Image from urbanful.org
For the first time in 100 years, Seattle is growing faster than its suburbs. Image from urbanful.org

On Thursday, the Seattle Times’ Gene Balk broke the news that Seattle was no longer number one. Our time as fastest growing city in the nation lasted only a year. While it’s sad to no longer have those bragging rights I think a bit more context is in order.

First off, as the data wonks at fivethirtyeight pointed out Seattle is the fastest growing big city that is an actual city:
[T]he new census population data shows that the fastest-growing large cities tend to be more suburban. Among the 10 fastest-growing cities with more than 500,000 people, five — Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, San Antonio and Phoenix — are majority suburban, and a sixth, Las Vegas, is only 50 percent urban. Only one of the 10 fastest-growing, Seattle, is at least 90 percent urban.
Wait, when did Seattle become 90% urban? Apparently the bar for ‘urbanity’ is pretty low. Just goes to show how suburban the other cities in the top 10 are. More after the jump.

The second point of context is Seattle’s growth compared to the rest of the region and state. From Slate’s Moneybox:

Only a few big cities are outpacing their wider regions

Given how indistinguishable some major cities are from the suburbs that ring them, I got to wondering: How many are actually growing faster than their wider metro area? Not many, it turns out. Among the top 50 cities, only 14 had grown faster than the state as a whole and grown at least 0.2 percentage points faster than their wider metro area (sadly, the census didn’t includes a margin of error on its growth estimates, so I wanted to leave a little room). Of that group, the star destinations were Portland, Oregon, and Miami, which are just about as far apart, geographically and spiritually/culturally/psychologically, as two cities could be.

cities_destination

So of the 50 largest cities, 14 grew faster than their surrounding suburbs. Of those, Seattle was third when it comes to outpacing its suburbs.

Gene Balk noted this at the bottom of his piece:

Also in the new data: Seattle grew 77 percent faster than surrounding King County in 2014. This marks the third consecutive year that Seattle has outpaced its suburbs. In fact, half the county’s population growth occurred within Seattle city limits.
2014censuspop
Almost half (45%) of all population growth in the county was in the city.
2014censushousing

Housing is interesting because units don’t fill up all at once. Units that are built in one year might not fill up until the next. It’s more a snapshot of growth to come than current growth.

It is quite obvious where growth is happening in King County. This trend has been obvious for a couple years now and mirrors a national trend.

The Puget Sound Regional Council, whose purpose is to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funds to channel and mitigate the pressures of growth and density, should recognize this fact. Its growth model is also an input to Sound Transit ridership predictions. Currently their modelling (and thus allocation) is based on wishful thinking, instead of anchored to facts on the ground, which has led to inaccurate predictions and the continuing misdirection of hundreds of millions of dollars.

83 Replies to “Seattle’s Population Growth in Context”

  1. The new housing statistic has to be used with care, because replacements of teardowns are included in new construction. I would expect most teardowns (either for mansionizations that are 1-for-1 replacements, or for construction of multifamily housing) would be of older housing closer in to the center.

    1. I don’t know where teardowns happen, but the represent a fairly small number compared to new units. In 2014 there were 11 new units for each unit torn down, and in 2013 it was 20 new units to each lost unit.

  2. This is great and all and I think it’s good we have lots of new multifamily in Seattle. The irony I find, as I approach my 35th year and my peers all have kids, is that none of them will live in multifamily after kids are around 3. Some can swing a house in North Seattle. Most can’t. Schools deter them from anything South in Seattle or other spots. I find myself visiting shoreline, and even Bainbridge, more than I have ever had, to see them.

    Unlike the other cities, we are not building houses families want and can afford. Not the end of the world but not everyone is a self important 25 year old programmer or old spinster.

    1. Martin and I both live in the Southend with our families (I have one kid, Martin three).

      The school issue is an information problem. Reality is that on the whole children make schools not the other way around. ‘Bad schools’ just have higher proportion of disadvantaged kids than schools in richer areas.

      1. Exactly. As I said below, they said the same thing about Garfield (and Meany, Minor and other inner city schools) back in the day. It wasn’t until the neighborhoods around them gentrified that people realized that the schools were really good. Of course, winning numerous state championships in debate and chess also helped.

