NW Urban: Changing cities on the Sound

The transformation of three Puget Sound cities heralds a bold new era in urban living.
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The transformation of three Puget Sound cities heralds a bold new era in urban living.

Throughout the Puget Sound area, many cities and towns have been rapidly changing. For the most part, the change has been propelled by the same forces that are at work in other major metropolitan areas: Household sizes have drastically shrunk, Millennials are delaying marriage and childbearing and buying bikes and transit passes instead of cars, and many Boomers are shedding their big suburban houses for smaller dwellings in neighborhoods that are closer to arts, culture, transit and other amenities.

Former inner-ring suburbs such as Bellevue, Shoreline and Renton are turning into rich stewpots whose wide array of cultures and newfound entrepreneurial energy are fueling demand for different types of services and housing. Taken together, these sweeping changes will likely reshape communities — both their form and their politics — for decades to come.

Here in the Upper Left Coast, we have added our own, unique twists to the social changes sweeping North America.

For one, we have exchanged growth outward for growth inward. In other metropolitan areas, the central city, with its older, mature neighborhoods, is being rediscovered and re-energized with new investment. But as you move outward, the same, decades-old development patterns persist: wide arterial roads flanked by strip malls and repetitive, low-slung residential subdivisions.

But here in the Northwest, state and local policy has applied the brakes to outward development, if not shutting it down altogether then at least significantly blunting the worst trends. We have plenty of generic development left over from the past era; witness the plethora of strip malls lining the edges of old US-99. But the development of sprawling office parks, shopping centers and subdivisions has all but ended. In its place, Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and dozens of smaller cities have enjoyed substantial new investment.

Second, we Northwesterners are willing to tax ourselves as a way to pay for the places and services we all value and share: libraries, city halls, community centers, theaters, parks, transit, museums and schools. Not many parts of the country have benefittred from investment in the kind of intercity rail, for example, that Washington has seen with its state-purchased Cascade trains. And we are expanding those services with light rail, commuter rail, streetcar lines and more to come. (If only I could say the same for bus service, which is imperiled by legislative inaction.)

Finally, we care about the environment. That powerful ethic has saved our natural setting from the destruction that continues to happen elsewhere. Northwest wilderness has been purchased and preserved, farmland has been retained and developers have been held responsible for mitigating the impacts of their building projects. Recycling and reducing the waste stream are imbedded in our psyches. I see almost none of this when I visit other parts of the country.

Perhaps it’s as much accidental as intentional, but the convergence of public policy and shifting preferences and behavior is remaking Puget Sound communities in profound and exciting ways. Just look at Kirkland and Redmond to the east, Edmonds and Mill Creek to the north and Renton and Kent on the south. All are bustling mini-cites with lively town centers. Many other communities are following suit with their own ambitious plans.

This three-part series spotlights three Puget Sound cities that have re-directed their futures: Bellevue, a quintessential bedroom suburb that has evolved into a dense urban center. Tacoma, a mid-sized city, once ravaged by disinvestment, now using art and heritage as the twin engines of an enlightened redevelopment. Bremerton, the small town once given up for dead, now creating a vibrant center, by blending grand, green public spaces with commercial bustle.

Each city survived some rough patches. That's to be expected in any evolving metropolitan area. But their ongoing transformation is a testament to how much we value the places we live, and how willing we are to do what it takes to sustain them and make them thrive.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).