Highway 520 in Bellevue at evening rush hour. Credit: WSDOT
Washington state and the greater Seattle region grew fairly vigorously from 2000 to 2010, as they have most decades for over a century, and this growth is unusually high for a non-Sunbelt state. And it is not just the engine of Seattle causing this growth; eastern as well as western Washington had substantial growth. Fast-growing counties are found in the east (Franklin, 50 percent over the decade, is the easy winner, along with Benton 23, Kittitas, 22, and Grant 20), while in the west Clark and Mason grew 23 percent, Thurston 22, Whatcom 20, and Snohomish 18.
There were a few areas of slow growth or decline, as in the heart of the wheat country, but significant growth occurred in four kinds of areas. Most dramatic is the growth in non-Seattle metropolitan areas, most notably the Tri-Cities, Vancouver, Bellingham, Olympia, Spokane, Yakima, and Wenatchee. Second is the population growth associated with the Columbia Basin project, fueled by heavy Latino in-migration and high birth rates.
Third is growth in selected environmental-amenity areas, often with retiree in-migration, in many counties across the state. Such amenity-fueled growth was dramatic in all directions beyond the metropolitan central Puget Sound core, but was also impressive in several areas in eastern Washington such as in Okanogan, Pend Oreille, Kittitas, and Stevens. Fourth, despite growth management efforts and laws, is metropolitan exurban growth, especially around Vancouver, Spokane, Bellingham, and the Tri-Cities.
Turning to central Puget Sound, the most dramatic growth (often over 100 percent) occurred at the far edge of the urban growth areas, and just beyond as exurban growth. This is true in absolute numbers as well as rates. Growth management and upzoning have been unable to stem this tide, for two main reasons — the preference of families with children for single family houses and greater housing affordability, at least in some areas (as Covington, Kent, Arlington, and South Hill). Growth was also impressive in most rural and exurban areas, especially in Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties (King much less).
There was also more concentrated growth in already urban areas, city and suburban. Higher density apartment growth did occur across much of Seattle, Tacoma, south King county, in some Eastside cities, and in the SR 99 corridor of Snohomish County. In Pierce, Snohomish, and south King, this growth tended to be in less affluent areas, which are attractive to many people, including young families, who cannot afford to live in Seattle. Areas of slower growth tended to be military areas, some urban non-residential tracts, and some more affluent, older settled single family home areas with an aging population. Growth in downtown Seattle and Bellevue and Tacoma was also significant.
It’s also interesting to look at density, as a measure of “urban-ness.” Seattle really has achieved a substantial degree of such urbanness, dominating in central Seattle but spreading to all corners of the city. Other areas of higher density include the SR99 corridor in Snohomish County, especially south Everett, parts of Kirkland, Redmond, Bellevue to the east, and in south King County around the SR 99 corridor again, and parts of Renton, Kent, and Auburn; and in Pierce County, downtown Tacoma, and some of South Tacoma into Parkland. But this leaves more than half the urban footprint resistant to the officially preferred urban densities.
As the late great UW economist Charlie Tiebout told a seminar 50 years ago, “People vote with their feet,” and this is certainly true about residential choices. While a minority of as much as a quarter of Americans probably prefer higher-density living, for reasons of age, family status, or ideology, the large majority does not and will not.
To me, the tragedy is how smart growth transfers wealth and the vaunted “quality of life” to the rich and professionals, at the expense of the poor and of minorities. Sadly too, the Democratic Party seems totally blind to the fact that the fixation on new urbanism contributes to a rightward backlash. Folks do not want to be told how to live, especially when the objective facts do not support the policies.