      2. South end schools DO have issues, mostly funding related. Here in the Highline district, the facilities are overcrowded and falling apart. New schools are built without playground equipment because the local PTA has no funding to buy jungle-gyms. There aren’t enough seats in the middle schools for the current elementary school classes to graduate into, so it’s likely that in the next few years the district will be running the middle schools in two shifts – half the students coming to morning classes, half to evening classes.

        And there is a small, vocal, well-funded anti-tax minority active down here, who aggressively (and successfully) campaign against every significant school bond or levy that could correct the situation. I have never seen so much campaign money funneled into a campaign to prevent a $0.01 per $1000 increase in property taxes. “VOTE NO ON 50% TAX HIKE” was plastered all over town on high-dollar triple-size campaign signs and election mailers (technically true, the school bond portion of the property tax would have gone from $0.02 to $0.03). And then that stupid 60% rule does the rest.

        BUT NEVERTHELESS… Highline district has a gifted program, and kids who get into it usually do much better than the district overall. And to top it off, students in the Highline district who maintain a 2.0 GPA through high school and do not commit any felonies, get awarded a full scholarship to any public university in the state.

      3. @Lack Thereof — My points about south end Seattle schools were about schools within the city of Seattle — not schools in other districts. The funding problems you mention are a problem, and have been a problem for years and years. There have been numerous court cases — I was a plaintiff on one, along with a lot of other school kids — which just shows you how long this battle has been going on (I’m over 50). Recently, of course, the courts ruled (again) that the state wasn’t doing its job by providing adequate basic education. This is why the state legislature is still trying to come up with a budget.

        A big part of the problem is the funding mechanism and the way districts are drawn up. Things may have changed, but back in the day there was a huge difference between Federal Way and Tukwila. Tukwila included the mall, which meant that a lot of money could be raised with fairly low rates (meaning home owners paid a proportionately smaller amount of money). But Federal Way was the opposite.

        No matter where you draw the lines, though, it is terrible (and unconstitutional*) to expect low income areas to pay for basic eduction. We all have a vested interest in seeing that everyone everywhere gets a good education, and we should all chip in for that.

        * I’m talking about the state constitution.

      4. Seattle transportation planning should but doesn’t preceed major development.
        Seattle’s transit systems don’t work and won’t overall, throughout the region, to
        reliably, conveniently serve patrons nor sufficiently guide growth.
        Cities built to serve motorists, even motorists flee, driving or flying, curtesy
        GM and/or Boeing, only to find the same asphalt ruins elsewhere.
        Welcome to the Hotel California.

    2. >> Schools deter them from anything South in Seattle

      Too bad. The folks I know that went to school in south Seattle (e. g. Cleveland, Chief Sealth, Rainier Beach) did really well in school (and college). Of course, property in that area of the city is increasing in value, as more and more people figure this out (just as it did around Garfield forty years ago and Franklin twenty years ago).

      But you can’t have it all, I guess. I raised my kids in an apartment, and they turned out just fine. Millions do it every year in this country. But I guess if you want a big house and don’t want to mix with folks in the south end, you will have to either make more money or suck it up and move to the suburbs. There is just too much demand here to expect really nice houses to be available for everyone (do your friends expect a view as well?). Nor is there anything that can be built. Houses, or at least the houses your friends want, are houses with their own yard — or with their own big plot of land. As Mark Twain said, they aren’t making it anymore.

      1. But I guess if you want a big house and don’t want to mix with folks in the south end, you will have to either make more money or suck it up and move to the suburbs.

        I agree with your sentiment, but I want to be clear that I don’t think people from out here are outright racist in that they don’t want to mix with people of color. I think it’s more of a ignorance thing. This is a really really white city in a really really REALLY white part of the country. Throw in how wealthy the area is and a significant chunk of Seattleites just don’t have exposure to people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Ignorance breeds fear.

        Being from the South I’ve gone to a majority black school. I’ve been to real housing projects, ones that make Yesler Terrace look like Broadmoor. So to me, the Southend isn’t scary.

      2. I agree completely. It isn’t racism. I’ve known people who are black who come from other parts of the country, and they don’t want to move into the black part of town, because they assume it is like East Saint Louis, or West Philadelphia. Seattle is a very safe city and much safer than it used to be. Our worse neighborhoods are much safer than Ballard was back in the day.

