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Stemming Suburbia's Sprawl

In Seattle

Environmental activist Alan Durning poses with one foot resting on a Seattle traffic circle, looking a little like a bounty hunter displaying his latest trophy.

For Mr. Durning, each new pedestrian-friendly traffic circle or strip of sidewalk is a valued prize in the campaign to keep the Emerald City thriving and green.

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"These little-bitty changes lead to changes in our impact on the globe," says Durning, a Seattle native and executive director of the nonprofit research group Northwest Environment Watch.

The traffic devices - intended to slow cars and invite foot travel - are part of a much larger experiment here to balance the area's continuing growth with its deeply ingrained environmental ethic. And it is an experiment that could become a model for the rest of the country.

The concept is bold and controversial: Inside cities, new policies aim to accommodate projected population increases by promoting densely inhabited, walkable urban villages. Outside, growth boundaries enforced by zoning and restricted public services are limiting suburban sprawl in an effort to preserve the region's pristine woods and farmland.

Seattle's 20-year strategy for this kind of growth, approved in 1994, is showing signs of success. The city's population is growing steadily, following decades of decline, and property values are rising. In King County, which includes the city of Seattle, nearly 90 percent of new housing units are now springing up in urban rather than rural areas. In Seattle proper, two-thirds of new housing is in the designated growth areas, or urban villages.

"Seattle is experiencing a [housing] boom right in the heart of its inner city," says Kathy Becker, a program officer in growth management at the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle. "In other communities, people would be building $400,000 houses on 2.5 acres in the suburbs."

Politically, Seattle's plan won strong public endorsement in the November election. Several key backers of compact growth, including mayoral candidate Paul Schell and four members of the nine-seat city council, defeated opponents of the plan. Elections in neighboring cities and counties followed the same trend.

Of national importance

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To environmentalists like Durning, Seattle's experiment, along with similar ones in Portland, Ore.; Vancouver, British Columbia; and smaller regional cities, has importance stretching far beyond the Northwest.

"The Northwest is a global proving ground," says Durning. "If we can't figure out our technologically advanced and affluent way of life in this place - a place that is ecologically unspoiled and where a conservation ethic and openness to political innovation is more prevalent - then I don't know where we can."

Seattle's emphasis on limiting sprawl grew in part from 1990 legislation known as the Washington State Growth Management Act, which required all fast-growing areas of the state to create comprehensive, coordinated plans for future development.

During the 1980s, King County's population had risen 18.7 percent, and the county was consuming land at an even faster rate. Another 20 percent rise in the number of residents by 2014 was projected.

Much of the growth was concentrated in suburbs. With life fragmented into subdivisions and shopping malls, automobile use and congestion soared. Currently, Seattle has more registered vehicles than residents, and the number of daily trips by each household is 10, up from six in 1980.

To check the sprawl, the county drew a north-south boundary line between Seattle and rural lands to the east, beyond which lots smaller than five acres for single dwellings are prohibited. In addition, the government declined to provide the area with any new water and sewer services and barred most industry.

Promoting urban villages

Meanwhile, to attract the displaced growth, Seattle began promoting dozens of urban villages. The concept calls for invigorating distinct old neighborhoods with more tightly clustered housing - mid-rise condos, low-income apartments, and town houses - all packed around a central commercial core offering an easy walk to cafes, shops, and businesses.

One such emerging village is Madison Valley, a hilly, racially diverse, central Seattle neighborhood that long suffered from decline and neglect. Now, fashionable new restaurants line the main thoroughfare alongside consignment stores. Rows of new town houses and a well-groomed pocket park are filling in vacant lots, and many existing homes are undergoing renovation.

The changes mean that on a lot where two or three people once lived, there can now be 15, leading to unexpected benefits for the environment, Durning says.

"As population density rises, people do less driving and more walking," he observes on a stroll down Madison's tree-lined main street. "Most people believe the alternative to cars is better transit - in truth, it's better neighborhoods."

New sidewalks, traffic circles, and narrower roads have slowed car speeds, prevented accidents, and encouraged residents and the stroller crowd to retake the streets. Local bus lines are profitable and gaining riders. With greater numbers of pedestrians, street crime has dropped, and the sense of community has improved, residents say.

Moreover, to avoid a cookie-cutter approach to the villages, each neighborhood has the power to design its own improvements under the city's broad guidelines, as well as access to $4.5 million in city funds to hire its own planning expert. With hundreds of citizens involved in diverse groups, the neighborhood-based planning is not only about land use, but also the local arts, parks, education, safety, and economic development.

Neighborhood involvement has opened opportunities for residents and lessened resistance to the compact growth model in some communities where it was strong, city officials say.

"This [neighborhood-based] planning is exciting and totally different than what is going on in most of the country," says Jim Diers, director of the city neighborhoods department.

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