Eye-opening study: Seattle is becoming an urban bedroom community

For all our urbanism talk, relatively few people live and work in the city. A study ordered by Mayor Ed Murray offers rich opportunities to guide the city's future growth.
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Construction cranes on a cold January day: Could a slowdown be ahead?

For all our urbanism talk, relatively few people live and work in the city. A study ordered by Mayor Ed Murray offers rich opportunities to guide the city's future growth.

With the cranes gathered on the skyline and a new city comprehensive plan in the works, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray decided it was time to check in on the city’s urban villages and find out, with apologies to former New York Mayor Ed Koch, “how’r they doin’?”

It's a really good time for that question here.

Mayor Norm Rice introduced the urban villages strategy some 20 years ago, designed to designate centers of urban growth around the city. It was the planning response to the new Growth Management Act, and targeted areas throughout the city by increasing densities and anticipating where growth could be best absorbed.

With change once again intensifying and with now two decades of village experience — plus the impending update of the city’s Comp Plan for growth through 2035 — we have an important chance to see whether the villages have worked as intended. How did we do on growth targets, livability and, most importantly, sustainability? How’s the health of the city? What do the results suggest for the future?

The city tapped Peter Steinbrueck to dig into it (a mildly controversial move). This week his long-awaited report, “Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project,” or SSNAP for short, has finally been released. The sponsoring agency was the Department of Planning and Development.

Steinbrueck, a former city council member and a Murray rival for the mayor’s office in 2013, has been a neighborhood and sustainability advocate for years. After losing to Murray in the primary he the endorsed the future mayor and was an informal advisor to his campaign on neighborhood issues. In his first year in office, Murray signaled that he would take neighborhoods seriously and convened a neighborhood summit and commissioned the Steinbrueck SSNAP study.

Steinbrueck and his research assistants targeted 10 designated villages — they range from Downtown to Rainier Beach, Lake City to Eastlake — as representative of the city’s geography and demographics, and began to dig into the numbers — no easy thing. City departments often measure things in different ways; new metrics and tools have been developed. Steinbrueck found that coming up with data, especially apples-to-apples comparisons over two decades, was a challenge. But he mined a lot of interesting material from a variety of sources, from census data to internal city numbers. He also brought context and an insider’s eye to the process, finding ways to evaluate how city policy has and has not been followed over time, such as who is benefitting most from neighborhood grants or arts spending, or whether the city’s tree canopy goals are being met by the villages (they’re not).

The results are eye-opening, in some cases.

In the good news category, Seattle residents have made great strides in terms of conservation. Eight of the 10 urban villages and hubs studied, especially the high-growth ones, showed big increases in transit boardings between 1994 and 2014, now at around 300,000 per day. We’re using less water — residential water consumption per capita has been cut nearly in half in the time period. Residential energy use is down too on a per capita basis, by as much as 17 percent. We’re recycling and we’ve cut solid waste landfill by 42 percent. Farmer’s markets have expanded citywide, so we can eat more locally (though the city is not meeting residents' demand for P-Patch space). So, for the most part, we’re walking the green talk in terms of policy, city utilities management and personal behavior.

Other findings fit what most of us are sensing about the city: traffic on major arterials in the urban villages is worse, and housing costs are squeezing many people. The Housing Cost Burden — defined as households that are spending more than 30 percent of their income to keep a roof over their heads — is a hardship, especially in neighborhoods with higher low-income populations such as Downtown, the University District, Rainier Beach and Lake City. In the 10 villages studied, between 40 and 60 percent of all households were spending more than 30 percent of their income on shelter. In some parts of town, more than 20 percent of households are paying more than 50 percent of their income on housing, a level defined as a “severe” burden. And that burden is intensifying — recent rent hikes aren’t even fully in the equation yet.

