A big, new growth management plan is already outgrown

The Puget Sound Regional Council's Vision 2040, to be adopted tomorrow, has been outrun by seven years of population growth in the very outlying areas the plan is intended to protect, says the recent former Washington secretary of transportation. He explains what's happened and argues for a recalibration of strategy.
Crosscut archive image.

Growth in exurban King County. (Chuck Taylor)

The Puget Sound Regional Council's Vision 2040, to be adopted tomorrow, has been outrun by seven years of population growth in the very outlying areas the plan is intended to protect, says the recent former Washington secretary of transportation. He explains what's happened and argues for a recalibration of strategy.

Regional leaders meet tomorrow, April 24, to adopt Vision 2040, the new growth management plan crafted over the past several years by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC). A few days later, 250 leading citizens will attend an event sponsored by the Urban Land Institute called "Reality Check." They will use the PSRC plan, Lego blocks, and maps to test their grasp of future regional growth.

Growth discussions are in the air, and at stake are quality of life, commerce, and the metropolitan area's natural resources, including Puget Sound. The regional council's plan is an important document. But its ambitious scope has already been outrun by the growth it is intended to shape. What follows is an overview of Vision 2040 and its flaws, and recommendations for correcting course.

The key expectations

At the heart of Vision 2040 are expectations developed by the Puget Sound Regional Council for the central Puget Sound area from 2000 to 2040. That region – King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties – will add 1.7 million people to the 3.2 million people already living here in 2000, for a total population of some 4.9 million.

Under the plan, that population growth is presumed to be channeled mostly to the areas where it can the least impact on quality of life and the environment, and efficiently use existing and new public services, such as transportation. Specifically, 32 percent of the added population – 540,000 new people – should join the existing populations of the five "metropolitan cities" of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bremerton, and Bellevue.

Twenty-one percent – 363,000 new people – should join the existing populations of the 14 "core cities": Auburn, Bothell, Burien, Federal Way, Kent, Kirkland, Lakewood, Lynnwood, Puyallup, Redmond, Renton, SeaTac, Tukwila, and unincorporated Silverdale.

These 19 cities together are designated to be "regional growth centers."

Other smaller cities should take another 20 percent of the new people – 329,000. Unincorporated areas get 21 percent of the new people – that's 362,000. And rural areas should expect to see only 7 percent of the growth, adding just 118,000 people to less than half a million who already lived in those areas in 2000.

That is how it is supposed to work. But an examination of actual population growth and distribution from 2000-2007, the first seven years of the plan, puts Vision 2040 widely at variance with actual data. The plan about to be adopted is already out of date.

A lot turns on Vision 2040 – namely, the health of the four counties' critical natural systems and the health and survival of Puget Sound. And transportation improvements have long been planned – though many seem inextricably stuck in limbo for lack of funding – to emphasize corridors that connect the major population and job centers drawn in Vision 2040.

Everyone agrees that the challenges of achieving growth in the desirable fashion embraced by Vision 2040 will not be easy. The plan sets the targets. It does not promise the outcomes.

The plan vs. reality

Vision 2040 is an unusual plan because seven years of its 40-year time horizon have already elapsed. That means we can measure seven years of actual performance against the 40-year goals. So how are we doing so far? Actual performance to date presents a fascinating but very discouraging picture.

We first might ask whether the overall rate of population growth has matched that staggering prediction of added population by 2040. The answer is that growth since 2000 is right on target. Seven years into the forecast period, the population growth to date [223K PDF] has hit 18 percent over the year 2000 baseline: 307,000 new people have already joined the region's population in the march to 40 years of expected total growth of 1.7 million.

But that might be the only aspect of plan performance that is on, or even close to, target.

Population statistics for the individual cities are available through 2007. So we can easily see how population growth has fared to date in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton, the five metropolitan cites where 32 percent of the new population is expected to settle under Vision 2040.

If results to date were on target, 98,000 of the 307,000 new people already added to the region from 2000 to 2007 should have located in those five cities.

Oops. The actual number (discounting annexations in Bellevue and Everett) was 41,000, including Bremerton, whose population actually shrank by 1,500. That's 13 percent of the actual population growth so far, not 32 percent as targeted in Vision 2040. It's not surprising that this share of total growth was so small. While the region's population as a whole grew by 9 percent over those seven years, each of Seattle and Tacoma grew their own populations by only a little over 4 percent. Bellevue and Tacoma were not much better, and Bremerton struck out.

What about Vision 2040's 14 core cities – Auburn, Bothell, and so on? According to Vision 2040, 21 percent of the new population should collect in those cities as a group. If that had happened with the overall 307,000 new people regionwide, 64,000 new people would have joined the populations of those 14 core cities.

Oops. The actual number was 38,500 (taking into account annexations in Federal Way, Kent, Redmond, and Puyallup, and ignoring Silverdale, for which a separate number is not available). That's just under 13 percent of the actual 307,000 regional population gain in the seven-year period – nowhere near the 21 percent envisioned in Vision 2040. Again, it's not surprising that the share of total growth was so small. Only three of those cities – Renton, Redmond, and Puyallup – matched or exceeded, in their own population growth, the overall 9 percent growth for the region as a whole for 2000 to 2007.

