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.

4 Replies to “Growth Management Isn’t Working”

  1. Housing prices are a proxy for desire, but the desire is to live in the city that was built with those zoning codes. Or, more accurately, that was built under the stricter and more open coding enacted by reformers in the 70s, after the previous regime of permits to cronies and development uber alles had wrecked the city, a factor that is much under-estimated today in considering why educated and prosperous people moved to Mercer Island or Bellevue.

    Nor will ‘the market’ build housing that people will love. The market will build housing the market loves, and most of the lovin’ is being done on Wall Street. In case you haven’t noticed, a recent housing bubble was driven by an inadequately regulated market that subsidized long commutes by offering very low rates on home mortgages, a process in which the market made money bundling worthless loans into ‘bundled securities’, a sort of fascine of the marketplace if you will, in which the weakness of the individual piece has no bearing on the performance of the whole.

    In fact, it is the unfettered power of the marketplace that has caused the failure of the GMA to meet your desires. Gasoline is so incredibly underpriced in the US, compared with the rest of the world, that it delivers more bang for the buck than any other product an American can buy. A lot of Americans aren’t buying a house, they’re buying a safe place to park their car and take a shower.

    In the age of cheap gas, centralization becomes a problem, not a solution.

    In another respect, the GMA was intended to improve densities by bending new development to a new list of desires. In terms of providing services and ameliorating liabilities, the act is doing what it was meant to do- and part of what it was meant to do was to make it possible for development to proceed without bankrupting us as a society.

    Just to the north of Martha and Mary Nursing Home in Poulsbo (and I do recommend that you visit and study this, go as a foot passenger on the ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge, get a bus from the Winslow (Bainbridge) ferry terminal to Front Street in Poulsbo, and walk north from the old town on Front Street) is dense housing that is much better than most of Seattle in meeting the metrics of the walkable city.

    And this, in fact, is precisely what’s needed. For one thing, the ‘boomer’ cohort is beginning to retire, and coaxing them into walkable development is extremely desirable in a number of obvious dimensions. We need to subsidize the type of housing we want to see, but it would be wasteful to subsidize housing close to employment for people who no longer are employed. Lure those who don’t work with a different kind of amenity, such as a great view, easy transit access to health care and entertainment, or higher education (especially for younger people who want to be able to work).

    Big lawns are another example of the market working all too well to provide what it wants, and not what we need. For half the year the hardware store is Lawn City, and this is a huge and lucrative industry that can bat aside with one hand any state effort to ban the poisons they sell to pour on our lawns. It’s part of a ‘lifestyle’, the fashion of the country estate, a conspiracy of manufacturers who never fail to display their products in a setting of white house on green lawn with two shiny cars parked in the drive. When they’re selling cars, they’re also selling lawns, and when they sell lawns they’re also selling cars.

    The drive of the market is so strong here that they’ve dropped all pretense of echoing the philosophy of Greece, the magnificence of Rome, or the plushly staid mannerisms of the English landed aristocracy. Today it’s all about the money and the people who think they can prove their worth by making lots of it.

    I instinctively hate a man who will clear a piece of land and put in a lawn, when there are a number of houses with lawns on the market already in the same neighborhood. There oughta be a law.

    The problem is not that Seattle has too much regulation, but that the great beyond has too little, and that allows market forces like cheap gas or home mortgages do what they want without consideration of the harm done to us. When it comes to urban density, to get more density you need more regulation.

    Working with density is like working with explosives- the more you have, the more careful you have to be. The high-rise housing projects of the 50s are examples of huge disasters that might have been small failures if they had been built on a scale to match society’s ability at the time to deal with the problems. Increasing Seattle’s density by an order of magnitude involves big problems that need more regulation, not less, easily illustrated by the recent case of a condo building in Belltown, about 5 years old, and now to be demolished because inadequate regulation of the contractors as resulted in the structural failure of the building.

    And the entrepreneurs you want to see building this density will be right at the head the line demanding better regulation, because they have the most to lose. The people who invest money in the development need assurances that their investment won’t be harmed by spot zoning, or by the failure of the city to deliver needed services. Providing power, water, sewers and garbage disposal, and the provision of police and fire protection- all of these require planning so you don’t fail by building something too small, or go bankrupt by building something too large.

    I hate to tell you this, but there simply is no magic carpet, called the ‘free market’, that will provide what we want if only the government will get out of the way. It’s time to start working on Plan B.

  2. [serial] I often disagree with your finer points but still somehow agree with your overall concept.

    Miniature walkable cities with easy transit access to Seattle? Great! But those aren’t keeping up either – how do we encorage enough of this to keep up with that blue line?

    Desire to live under the current zoning: if you look at the details you’ll see that desire is actually higher in high density areas. You can charge much more per sf for a condo in a tall downtown building than you can for a single family home in Madrona. And you can charge much more per sf for a mid-height condo on Queen Anne than you can for the single family house next door.

    Lawns: I completely agree. I’m seriously considering tearing out my front lawn and putting in a veggie garden (I’ve already planted a few trees).