Poverty rates are persistent and progress slow. Rainier Beach, for example, showed three times the unemployment and three times the poverty rate of West Seattle Junction, and also showed the least improvement in academic performance, as measured by fourth grade reading skills. This is despite significant resources, and a disproportionate amount of the city's neighborhood spending there. For example, Steinbrueck says, between 1994 and 2014, Ballard received $129,347 in neighborhood matching fund grants, while Rainier Beach received $7.4 million during the same time period. That disparity in funding might have justifications, but Steinbrueck says such allocations should better tracked and the program managed in an equitable manner across all neighborhoods. As district council politics loom with the 2015 election, the distribution of spending in the city — tracked by village and district — will be increasingly scrutinized.

There are other disparities. Downtown and Rainier Beach have received a disproportionate share of infrastructure investment, Downtown gets the most arts investment by the city, Lake City the least. Some urban villages have no city-designated landmarks—Aurora-Licton Springs and Westwood-Highland Park, for example — while Downtown has 84. Steinbrueck thinks the city should prioritize the urban villages for proactive inventorying of potential heritage sites so the benefits of preservation are better shared.

One concerning trend is job growth in Seattle —or lack of it. The 1994-2014 Comp Plan predicted between 131,000 and 145,600 new jobs in Seattle during the period, with 64 percent of those in the city’s designated urban centers. The city made that 64 percent target, but job growth itself was wildly overestimated. In the 20-year period, Seattle produced only 57,000 jobs, 43 percent of the low end of the target. Without South Lake Union, the job growth numbers would be even worse.

Seattle doesn’t have a problem in attracting residents — the number of city households is growing as predicted. But there are many consequences to the weak job growth. One is the stress it puts on transportation. For all the discussion of live/work, only 38 percent of Seattleites both live and work their primary job in the city. And 62 percent of those who work in the city live outside of it, according to U.S. Census figures. The number of jobs per household in Seattle has declined even as the population has grown. To achieve a target figure of 1.8 jobs per household, Seattle would need to add 180,000 jobs in the next 20 years, 65,000 more than are projected, estimates Steinbrueck, who recommended a reassessment of job growth strategies. Certainly, this picture of Seattle as an urban bedroom community to the suburbs defies some of the narrow thinking about the urban-suburban relationship.

One thing made clear from the report is the difficulty in getting good information. In his introduction to SSNAP, Steinbrueck writes, “One of the biggest challenges encountered in the study was in the data collection process itself — including inconsistencies in tracking data years, spatial parameters, lack of transparency, and lack of public access. Open data systems are essential to transparency, public accountability and innovation.” He lays out an important challenge for the Murray administration and its successors, which is a better, more consistent means of tracking what government does and the results of policies and priorities. Information is too often siloed, some is generated for internal and budgeting use only and not even shared between departments, some if it is unavailable to the public.

The numbers are only a means to an end: building a better, more sustainable city. But just as the Seattle Police Department is upgrading technology to move to a more data-driven approach to law enforcement, perhaps the city’s development could be handled the same way: Problems like job growth or lack of open space could be flagged and prioritized in shorter intervals than taking a reading every 20 years. Steinbrueck himself suggests a six-year Urban Village Strategic Plan tied to the biennial budgeting process and a “coordinated, more unified collection and monitoring system [that] would allow the city to better channel public investments where they are needed most.”

Mayor Murray has already laid out similar goals. In his budget proposal last fall, he asked for changes in how the city tracks its own performance. “We will use data — not tradition — to drive how our government functions,” he pledged. A year ago, in his state of the city address, he called for a more strategic approach in guiding the resources of the Department of Human Services: “We must use data to drive our investments and interventions for addressing disparities, and use results-based accountability to create change.” In the same speech, he called for more data on housing affordability, transportation, freight mobility, and disparities in Internet use and connectivity in the city. Perhaps a new Department of Data is in order, one that allows citizens and policymakers real time access to the numbers.

In the meantime, there are plenty of numbers and metrics to plumb in the Steinbrueck study, many of them tied to observations and recommendations by a guy who understands Seattle better than most, and who undoubtedly understands us even better having undertaken this deep dive into the numbers. With the report released, the rest of us now have a chance to get into the details and see where they lead.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.