Looking past transient economic tremors, the big questions for our region’s appeal and prosperity two and three decades in the future haven’t gone away: Can the region grow without despoiling both our intimate and grander landscapes? Can we protect Puget Sound’s rich flora and fauna — native plants and wildlife on land and in the water — against decline and disappearance in the face of the rapid, profound changes we are working across the region?
The links among how the land and water are used and how living things respond are as inexorable in lean economic times as in boom periods. Our day-to-day actions still shape the future, even if budget deficits grab headlines and shift our attention to saving schools, health care, public safety and jobs. So let's get back to those big questions in my opening paragraph.
Start with the important actors in this play. Our four-county regional planning organization, the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), tries to fashion strategies that achieve the goals of Vision 2040, adopted about a year ago. Vision 2040 believes the best pattern for growth is to locate new populations and jobs in regional centers. That puts transportation systems to efficient use and preserves rural areas for agriculture, recreation, and preservation of the natural environment.
Next, enter the Puget Sound Partnership, which issued its Action Agenda for saving Puget Sound last December. It found the top two immediate threats to Puget Sound are the alteration and loss of natural habitat and on-going pollution.
However, at these high levels of oversight and generality, gears engage slowly on specific problems. Caution constrains bold speaking. Our instincts seem to be to hide in a morass of process rather than take dramatic action for fear of making a mistake, or worse, a foe. But what we need now is action and the courage to seek public support to insist it happen. For example, an upgrade should be made to a regional sewage treatment plant in Pierce County that discharges too much nitrogen to Puget Sound. Another example: a huge and misguided housing and commercial development in rural east Snohomish County should be stopped in its tracks.
In this spirit of bold speaking, what is the news on growth in recent years? Simply put, it’s not cooperating with the plan.
Vision 2040 declared that beginning in 2000, 1.7 million people would swell the existing 3.2 million population of King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties to reach a total of almost 5 million people by 2040. The growth management strategy was the distribution of that population gain to specific areas of the region. For example, 32 percent of the growth was to go to the metro cities of the region (Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton) and just 7 percent to rural areas.
So what has happened? The new population in the region has been growing overall just as predicted. According to the estimates published by the state’s Office of Financial Management, during the year 2008 population of the region gained 50,000 people. This was the same pace as the gain of over 300,000 population from 2000 to 2007, and right on track with Vision 2040’s forecast of a total of 1.7 million new people by 2040.
But for 2008, just as for the years from 2000 to 2007, the new population failed to show up where Vision 2040 said it ought to for growth management to succeed. For example, in Pierce County in 2008, over half of the new population found itself in the unincorporated areas of the country, not Tacoma and other cities where Vision 2040 guides that in the long-term three-quarters of the population growth should occur. In Snohomish County, almost 80 percent of the county’s population growth in 2008 located itself in unincorporated areas, not in the cities where Vision 2040 suggests in that almost three-fifths of the population growth in that county should occur. In the 2008 estimate, only 10,250 new people were found in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett, and Bremerton combined.
None of this bodes well for the targets set in Vision 2040’s growth management prescription for the region to 2040. PSRC resists re-examining the population distribution targets, at least any time soon, to say nothing of spotlighting their important implications for, say, developing future transportation systems choices for the region. To its credit, PSRC staff has not kept it secret that the total growth from 2000 to 2007 in areas outside the designated Urban Growth Areas had already exceeded 50 percent of the targeted growth in those areas for the entire 40-year span to 2040.
As a corollary, the largest cities are growing much more slowly than hoped. The metro cities of Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton had achieved less than 10 percent of their target for growth for the 40-year span in the first seven years of plan period.
None of these huge variances from actual to plan is lost on observant people. Pierce County’s Department of Planning and Land Services, for example, wrote PSRC last December:
“[T]he population targets contained within VISION 2040 for Pierce County are significantly out of line with current growth realities . . . Pierce County will be unable to achieve the population targets contained . . . without taking drastic and unrealistic actions such as downsizing large portions of the existing unincorporated urban area and implementing widespread development moratorium. This result is driven primarily by the significant growth that has occurred in Pierce County in the past decade and the large number of vested and approved projects in unincorporated Pierce County.”
In sum, it’s time everyone recognized some inconvenient truths. First, that the future must be prepared for on the basis that a lot of regional growth will happen in areas where Vision 2040 says it’s not supposed to go. And, second, to approximate even some of the worthy and intended goals of growth management, bold steps must be taken to stop some of the very unhelpful things that otherwise will continue to go on. We can’t continue as we are, both ignoring what’s happening all around us and mostly bringing only wishful thinking to reversing adverse trends. They won’t correct themselves.
And what's the tell-me-straight news from Puget Sound? We know enough to stand up for action now.
Puget Sound and its problems have been studied time and again. Each new round repeats (or freshly re-discovers) basic truths about what is stressing nature’s Sound. Each new round yields a refinement or a new vantage point and then renews academic and bureaucratic thirst for yet more studies and refinements. These days, for example, there is much talk about the need for modeling the Puget Sound food web. Too few note the irony of the astonishingly large, vibrant, and robust Puget Sound food web of another kind — human beings seemingly intent on diligently and earnestly munching and crunching on this topic and one another until the end of time.
Study is fine, and it yields future improvements in our actions. But it is no substitute for action to start now. Many facts stare us in the face, already established and fully adequate to serve as the basis for actions that are incontestably on the priority list. The to-do list of specific things to be done in specific places to achieve specific results needs to be put on the wall.
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