        Even when Yesler Terrace and the surrounding neighborhoods were the “slums” of Seattle (back when Garfield had a cheer that started with “Soul in the Ghetto”) it was nowhere near as run down as other parts of the country. The reasons are complex, but one was that in the late sixties and early seventies, the powers that be refused to let the schools and the communities fall apart. The result was exemplified by a school like Garfield, that was outstanding (like I said, chess and debate state champs) back when it was majority African American.

      3. @Ross: One might consider by comparison midwest cities like Chicago. These cities received huge migrations from the south and from the countryside, throughout the 20th century, including a lot of poor black people. Most people contributing to urban disinvestment through white flight were not intentionally racist, but there can be no question that they acted on the attitudes and fears of a deeply racist society. Had they not, the overtly racist practices of blockbusting and redlining wouldn’t have worked.

        White Chicagoans moved to suburbs and consolidated in neighborhoods kept segregated by intimidation. This intimidation was practiced by a minority but widely tolerated for decades. Though the intimidation is mostly gone its legacy remains in Chicago’s extreme racial segregation. Chicago bled off much of its industrial base after WWII but downtown businesses and condos did better than in smaller midwest cities, so the city wasn’t totally broke, but its political machine focused most attention and investment on the downtown landmarks.

        Seattle’s results have unquestionably been better in aggregate. But Seattle also had white-flight suburbs and racial covenants. Chicago (and St. Louis and Detroit) have had citizens and leaders work tirelessly and courageously for their third-world-in-the-first-world neighborhoods. The scale of the challenge was too great; they were overwhelmed. The degree and scale of deprivation too great, the resources too little (especially in St. Louis and Detroit, which did not offset industrial decline with high-end downtown office and condo growth — in Chicago a lot of the resources were allocated to downtown landmarks, but they at least existed). Seattle was a much smaller destination for migration from the south; its challenge was manageable and, more or less, it managed. Most of what happened in Chicago also happened in Seattle, and vice-versa; things just happened in different proportions.

      4. Yeah — different proportions indeed. That is like saying there are ethnic conflicts in Montreal, just as there are in Sudan. There were indeed covenants in Seattle, and redlining as well. But it wasn’t just the numbers that were different about Seattle — the racism supporting such activities were a lot weaker. There is no way a march through Seattle in 1966 would have been anything like the famous march in 1966 through Chicago (see the fourth paragraph here — http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_chicago_campaign/). When the laws were changed and the red lines and covenant rules updated, most people just shrugged. The racism was simply not as ingrained, nor as strong as it was in other cities (like Chicago).

        The city council dragged its feet when it came to updating housing ordinances but they moved much faster than most cites (http://www.seattle.gov/cityarchives/exhibits-and-education/digital-document-libraries/the-seattle-open-housing-campaign/civil-rights-timeline). Meanwhile, at roughly the same time (1963) the school board becomes the first major school system in the country to initiate a voluntary desegregation plan.

        Similarly, the white flight that occurred later occurred for a couple reasons. The first was just normal suburbanization, that had occurred for years. The second was mandatory busing, which was introduced in the late 70s. Unlike Boston, there was not a huge outcry, although there was clear opposition (http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=3939). This was one of the few cities in the U. S. where mandatory busing was implemented without a court order (there is a book about it). My mom was on the school board then (interesting times). It is possible that the school board simply got ahead of a court case that would have declared a history of segregation in the schools, but it is also possible that (unlike a lot of cities in the north and south) that the schools never were purposefully segregated. In any event, mandatory busing was implemented. One of the more interesting things about the plan is that it involved pairing — two neighborhoods were matched with another, and kids from both areas were sent to the same schools (one neighborhood for middle school, the other for high school). This preserved the quality of minority majority schools (it would have been much cheaper to just ship out all the black kids). This in turn preserved the quality of those neighborhoods. It isn’t clear how much this busing plan really contributed to white flight. It was clear from the beginning that the opposition to busing was not nearly as passionate as say, Boston, or as wide spread. Most were OK with mixing, and OK with going to the other school, they just didn’t like the hassle of having their kid go to school on the other side of town (after school activities are especially problematic). I doubt many of these folks left town to avoid this hassle — but it might have been one more straw (I’m sure a lot of people simply cashed out their Wallingford house for a much bigger one in Shoreline).

