feb 25, 2:01 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree that price and land availability will be a factor in keeping the Seattle area's growth moderate. But there are factors working the opposite way, such as the airline industry dropping many small metros from service, tightening of the resource economy that's sustained many small metros, and possibly oil prices, which should curtail the supercommuter trend and affect business location decisions in various ways.

mhays

Posted Fri, Feb 27, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Knute,
Thank you for addressing the most important and most unappreciated issue of today. No on ever asks to what end are we aiming with our super exponential population growth. Does Seattle look with proud anticipation to the day we become as large as Beijing or Mexico City? Are humans a thinking species or are we still one driven by our instincts? A comment was made all living things grow and develop. I would ask does that mean fat people are more developed than skinny ones (on one sense they are)? Doesn't the human body (and all other living things) stop growing, physically, after a set time? The first step is to separate growth and development. As long as they are considered mutually inclusive will we be unable to rationally deal with this issue. People as yourself are needed to keep this issue alive. Only through information and education can we start to create non-violent avenues to curbing this problem.
JackP

Posted Sat, Feb 28, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

"Is Seattle's growth unstoppable?"

Yes. Next question.

Posted Sat, Feb 28, 7:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Not all growth is good. Some people who move here are very unsuitable human beings.

Say "YES" to War on Iraq
by Dan Savage Ovetober 2002

"War may be bad for children and other living things, but there are times when peace is worse for children and other living things, and this is one of those times."

"In the meantime, invading and rebuilding Iraq will not only free the Iraqi people, it will also make the Saudis aware of the consequences they face if they continue to oppress their own people while exporting terrorism and terrorists. The War on Iraq will make it clear to our friends and enemies in the Middle East (and elsewhere) that we mean business: Free your people, reform your societies, liberalize, and democratize... or we're going to come over there, remove you from power, free your people, and reform your societies for ourselves. "

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Conte…

Posted Fri, Apr 17, 3:07 a.m. Inappropriate

The above thought is smart and does not require any futher addition. It is perfect thought from my side. It is apprecitable and general.

Cynthia Kurtz
Drug Intervention Montana

cynthia

Posted Sat, Sep 12, 11:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle has a truly intelligent columnist in Knute Berger and at a time when I thought the term "intelligent columnist" was an oxymoron. If some of you in the Seattle area don't want him, we will gladly take him.

John Zeger
Kelown, British Columbia

jgzeger

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