Because Crosscut carries such lively debate on issues of growth and the likely future of our communities, it’s time here for another look at the estimates on population change for counties and cities prepared each year by the state Office of Financial Management. The 2009 version is now available, and the news isn't good.
The numbers speak and they must be listened to. Once again they raise big doubts about whether Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 strategic plan for plotting regional growth in King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties is uncoupled from what’s actually happening in the real world.
The new numbers do, however, contain some interesting surprises, one of which might counter Kent Kammerer’s recent and widely noted piece questioning the scale of Seattle’s prospects for adding new population. However, that article and the buckshot comments it drew suffered on all sides from seeing the fray as about Seattle, rather than about the Puget Sound region as a whole.
Also, while the easiest dismissal of the new numbers is that they are only a snapshot of an instant in a long-running game with plenty of time left on the clock, they cry out for more focus on two immediate issues of enormous importance to the long run.
One of these issues concerns the decisions being made by November as PSRC lays the keel, following Vision 2040’s lines, for her soon-to-be-launched sister ship, Transportation 2040. PSRC is now making the preliminary cut of projects for that big plan, which intends to guide transportation investments across the region for the next three decades. Is the right data about the region providing the backdrop for the discussion?
The second issue is the current crisis in funding for the bus transit agencies — King County Metro, Community Transit in Snohomish County, Pierce Transit, and Kitsap Transit. Cutbacks will be forced on bus service, much the largest share of future transit under any scenario. Decisions made now about how service must be reshaped will affect transportation in the region for years and decades to come. Population data of the kind contained in the OFM reports will be essential to good decision-making.
These issues will be presented in the midst of some intense election battles. In Seattle, two new and deeply unalike political faces will square off to talk about Seattle’s future. The Mayor's race should heighten the interest, not just in Seattle but also everywhere in the region. The stakes on these questions over the long term may be as high or higher than in the viaduct discussion.
After all, Seattle is just part of a regional economy, a regional geography, and a regional demography. Seattle’s downtown, its neighborhoods and its qualities of prosperity and styles of life are inextricably tied to the larger region. Across the entirety of Snohomish, King, Pierce, and Kitsap counties — central Puget Sound — only 16 percent of the population lives in Seattle, although about a quarter of the jobs are in the region's biggest city. That’s why there are many commuters, including lots of people living in Seattle who work at jobs outside the city.
If success for Seattle depends on success for the region, the reverse is equally true. Accordingly, the scale and pattern of regional growth matter profoundly. Our collective, regional future depends on whether all the region’s communities can achieve an enduringly prosperous economy while striking long-term balance with the natural landscapes and ecosystems that richly endow the Puget Sound region.
So what do we find as we look at the planner's regional blueprint? PSRC’s Vision 2040 for the region rests heavily on the prevailing orthodoxy of the planning profession: Density is good and sprawl is bad. The heretical blowback: Density maybe is not so good and sprawl maybe is not so bad. The back and forth of such simplified positions deprives us of deeper insights spawned by respect for real world complexity.
Digging into these issues, let's start with some observations about which there is little to argue: The more compactly we shape our human communities at the regional scale, the more efficiently will existing and new infrastructure connect our citizens. That applies to water and sewer systems and to expensive and energy-devouring transportation systems. Also beyond debate: The more compact the regional population, the less pressure will be placed by people on natural places that support the region’s basic hydrology and water quality and its plant and animal communities, and on the human-altered places that sustain gentler human uses like agriculture and forestry.
And that is why there is so much value in the new OFM estimates, which pinpoint where growth is actually occurring. They serve as a mid-course audit of progress on Vision 2040’s strategic blueprint for how the region should direct the distribution of its expected new population across King, Snohomish, Pierce, and Kitsap counties for the first four decades of the 21st century.
The new results from OFM are pretty disappointing, but not surprising. As in past years, they raise serious questions about whether the unfolding reality of where people are choosing to live and work offers much hope for the aspirations of Vision 2040's planners.
The numbers in the 2009 update that best underscore the problem bear on a central component of Vision 2040: Its emphasis on 27 designated Regional Growth Centers where it says development should be concentrated in the 2000-2040 period. These 27 growth centers are distributed across all four counties. Places like Bothell/Canyon Park, for example; Lynnwood; Downtown Bellevue; Overlake; Totem Lake; Redmond; Uptown/Queen Anne, First Hill/Capitol Hill, Downtown, and Northgate in Seattle; Federal Way; Overlake; Burien; Downtown Puyallup; Tukwila; Renton, Tacoma Mall, and Downtown Bremerton.
This plan predicts that growth should happen in key heart-of-the-suburbs locations as well as in core areas of the larger cities — with the promise that all will be well if that vision is achieved. It’s an approach closely tied to the density-is-good, sprawl-is-bad mantra. More specifically, the Regional Growth Center approach is aligned with many planners’ affection for the doctrines of New Urbanism. In PSRC’s words, “Centers provide easy access to jobs, services, shopping, and entertainment. With their mix of uses and pedestrian-friendly design, they can rely less on forms of transportation that contribute to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Centers also provide community and economic benefits such as gathering places and robust locations of commerce and business.”
One thing would quickly take the bloom of this rosy picture: What if the people were going somewhere else? Successful Regional Growth Centers can’t be empty stage sets!
Yet underpopulated stage sets are what we are getting. According to Vision 2040’s plan for the region’s future, it is important that the 18 cities in which they are located should together garner 53 percent of the region’s 40-year population growth from 2000 to 2040. But the estimates from OFM offer a bleak picture, at least for the years since 2000 as updated to 2009. In that nine-year span, the region as a whole has grown by 13 percent, adding almost 400,000 people. Yet, of the 18 cities housing the envisioned Regional Growth Centers, only two, Renton and Redmond, have managed even to keep pace with the average growth of the region as a whole when growth by annexation is netted out of the performance.
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