The stark fact is that of 1.7 million people expected to join the central Puget Sound region from 2000 to 2040, 307,000 of them had already materialized by 2007 – right on target. Yet more than 80,000 of that 307,000 are missing from the regional growth centers – the largest cities and the core cities where the Vision 2040 growth strategy tells us they are now supposed to be living!

Where the growth is actually happening

Where are all those people? That's a good question. The Puget Sound Regional Council seems not yet to have provided a clear answer.

A few unhappy hints, however, can be drawn from the available 2000 to 2007 city population tables. Returns are now in for some of the cities that have not been designated in Vision 2040 as the regional growth centers. Those are outlying cities, generally, whose populations push against rural and natural resource areas, which stretch out our everyday transportation requirements, and which represent the press of growth in the four county region against its edges. As all observers can witness with their own eyes, this is the surge of new development to the north, south, east and west beyond the boundaries of the four-county area.

Arlington, for example, grew by almost 4,000 people – a 33 percent jump. Marysville grew by 5,700 people, a 20 percent increase. Mill Creek grew by more than 3,000 people, up 26 percent. Monroe grew by almost 2,500 people, an 18 percent jump. Another 9,600 people in surrounding areas were re-drawn within Arlington, Marysville, and Mill Creek by annexations. (All of the figures I cite in this article take into account population shifts involving annexations – so all the comparisons are apples to apples.)

Duvall grew by 1,200, a 27 percent increase. Issaquah grew by 7,400, or 65 percent. Sammamish grew by more than 6,100, 18 percent. Snoqualmie grew by almost 7,000, well over a 400 percent jump.

Dupont grew by almost 4,600, a 118 percent jump. Bonney Lake grew by 3,900, a 40 percent jump.

Little spatterings of new population in bucolic outer suburbs? Hardly.

The population gain from 2000 to 2007 in these 10 cities – Arlington, Marysville, Mill Creek, Monroe, Issaquah, Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Dupont, and Bonney Lake – was 45,000. These 10 cities alone account for 15 percent of the added population in the region in the 2000 to 2007 period.

The 45,000 new people in these cities and towns is greater growth than the 41,000 new people over the same period in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Everett, and Bremerton.

It also exceeds the combined growth – 38,500 new people – over the same period in the 14 core cities (Auburn, Bothell and so on) that, together with the five metropolitan cities, Vision 2040 designates as the "regional growth centers."

For the early going in the 2000 to 2007 period, the actual results for those outlying cities must be very disheartening to the growth planning strategists who have placed their bets on Vision 2040. Outlying cities like these around the four-county region are in the places where growth typically must be moderate and modest if the Vision 2040 expectations will be achieved. But that's not what's happening.

Another perspective on growth in the region from 2000 to 2007 would be gained by seeing how large a share of new population has turned up in rural areas and even outside the Urban Growth Area boundaries enshrined in the state Growth Management Act. This question, too, is hard to answer from easily available data, but there are some important indications.

In King County, in the most recent years, only five percent or less of the new housing units are springing up outside the urban growth boundaries. But in Snohomish County, since 2000, the share of new housing units outside the urban growth boundaries has steadily increased. In Kitsap County, the number of new housing units outside the Urban Growth Area in recent years has bounced from year to year between 40 percent and 60 percent. In Pierce County, recent information shows that 20 percent of the new housing units are now arising outside the urban growth boundaries. Another telling indicator is that for Pierce County as a whole, growth in the unincorporated areas – some inside and some outside the urban growth boundaries – accounted for almost six out of 10 new residents in the entire county!

Clearly, the plan in Vision 2040 to channel new population to the five metropolitan cities and 14 core cites designated as the regional growth centers has not worked in the first seven years. What will it take to change the trends?

A comparison to the 1990s

For a 32 percent share of the new population to go to the five metropolitan cities, a big improvement will have to be made to the 13 percent share achieved for the first years of the plan period. Growth in those cities has already fallen so far below the planned share in Vision 2040 that to make up the deficit in the remaining years of the plan, the metropolitan cities' share of the growth still to come will have to be 36 percent from today until 2040.

Meanwhile, the 14 core cities must raise their 13 percent share to 21 percent – or even somewhat higher than that for the remaining years, given the out-of-the-gate deficit.

One might ask whether the 2000-to-2007 trends, though dismal, at least hold hope as improvements against the same measures seen in prior history.

Nope. No good news there. The new plan for the five big cities is to get a 32 percent share of the growth, or 36 percent from today forward in view of the already accumulated deficit. We have for the past seven years seen only 13 percent. What did we see for the decade of the 1990s, when growth actually added more people to the region than is happening today? In that decade, 18 percent of the new total regional growth (526,000) came to the five big cities.

This decade's actual results to date, in other words, are farther from the expected share of regional population growth set in the Vision 2040 plan than the results across the previous decade. In the 1990s, those cities' total growth was 96,000; for the first seven years of this decade, it is only 41,000. Seattle, for example, in that earlier decade added more than 47,000 people. Seven years into this decade, it has added 23,000. Bellevue added 11,500 (net of annexations) in the 1990s. Seven years into this decade, it has added 5,500 (net of annexations). Tacoma in the 1990s added almost 17,000. Seven years into this decade, it has added about 8,100.

