From The Seattle Times, Sunday, January 26, 1997, page B5 (Issues and Commentary)
The Six C’s of Sustainable Urbanization
Cascadia's bustling Mainstreet
New approaches to urbanization can save region's high quality of life
ŕ THERE ARE 7MILLION residents stretched along 'Mainstreet Cascadia,' the 1-5 corridor between Eugene, Ore., and Vancouver, B. C. Millions more are coming — the Puget Sound alone area will absorb 1.2 million more people in the next 20 years. Those who live in this vital region are beginning to wonder what it will take to sustain our quality of life. Is there such a thing as sustainable urbanization, and, if so, what are its principles?
Special to The Times
Before the next governor is seated four years from now, our region will experience some of the fastest growth since World War II. Unless the growth is carefully managed using principals of sustainable urbanization, it will be impossible to maintain our region's high qualtiy of life.
By our region, I mean the corridor along Interstate 5 from Eugene, Ore., into Vancouver, British Columbia — a route named by some planners and researchers "Mainstreet Cascadia."
While some politicians and lobbyists work to weaken our state's Growth Management Act, we would be wise to remember what it takes to sustain our region's high quality of life and what occurs when communities succumb to unplanned development.
In the cities and counties stretched along Mainstreet Cascadia live over seven million people. Three-quarters of them live in the urban areas that center on Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, B.C. All three of these centers have experienced tremendous population growth over the past few decades.
The numbers show that the population of both greater Vancouver and Metropolitan Portland doubled between 1960 and 1990. Population in the Puget Sound region grew by over 80 percent. These are some of the highest metropolitan growth rates in North America.
The next four years should bring Washington's fastest growth rate in 50 years and planners expect population growth to remain heavy for the foreseeable future. They project that by 2020, the Puget Sound area will absorb 1.2 million more people. The same numbers are projected to be added in Greater Vancouver. Metropolitan Portland is expected to add 700,000 newcomers. Growth is being generated by births exceeding deaths in the region, by domestic (U.S.) migration, and by migration from overseas - with migration playing a somewhat larger role than local births.
As populations grow, indications are that people all along Mainstreet Cascadia are deeply concerned about the direction of greater urbanization. A survey done in 1992 by the Oregon Business Council found that the biggest fears of Oregon's citizens were overpopulation, environmental destruction, the loss of forests, and uncontrolled growth. At that point in time, growth was a bigger worry than either crime or the economy. A survey in British Columbia (Ministry of Municipal Affairs, 1994) found that more than half the people questioned felt that growth was negatively affecting their quality of life. In 1993, a survey of citizens in the four-county area around Seattle showed growth and traffic as among top citizen worries.
People are reacting to situations like these:
• In the relatively small university town of Eugene, at least half the local residents find that roads are congested at various times during the day, and the vast majority of residents find them congested during rush hours.
• In the Greater Vancouver area, with its superior transit service, there was a 1985-1992 aggregate decline of about 12 percent in the share of all trips made by transit, and an increase of about 5 percent in the share of drivers driving alone (despite the fact that in certain Sky Train-served areas of Vancouver, transit managed to hold its own).
• In agricultural areas around Greater Vancouver that are part of an official agricultural preservation program, 8.5 percent of the farmland was still lost to urban uses between 1973 and 1990. This was over 20 times the rate of transformation in more remote areas of British Columbia.
• Urban growth has outpaced infrastructure capacity. Water facilities in the Portland area, for example, will need to be greatly expanded to accommodate the growth anticipated there.
These examples of urban growth trends - more auto congestion, a decline in transit and carpooling, the consumption of land for building more subdivisions at the expense of preserving agricultural and forest lands — and many others, such as loss of wetlands and water pollution from urban runoff and construction activities, have planners increasingly concerned with the issue of sustainability. Is there such a thing as sustainable urbanization, and, if so, what are its principles?
Sustainable development has been defined as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Only in recent years has the concept of sustainable development begun to be applied to the field of urban planning. Government agencies at all levels are adopting plans to make urban growth more sustainable. A close examination of such plans shows six basic principles derived from research -we might call them the six C's — being applied.
1. Compactness. The first principle is that more compact, densely developed cities are less auto dependent, less expensive to serve with infrastructure, and put less pressure on nearby farm, forest, and environmentally sensitive areas. One of my own studies has shown that the percentage of people who bus to work increases as the population density rises in the city where they live. A1994 report on growth options for King County concluded that an urban containment strategy would save taxpayers money over the long run. In Oregon, research has shown that farms and forests are more effectively sustained when urban growth is more compact.