    Plan B: But I see relaxing our zoning as Plan B. The GMA was Plan A, and though it probably helped a bit it’s weak sauce when you look at all of the work needed to match that green line with the blue one. We’ve tried using a stick to keep people from developing in our wilderness. I’m all for using a bigger stick, but let’s also try using a carrot to get more development in our cities. The fact is that it’s plain illegal for our green line to come close to the slope of that blue line, thanks to zoning. We can talk about building our cities, but at the same time we have strong laws on our books that don’t allow us to build up our cities. Seems crazy, I’d say.

    Do you have a different Plan B? Some way of slowing the clearcutting of our forests to build lawns and driveways?

  3. I think the change that’s coming will be massive, like the British realization in 1938 that there would be another war with Germany, quite possibly before the year ended. Thirty years ago we could have started changing and completed the job by now with less than a per cent of our GDP per year. We’ve waited so long that we’ll need a full emergency response at a time when oil prices double or even triple compared with today.

    The low-hanging fruit will be tower blocks on transit corridors to accommodate the inflow of former suburbanites who can’t afford that wasteful lifestyle. Reducing the footprint of the over-60s to 400 sq ft of condo, and no car, but ample public amenities, will produce so many good results I can’t list them, and here’s a little secret- when you get to 60 you start to realize you don’t need all that stuff.

    I expect the combined price shock of AGW/peak oil will move a third, or possibly a half, of suburban SFH dwellers into condos on transit lines. There will be so much unsold suburban housing that people will make more money tearing it down than they would by building. The days of the 50-mile commute will be over.

    If you can imagine that amount of change happening in less than a decade, you will see that more, and tighter, regulation will be needed. Otherwise, the great American conman will build the same crappy buildings, and that work will be wasted. On the plus side, the average manufactured home has a lifespan of about 15 years, and then suffers massive system failure. Most of the ‘homes’ that have been trucked into Washington will simply fall apart by 2020. A lot of people will be happy to upgrade to a condo from this worthless ‘housing’.

    One of the things you’re not seeing about the GMA is that it institutionalizes state-wide land-use planning to recognize the importance of externalities. Twenty years ago almost nobody thought about the future, and the small fraction that did had almost no way to affect it. Today there is a state-wide infrastructure of planning and ecology.

    I thought this article about land-use near Coupeville was quite interesting. By geography or demographics, that area would be, and once was, a Hellmouth of Sprawl. Admittedly, in this case the planners didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory, but the system worked. The process of the GMA gave conservationists enough access, and the county commissioners enough reason to doubt, that the commissioners demanded more from their planners.

    Assembling an installed base of planners who can think of the big picture is important. The nature of the emergency- AGW, pollution, drought, extinction of resources- means measuring and dealing with stuff we just ignored as recently as yesterday, or even today for the AGW-related events. The specifics of the GMA can be changed, and some will be changed as events develop, but a lot of the results of the GMA come from other agencies like the EPA.

    Basically, everything has to change. The importance of the GMA is the statement that we will manage change as a society, and have the legal authority to do so. But what needs to change is the subject of many many jurisdictions. People saving salmon need to see changes in the transportation agencies and the land-use agencies. The transportation people need to work with zoning agencies and social agencies. The GMA draws a line in the sand and says we’re not going to let just anyone come in and develop another problem for us to deal with. The question with the GMA is not how well it has worked, but how well it will work at managing the huge amount of development we’ll need to do to make ourselves denser.

    As a society. Not even Bill Gates or Paul Allen try to go it alone in building a community. Maybe they read a book about how Henry Ford and George Pullman tried that and failed. Tearing up the books of zoning and throwing them out the window would produce unimaginable trainwrecks here. Think “recent housing bubble” compounded by size and hysteria, blended with greed, and strained through industrial shortages and soaring inflation. It wouldn’t be pretty and could, in reality, throw our society and economy into third-world status for decades.

    What we need is intense development on transit corridors, but this doesn’t need to happen- in fact, shouldn’t happen- just in Seattle. When they’re living in a LEED-certified building and don’t own a car, we have our 80% of results from 20% of the effort. If people will live like that in Bremerton or Winslow we’ll still be doing fine, and there may be some reason we don’t want total wilderness surrounding two or three cities in western Washington. In any case, total wilderness is not what’s on offer.

    About the clear-cutting- clear-cutting is a method of harvesting timber. Most clear-cuts are, a few years later, even greener than they were, because the new growth is wonderfully greener than the forest it replaces.

    Lawns, OTOH, are just as likely to come from farm land as timber land. In any case, the lawn, once established, causes just as much damage with each successive year. The damage comes, not from the clear-cutting, but from making it into a lawn. And I’m including here the fact that lawns make communities low-density, car-dependent, and all that flows from that.

    This is one of those “don’t think of an elephant” moments for environmentalists. Instead of trying to make enemies by framing themselves as haters of the timber industry, environmentalists should frame themselves as friends of the salmon who hate (for good reasons) lawns. The goal, after all, is not to kill the timber industry, but to kill the lawn industry.

    ‘Nuff said, I am sure.

Comments are closed.