Last night I sat in a packed auditorium in Seattle’s City Hall to hear about how the urban villages plan is faring. The conclusion: They work.
Some people want Seattle to stay the same or dislike the changes they see happening. Those are valid concerns, but I’m the type of person who gets excited about urban development and seeing cities go from sleepy to vibrant. And, in some ways, it may seem like Seattle’s growth is happening out of control, but the city did come up with a vision for growth as part of the urban villages plan in 1994. Some parts of it came to fruition.
Last year, Seattle’s planning department hired research firm Steinbrueck Urban Strategies to analyze the city’s 30 urban villages and figure out what has and hasn’t worked. The firm produced a 181-page report that representatives discussed at the event I attended Wednesday night.
I think the study, which is part of the Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Project, is more of a jumping-off point than a definitive treatise on Seattle’s development in the past 20 years. It takes more than just adding more housing to create a true urban experience in which people can walk around, catch a bus, shop, eat out or take their toddlers to the park.
Here are a few takeaways and food for thought:
- The urban village model works. One of the goals of the strategy was to direct development to concentrated areas. In the past 20 years, close to 75 percent of the city’s new housing sprang up in urban villages which researchers said constitutes an overall success. But, some urban villages saw more growth than others and some, like Rainier Beach, haven’t seen much new development at all.
- The city’s population grew on target, but jobs didn’t. Back in 1994, Seattle city officials predicted that between 50,000 to 60,000 people would move here. Lo and behold, 60,524 did. But on the jobs front, the prediction was that up to 146,000 new jobs would come to Seattle, but closer to 57,000 did. Why the big gap? Well, one factor is that since 1994 the economy experienced a few major recessions (think 2001 and 2007).
- Seattle is highly interconnected with its surrounding cities. Most people consider Seattle the epicenter of the region’s jobs, but it turns out about 60 percent of Seattle residents commute outside the city. That’s an interesting phenomenon pointing to the fact that Seattle is a desirable place to live even if one’s job isn’t here. Peter Steinbrueck, founder of the research firm, who presented the findings, said that means Seattle is attracting people who can afford to live here and much of the city’s workforce is coming from other places.
- Pockets of poverty persist. Income inequality is a top concern in Seattle these days, as it seems to be growing worse. According to the study’s findings, Seattle has numerous areas where poverty levels have been higher for decades than the rest of the city — not just during the recent economic recovery. So even while Seattle as a whole is experiencing significant economic development, there are some neighborhoods that are not changing.
The analysis raises some interesting challenges and trends, but also highlights the role cities can play in crafting their own destinies. Seattle came up with the plan for urban villages 20 years ago. While not perfect, it helped the city manage most of its growth, and in the process protected neighborhoods that are predominately made up of single-family homes. Many of the challenges Seattle faces going forward are not new: how to increase and improve public transit, how to encourage housing for low income people, and how to define or preserve neighborhood character and charm.
The conversation continues, especially given that the city projects more than 100,000 people will move here by 2035. Another plan to serve as a guide to the next 20 years, known as Seattle 2035, is already in the works.