Judged across two decades, we have been heading backwards from our goal of attracting much higher rates of population growth to the metropolitan cities, as Vision 2040 supposes we must in this and the three coming decades.

What to do next

What do these results from actual data demand, now that regional leaders have blessed Vision 2040 as the growth plan for the future of the central Puget Sound region?

First, regional leaders responsible for crafting the Vision 2040 plan should clamp down on happy talk about growth planning for the region. They should replace it with hard, candid analysis of where we are, where we are trying to go, and how on earth we might try get there. The cold light of actual data raises many questions about the just-completed planning process and whether Vision 2040 ever passed a simple ground-truth exercise. Too late to worry about that. Now what do we and our region's leaders say and do?

Second, for citizens across the region, our central environmental and social challenge is the need for a huge step up in attracting new population to the designated regional growth centers – Seattle, Tacoma, Bellevue, Everett and Bremerton being the flagships.

What will be necessary to turn the tide against, well, the spread of sprawl across the region? Better urban public schools! Higher-quality and lower-cost housing in the cities, especially housing that will make all kinds of families with children eager to live in city neighborhoods! Friendlier, convenient main street shopping for shoppers of all incomes! Good streets and sidewalks, safe bike lanes, and enjoyable parks for people of all ages! For all the citizens of the entire region, these needs in the cities now are front and center as the essential, critical measures of "green."

Third, for transportation officials and advocates, it is time for hard analysis tied to data and facts. We must quickly, affordably, and broadly improve public transportation services people can use every day to make their lives efficient and convenient in all the places where growth must be encouraged. We must free congestion on urban streets and roadways, too, or people will continue to choose to live where they must make lengthier, carbon-squandering shopping trips and commutes.

Has anyone not yet noticed that it's standing-room-only on principal bus routes all over the very areas where better transit services can help attract new residents? What is so hard about the obvious fact that today we must take the path of securing the Vision 2040 goals by radical, imaginative, and cost-effective improvements in bus and van services to strengthen the entire network of public transportation? Can we see the numbers, please, for our public transportation alternatives, including innovative bus and van transit services and modern park-and-ride centers, as compared to just a few light rail stops? It's time to take action, guided by real data, to deliver transportation solutions to help hundreds of thousands of people move more easily and inexpensively everywhere in the designated growth centers.

Finally, the Puget Sound Partnership and everyone else who cares about the protecting and restoring Puget Sound-region ecosystems must recognize that the rhetoric in Vision 2040 carries no warranty whatsoever that its desired outcomes can be achieved. If even those would be enough to preserve a healthy Puget Sound. So far, the development strategies outlined in Vision 2040 to protect rural and sensitive natural areas are being mocked by the actual results for new population location.

A draft discussion paper [700 PDF] recently posted by the Puget Sound Partnership suggests a harsh critique of our current situation for all of the Puget Sound area, of which the central Puget Sound region is just a part, albeit a big part.

[T]here are simply too many governmental actors in Puget Sound with the authority to regulate human activities that pose threats to the ecosystem. They have acted in an uncoordinated fashion, with varying purposes and results. With each government balancing competing needs and making regulatory decisions, the certainty of outcomes decreases and the potential for further ecosystem decline increases.

The draft discussion paper observes:

In order to achieve the goal of a healthy Puget Sound by 2020 and support the predicted growth in jobs and people, the region needs a fundamental change in the way it which it manages natural resources and the human activities that impact them. We believe that fundamental changes must achieve these outcomes: (1) a clear statement of the ecosystem processes, structures and functions that must be protected to sustain Puget Sound over time; (2) a consistent set of policy goals that will lead to a sustainable Puget Sound ecosystem; and (3) a governance structure charged with a capable of ensuring that the policy goals are met.

The draft discussion paper is not shy about offering a radical suggestions.

We recommend that the Puget Sound Partnership lead a regional conversation about the projected population growth of our region to 5 million people by 2040 in order to understand its impacts on the quality of life for humans, the ecosystems of Puget Sound and our economy. The discussion should include the concepts of the maximum capacity of the region to accommodate increased population from a quality of life standpoint, and from the viewpoint of the resiliency of the ecosystem to sustain stressors over time. ..,

What the region needs is a system of governance where leaders are charged with and capable of ensuring that the Puget Sound ecosystem policy goals are being met. We believe that this requires simplicity – a single agency or group charged with convening the region, reaching consensus on the science and a set of policies and actions that will lead to a healthy Puget Sound. This agency or group should be charged with adopting the integrated set of standards referenced above and overseeing its implementation around Puget Sound by local governments.

Radical recommendations like this have decidedly not been heard so far in the Vision 2040 conversation. Are they apt? That question can first be judged by seeing whether the central Puget Sound region has the will, the capacity, and the means to make the dramatic changes in course that Vision 2040's expectations require. The clock is ticking. The jury is out. We need a verdict very soon.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.