As The Seattle Times FYI Guy pointed out earlier this month, Seattle’s population grew by 21% — 130,000 new residents — in the last decade. This brings stresses and challenges, but it’s also an accomplishment to celebrate. Three decades ago, legislators saw sprawl was negatively impacting Washington’s environment and created the Growth Management Act (GMA) to focus development in urban areas to protect our farms, forests and wilderness. Seattle implements the GMA through its Comprehensive Plan. City government reviews the plan every eight years and amends it annually.
When the Legislature passed the GMA, Seattle’s population had declined, while developers built new houses wherever there was cheap (rural) land. We’ve turned that around with effective public policy that protects rural landscapes while addressing climate change. Three reasons to celebrate:
∙ We’ve created a strategic land use policy. Seattle implemented a deliberate strategy to increase density, using zoning and planning tools to increase housing choices, while committing to transit and urban amenities to make people want to live in the city.
∙ Those 130,000 newcomers mean far less carbon emissions. Urban residents generate about 50% less carbon than the average American, and far less than sprawl. Multifamily dwellings built to modern green standards use less energy. Seattle’s success in creating employment and housing results in more people walking and taking transit instead of driving. Urban dwellers use less fossil fuels because they live closer to their jobs.
∙ We’re fulfilling commitments to immigrants and refugees by expanding housing supply. Seattle welcomes immigrants and refugees — but they need places to live. Where will these newcomers find housing if we do not provide it where they can find jobs and services? We’ve not only created thousands of homes in the center city but added even more housing with easy access to buses and light rail through Transit Oriented Development policies.
This does not mean everything is rosy. Housing costs have risen dramatically because everyone wants to live in such a wonderful city. People earning less than median income must often live far away from workplaces. And growth stresses transit and infrastructure, while quality of life amenities become crowded and more expensive to site and maintain.
But there are solutions. Seattle rents are stabilizing as housing supply catches up with demand. Innovative approaches for subsidized housing for lower income workers and those in poverty create affordable units. Neighborhood plans and voter approved levies have led to new parks, libraries, community centers and transportation options.
We must keep our urban development vibrant to realize the vision of a carbon efficient city and a thriving region. City government should double down on encouraging new housing to keep market rates within reason. While most growth will be in larger multifamily buildings, careful mixing of housing types in single-family neighborhoods can also contribute. Creativity and innovation can ensure subsidized housing for those who cannot afford market rates.
City government must also make a renewed commitment to Seattle’s quality of life, like parks and transportation choices so people can make good decisions about how they live, work and move around. Historic preservation, investment in arts, culture and schools, and commitments to social justice enhance Seattle’s cultural identity and the vitality of diverse cultural communities. Seattleites have embraced levies to add parks and other community facilities; we will need new levies to meet future needs.
Seattle has grown faster than most American cities, and faster than the surrounding suburbs. Yet outpacing others is not really our goal. We should rejoice when others adopt the same strategies to cut carbon emissions and protect ecosystems.
Growth management is a regional strategy that includes everywhere within the Urban Growth Boundary, so it’s a good thing that cities like Bellevue, Federal Way and Renton are becoming strong urban centers in their own right. And the more cities everywhere take similar steps to help people and ecosystems live in harmony, the better off we all will be.