2. Completeness. A second principle of sustainable urbanization is that communities should be made more complete. A complete community is one in which the segregation of urban activities has been reduced. The residents of a complete community have the opportunity to work and shop in close proximity to their homes. The elimination of long commutes reduces traffic congestion, air pollution, energy use, and water pollution — to say nothing of psychic stress.
3. Conservation. A third principle of sustainable urbanization — conservation — involves the use of a number of tools (in addition to development regulations) to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Such tools may include tax incentives, fee-simple and less-than-fee-simple land acquisition, cluster development, and the use of transferable development rights, to name just a few. In the category of development regulations, we know that the elimination of free or abundant parking promotes alternatives to single-occupancy driving, thereby saving energy, reducing air pollution, and helping to control the buildup of greenhouse gases.
4-6. Comfort, coordination and collaboration. Comfort takes note of the fact that it is important to create public spaces and routes that are pleasant for pedestrians and for non-auto users, such as bicyclists. A study in Portland found that more people walk when there are continuous sidewalks, streets are easy to cross and not confusing, and the topography is conducive to walking.
Coordination involves joint planning by numerous jurisdictions. One example is creating a land use and transportation plan for Oregon's Willamette Valley from Portland to Eugene. The same project — Partnership for the Willamette Valley's Future - illustrates the principle of collaboration. Funded by the state of Oregon, federal agencies and private foundations, this effort is bringing together Oregon community leaders from many interest sectors in order to establish ongoing dialogue about issues of common concern in the Willamette Valley.
If we view the principles above in the light of trends, we see that, over the past few decades, Mainstreet Cascadia's "average citizen" has experienced less compactness (and slightly more completeness). The development of many new low-density settlements on the urban fringe has offset increasing density in some older communities and has consumed amounts of land at rates two to three times the rate of population growth.
Not only are many people living in non-compact communities, but the density at which they are living is generally too low to be effectively served by public transportation.
My own studies have shown that, in 1970, about one in three people in Washington was living at densities high enough to support public transit. By 1990, only one person in five was living in such places. In addition, job growth in suburbs and along freeway corridors has reduced the relevance of commuting into the central city. In Greater Vancouver, for example, downtown Vancouver's share of its region's jobs fell from 51 percent in 1971 to only 39 percent in 1991.
Despite these trends, some towns and cities can be studied as models for other communities to follow in seeking to achieve greater sustainability.
Seattle, already Washington's most compact and complete community along Mainstreet Cascadia, has adopted a policy of putting people in compact villages served by public transit. Across Lake Washington, the city of Kirkland is unusual for the number of residents who also work in Kirkland (about 23 percent) and use bus transit to get to work (about 12 percent). It's the most compact and complete suburb in Washington.
In order to assist political and other leaders in developing policy directions, work has been done to locate other "low-impact cities" in the region under discussion. Communities were rated for housing density, job density, jobs and housing in proximity, and housing and shopping/service opportunities in proximity.
The "winners" turned out to represent a variety of community types, from a large city like Seattle or Vancouver, B.C., to a small town like Bothell or a rural center like St. Helens, Ore., (population 7,500). Research showed that for the most compact and complete communities, a median of nearly 30 percent of workers work near where they live, compared to under 10 percent in other communities. Other studies have shown that there is an unmet demand for housing close to where people work. Public policies are needed that enable potential housing sites that are close to jobs to compete for development with sites in more remote locations.
While increasing housing density has been controversial policy, various demographic trends and new research suggest that there is room for progress toward more compact communities. We know that shifts are occurring in the average age of populations and in household structures. People are getting older and households are getting smaller. This is causing an increase in demand for smaller housing units and for attached types of housing.
In addition, design studies have reached two conclusions:
• One is that traditional, single-family housing can be built at densities much higher than those currently being achieved that still provide the privacy, open space, and other features associated with single-family living. For instance, Kirkland has used half as much land as other King County cities for each new single-family lot it created between the mid-'80s and '90s.
• The other design conclusion is that the perception of density and actual density are two very different things. People perceive a place to be lower in density if there is greater building articulation, less "facade" area, and smaller, "house-like" dwellings.
Of this we can be certain: Unless we work to incorporate principles of sustainability into our planning, we face a future of more traffic, more environmental loss and pollution, and increasingly deficient infrastructures. Past and current patterns of urban growth cannot sustain the high quality of life that we associate with Mainstreet Cascadia.