This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
I just wanted to share a simple chart I’ve made using WA population data. What does it tell us? It tells us that our efforts to channel growth into reasonably dense urban environments are failing miserably.
1. Seattle is all but flat. We set up restrictive zoning laws long ago, and have only slowly relaxed them. Restrictive zoning acts like a big “Keep OUT” sign posted on our city.
2. King county is growing moderately. This is generally good, as I’d rather have growth in suburbs than in exurbs. But suburban homes are still terribly inefficient compared to city life. Also, infill in a city means replacing parking lots with housing. Infill in the suburbs means replacing trees with homes and fossil-fuel-fed lawns.
3. Check out WA as a whole. This is bad. Ideally we’d keep new construction limited to urban areas – Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, etc. But compare this line to the example dense urban line (Seattle) and the example less-dense but still reasonably urban county line (King). What you’re seeing here is clear-cutting trees and wilderness and building large new homes. You’re seeing new roads to serve these new homes. Along with new sewer systems, new electrical systems, water to keep the lawns green, landfills, schools, shopping malls, and transit-free road-based corporate campuses. This is sprawl. Green, natural WA is being paved to make way for sprawl.
I flew over WA today, and was discouraged by the number of new housing tracts set up in the middle of nowhere (many of them still undeveloped, just plowed and set aside for the next bubble). Each of these new homes will have a worker that will drive for hundreds of hours a year to get to work. They’ll drive hundreds more hours a year to go shopping, drop their kids off at soccer practice, to pick up dinner, etc.
If peak oil hits, most of those that live on that WA line above are screwed. If it doesn’t hit (in the near term – it must hit sometime), then all of these people are driving global warming just by living their lives.
How do we fix this? Dramatically relax our zoning restrictions. Allow the market to turn our acres and acres of single family homes into apartments and condos. People want to live in the city (if you believe prices are a proxy for desire), so let’s let them. Sure there will still be those that want to live in the middle of nowhere. And we should keep working on our growth management rules. But our only hope of keeping Washington green is to make that Seattle line match the rise of the WA line.