Vision 2040 for Pugetopolis

An urban geographer uses un-rose-tinted glasses in peering into the crystal ball. He finds that we will not be able to do much about growing income segregation, congestion, gentrification in Seattle, and leapfrog development. Nor will rail transit help make things better.
Crosscut archive image.
An urban geographer uses un-rose-tinted glasses in peering into the crystal ball. He finds that we will not be able to do much about growing income segregation, congestion, gentrification in Seattle, and leapfrog development. Nor will rail transit help make things better.

I came to Seattle 53 years ago for graduate school and later joined the University of Washington Geography Department, where I taught for 44 years (urban, political, transportation, population). My academic philosophy is realist/naturalist/skeptic, rather than idealist — meaning that as a scientist, my goal has been to understand and explain the rich variety of actual needs, motivations, and behavior of individuals, groups, and institutions. I am uncomfortable with a normative approach (telling people how they ought to behave).

This approach produced my skepticism about two icons of a normative new urbanist planning: urban growth boundaries and rail transit. In my testimony to the Growth Strategies Commission 20 years ago, I warned about use of a crude geographic tool (growth boundaries) that would lead to land and housing price inflation, leapfrog development, and outcomes that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. (I think time has proven me right.) I further argued that fairness required that open space be acquired through public purchase, not through zoning.

On the question of rail transit, now very much back before the public, my skepticism is also based on economics and class. I have argued that light rail squanders limited public resources for limited results and once again benefits the rich at the expense of the poor. The real transit problem is not greater capacity but greater accessibility to people and jobs — where they actually live, as opposed to where urbanists think they ought to live. I like trains and have been on dozens of rail or subway systems around the world, many successful, others relative failures. Unfortunately, the geography of Seattle militates against rail's success here.

That said, I thought I would try to repeat my forecasting exercise of 1988 and this time try to look forward 22 years to 2040. In doing so, I hope to be clear and honest about the nature of our geographic setting; the people and their needs and preferences and capacities; the nature of our economy and of technology; the nature and limits of political and social institutions; the discretion of Seattle in the context of national and global realities; and, finally, of the constraints to change.

So let's start with the most important things that we know will impact the future city. The overwhelming reality is that there are people who prefer denser urban living (structures and neighborhoods) and people who prefer less-dense living (single-family homes and neighborhoods). Similarly, there are economic activities that need and prefer dense agglomerative settings and other economic activities that prefer and need greater horizontal space or external connections. Currently, about 40 percent of people and jobs are at the denser, more agglomerative end of the spectrum, and 60 percent are at the less-dense, more-dispersed end. Unfortunately for new urbanist idealism, far more than half of people do not live within walking or biking distance to work or school.

By 2040, the share of people preferring or accepting denser urban living could rise to 50 percent (owing to demographic and land-cost reasons), but that will still leave 50 percent (or 2.5 million of 5 million people in central Puget Sound) who don't. Planners should have learned from past housing failures that many people, particularly families with children, need private space (yards) as well as public (parks and playgrounds).

As for the workplace, it is truly difficult to envision a higher share of more agglomerative jobs. The current trends are opposite, particularly from declines in the financial sector. Rising costs of transportation will likely bring residences and workplaces a little closer on average, but there are many compelling reasons to limit this change.

The next inescapable reality is that trucks will remain the dominant mode for goods transport and that the car will still be the dominant mode of moving people. Transit (and walking and bicycling) could rise to 25 percent, and carpooling could become a lot higher than it is today, but cars, doubtless far more efficient and greener, will still be the rule. It is absurd to imagine otherwise, since greater efficiencies are precisely the kind of innovation that U.S. technology will excel at.

Political leaders and senior planners know these three "realities" perfectly well. It would be refreshing if they would be allowed to have more influence over idealistic staff planners, who often pretend these realities do not apply.

Now let me turn to a different kind of reality, which also profoundly affects the urban landscape, and that is economic inequality, now returning to levels last known in 1913. A Democratic regime might lessen this somewhat, but not much, since Democrats are the party of the intellectual rich and Republicans the party of the business rich. This matters because inequality, or, more specifically, segregation by class, contributes substantially to long distance commuting. And unlike Europe, there is little chance for a serious social housing sector.

There also are some things we do not know about 2040, the most obvious uncertainty being population. The forecast of a 50 percent increase, adding 1.7 million, is plausible but far from sure. I'd say the odds are better than even that growth will be moderately less, because of demography (aging population, lowering fertility of past immigrants) and the high costs of Seattle for residence and for business. We are likely to see spillover to less costly and restrictive cities like Spokane, Bellingham, Yakima, and the Tri-Cities. Another unknown is the course of the future economy, either for the existing dominant sectors, or possible new ones. Consider the different structure of the Seattle economy 32 years ago!

We also don't know the likely degree of housing affordability and of the relative severity of constraints on the land supply. Again, based on history and demography, I'd say the odds are in favor of continuing constraints, over-regulation, and housing unaffordability.

Likewise, much of our transportation policy is uncertain. There will probably be new trains, because people seem to want rail transit, although their contribution to mobility will be modest. But it might start to follow some different routes. As Nobel economist Paul Samuelson showed in 1956, a network connecting competing outlying centers to a central focus (like downtown Seattle) almost guarantees that the outlying centers will lose high-level functions and income to the central node. Accordingly, Tacoma, Everett, and Bellevue would each be better off without the risk of drainage to downtown Seattle. Consider the geographic reality. Bellevue's success as a competitive edge city is largely because of the barrier effect of Lake Washington, along with the existence of Interstate 405. If Snohomish County thought strategically, it would long since have worked for a sub-regional airport.

So what will Pugetopolis look like in 2040? First surprise: The future city will look and feel amazingly like the present city, just as the city today is much like the city of 1975. True, it will be somewhat denser, especially in the core cities and inner suburbs, for market as well as for planning reasons. The urban footprint will grow only slightly and begrudgingly, probably from pressure from large employers on behalf of their workforces, and probably in some rather than all of the four central-Sound counties. Thus, substantial leapfrog growth will occur in satellite towns and adjacent counties and beyond, not necessarily a bad thing. That is, Pugetopolis will grow, as much because of as despite controls on growth in the core planning area.

The popularity, site, and situation benefits, and the high land prices of the central city of Seattle, almost guarantee continued gentrification and displacement of the less-well-off to the suburbs. Inequality will remain high and segregation by class probably will increase. Transportation congestion and substantial long-distance commuting will not have lessened, despite trains or the implementation of demand management, because of likely over-investment in large glamour projects and the continued separation of residences and jobs.

I would sum it up this way: The future Greater Seattle region will continue to be the uneasy compromise between the idealist visionaries of the golden city and the reality of the human condition and the economy. This is not a pessimistic forecast, just a realistic one. The metropolis of 2040 may well be a somewhat better place than it is now, but just not very.


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