What drives the runaway growth in the Seattle area?

Much of the growth comes from external factors we cannot control. But not all of it is beyond local political control. An urban geographer sorts out the unusual concentration of growth hormones that hit the area and looks at the dilemmas of rapid growth.
Crosscut archive image.

Traffic on the SR 520 bridge

Much of the growth comes from external factors we cannot control. But not all of it is beyond local political control. An urban geographer sorts out the unusual concentration of growth hormones that hit the area and looks at the dilemmas of rapid growth.

I arrived in Seattle as a University of Washington student in 1955, loving the city and region from the moment I stepped off the train from Los Angeles. Fifty-two years later, I still love the place as much, having lived most of the time within a mile of the university where for many years I taught geography. The city of Seattle and the wider metropolis have changed astoundingly, especially in the built environment, but maybe not so much in character as many may believe or fear. We were a great small and provincial metropolis of 1 million in 1955, and a great much larger, almost "world" city of 3 million people today. The vast changes have been difficult for many people and for many communities and neighborhoods. Discomfort, even anger with the pace and nature of change is totally understandable. Butâ'ꂬ¦ I perceive four kinds of change. First is sheer growth, in population, jobs, and the built-up area. Second is social and demographic change, in the kinds of households, in social attitudes, and behavior. Then comes economic structural change, in the nature and location of jobs, in taxation, and in wealth and inequality. Fourth and last is change in the scope and kinds of governmental roles and regulations. Starting with sheer growth: The population and the urban footprint of greater Seattle have both grown about three fold in the 50 years from 1955 to 2005, from a little under 1 million to almost 3 million people and from 280 square miles to over 900 square miles. As telling, the city of Seattle's share of the urban total has declined threefold from two-thirds to only one-sixth, a testament to the incredible pace of suburbanization. That dramatic change has inescapably been accommodated by a combination of growing upward and outward. That has meant higher structures in a denser pattern over at least the inner half of the metropolis, and a spreading of the urban area by several miles on average, sweeping over earlier exurban and rural areas. This massive growth occurred because the population of the US has grown, due to natural increase and greater longevity and large-scale immigration, and because the Seattle area has been somewhat more attractive to people and investment than the average American metropolis. Why? Factors in Seattle's favor would include our geographic position with respect to Alaska (interception of trade), California (spillover), and Asia (stupendous growth and trade). Add to those our exceptional physical setting and environment (port, recreation, space); the long-term entrepreneurship of industries like Boeing and Paccar; the growth of new sectors (computer software, biotechnology) and the development of new modes of distribution and communication (Costco, Amazon, Starbucks, wireless). That's a lot of converging engines of growth for one place! Such vast growth in population and urban settlement had to be accommodated. The demand for space almost continually raised the value and price of land, as people and activities compete for access to jobs and services, employees, and customers. This huge demand forced redevelopment of less intensive and less productive uses of property with more intensive uses that could provide a competitive return. Redevelopment and intensification had to occur. We have a market economy. Many activities require centralized access to survive, and there is limited land in the core. Expansion outward also had to occur, again because we are a market economy, and because other kinds of activities and other people need more space or external access (think Costco). Government can tweak this process, but only at the margin. Let me now turn to social and demographic changes, which have been equally dramatic and greater in Seattle than in much of the country. The main dimensions here have been the shift from the dominance of families and children, to a greater diversity of households; the marked rise in the autonomy of women (but with a long way to go) as seen in greater labor-force participation, begrudged rights of choice for pregnancy and birth, and inroads to political power; substantial, but again begrudged and incomplete acceptance of same-sex relationships; the legal but not the practical reality of racial equality for blacks; and a marked resurgence of immigration, impacting the suburbs as well as the city of Seattle. The result is much greater diversity of households and lower percentages of traditional husband-wife-and-children families and higher shares of singles, empty nesters, and unmarried partners. Again, Seattle has experienced more of these changes than the nation. One cause is self-selection due to perceived tolerance, job and housing patterns, but also from the reduced attractiveness and affordability of the city to traditional families. All these changes may bother people who were raised in more traditional places and families, but again the momentum and general acceptance of these social changes are great and probably irreversible, as well as contributing to the region's creativity and entrepreneurship. The change may also be less than it appears, since it turns out that most people either are, were, or will be in families or family-like relationships. I turn now to economic restructuring, where there have been three related changes in the world, US, and local economies over these 50 years. First is a profound change in industrial and occupational structure, what is sometimes called a shift from a "production"-dominated society to a "consumption" society, and characterized by a relative decline in the shares of agriculture, mining, forestry, and manufacturing, and a parallel increase in professional services, especially health and finance, and in retailing, entertainment, trade, and lower-level services. Second is a related increased difference in the rewards to education and kinds of work, with hugely higher returns to professional and managerial occupations and to higher education, with actual declines in real income to many less-educated and lower-level service workers. Third is the much greater role of foreign trade and the dominance and reach of the international corporation. This globalization brings with it the increased outsourcing of services as well as of manufacturing outside the domestic economy. These shifts have produced an astounding increase in inequality and the concentration of wealth, in effect the re-creation of a pre-Depression world of an owner and a servant class, and a shrinking of the middle classes. This inequality has been "set up" by the three changes outlined above, but extended and aggravated by a massive reduction in taxation and regulation of the rich. Once again, the pace of change has been particularly dramatic in the Seattle region. As recently as 1970, the Seattle metropolitan area and the city of Seattle in particular, were at the opposite pole from this change, with a quite high share of manufacturing and unionization and a surprisingly egalitarian structure of income distribution and affordable housing for most households. By now the metropolis, and again the city of Seattle in particular, have been among America's most changed cities. Now we are a region with super-high inequality, housing unaffordability, and obvious super-wealth. The population and urban settlement growth may have been inevitable. But the extent and extremity of these economic changes were the consequences of political choice, notably the "Reagan Revolution" agenda to restore and protect the wealthy class, a program not effectively countered by the Democrats, when in power, nationally or locally. By now, because we are so much a part of the national and global market economy, there is almost no capacity to mitigate these economic changes. Lastly, let's look at shifts in government and planning. Local government in Washington has historically been very fragmented and parochial. This mattered less when the city of Seattle was totally dominant in the metropolitan region. By the 1980s the awareness that problems and potential solutions were regional forced the creation of numerous inter-governmental entities. While an effort to create metropolitan governance failed, federal and state legislation, and the courts, did lead to regional coordination and planning entities such as the Puget Sound Regional Council and Metro. The Growth Management Act significantly increased the power of counties. Over the same period in which the national economy shifted right in the sense of deregulation, globalization, and rising inequality, local government has increased the level of regulation of property. This development was partly in reaction to the whole panoply of change, but especially to the spread of urbanization and subsequent congestion, as growth outpaced infrastructure investment. The result is that local government, through planning, has teamed with private development forces to intensify and speed up some of the processes of change, and perhaps unwittingly supports policies and plans that intensify change and aggravate inequality. The message of this history is that most of these changes were the result of societal forces beyond local control. But not all. Is there a better way to cope with all this change? I'll tackle that question soon. Meanwhile I welcome suggestions readers may offer on the dilemma of change.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Dick Morrill

Dick Morrill is emeritus professor of geography at the University of Washington and an expert in urban demography.