        In summary Seattle has a history of progressive activities when it comes to racial issues and leaders deserve credit for taking such actions. It isn’t just that this city never had the level of ingrained poverty or huge numbers of migrants as part of the great African American diaspora. Leaders took progressive action to help overcome the injustices found here, and the greater white community, while they did not always welcome the change, were not as hostile as in other parts of the country. Obviously one played a part in the other — but we shouldn’t short change those that worked hard (and successfully) at making Seattle a better city.

    3. I don’t mean to sound like I’m piling on, but I’m also raising a kid in Seattle and experiences really do make the outcome. I am a product of the suburbs and we deliberately bought in my old school district because its “numbers” were good and myself and my younger siblings had good experiences there. Turns out, the numbers–like on places like Zillow and Redfin for school quality–are about as useful as standardized tests and things had changed. In my experience, the schools in Seattle are better than the supposedly well-reviewed, suburban, outer-ring, “good” schools my kid left.

      1. I don’t know if something like this would happen in Seattle, but I’ve been reading about incidents around the country where parents are prosecuted and in some cases jailed for trying to enroll their children in the schools of a district where they do not live.

        Nowadays they’re sometimes charged with “Theft of Education”- more or less admitting that a decent education is not a matter of merit, but essentially a commodity bought by those who can afford it.

        Children whose parents can’t afford to buy a house in a good school district have to settle for what their parents can pay for in a house or apartment. Making untreated sewage out of any claim of equal opportunity in this country.

        The Law loves Latin. Anybody know how a Roman attorney would have asked for a writ of “Hands up! Don’t shoot!”?

        Mark Dublin

      2. Mark, my shaky recollection of my high school Latin suggests something like, “Manus extollimus non iacio”

    4. “we are not building houses families want and can afford”

      It seems to me that this is mostly the case because ~60% of our city has nothing but single family homes and our multifamily homes are squeezed into 11% of our land. It’s probably tough to build a multi-unit apartment or condo when you’re competing with such a large number of older houses with yards (which represents ~50% of our housing stock!).

      Of course many (most?) of these houses designed for families have singles and couples (average household size in Seattle is around 2), many of whom would switch to an apartment or condo if they were a better deal. So adding condos or apartments for singles or couples has the potential to make family housing less expensive.

    5. Part of a child’s education should be learning to thrive in a multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-income environment. I really get irritated when these rankings of schools come out — and all they talk about are standardized test scores, which are really just memory tests. Learning to communicate and empathize with a diverse set of individuals is something we don’t value and recognize like we should.

      1. That assumes, Al, that any US city’s population still includes working people of any income bracket but two: astronomically rich and hopelessly poor.

        Because whatever the economic or theoretical excuse, the work whose skills required experience that could be picked up and used lifelong with a minimum of years and money spent gathering credentials went away forty years ago.

        Along with the only political party who would fight for the rights of people who weren’t millionaires- largely because they weren’t millionaires themselves, or beholden to them.

        Around the same time the other party disowned the many actual millionaires who believed that a well paid and educated electorate was the most rewarding investment possible for them.

        And where there was enough union protection for millions of people to be legitimately middle class. Whose children and grandchildren are now suburbanites who’d be in tent cities under freeways if their credit cards ever got called in.

        Ever since Ballard turned its economy from light industry to heavy real-estate speculation, I’ve been looking for a home where I can live among people whose working lives are different enough to make my own life livable. Anybody got a map?

        Am also convinced that half a century without a middle class- which used to be a working one too, is responsible for the fact that our country is literally falling apart out from under its glassed-in corporate offices.

        Think how much time and money get wasted because of how many enterprises are horribly understaffed and undertrained. Let alone how much of our infrastructure is in rusty crumbs.

        I hate the political word “stimulus.” There’s enough decent-wage work for fifty more years just our country back in the first world, without creating a single make-work position.

        Campaign slogan for any party: “America will work again when Americans get work again!” Bumper sticker, anybody?

        Mark

    6. I know self important young programmers who complain that it’s too expensive to buy a house/condo in Seattle.

      But then they will sigh, and say “well, at least it’s not as bad as the Eastside”.

      1. College Bound is a great program for low income kids. Enrollment happens in middle school.

    7. “Unlike the other cities, we are not building houses families want and can afford. Not the end of the world but not everyone is a self important 25 year old programmer or old spinster.”

      Mark, cowboy-western movies are finally getting things like grammar, men’s hairstyles, and post-Civil War firearms historically right. Hilary Swank’s character in “The Homesman” gives perspective and context for the term “spinster.”

      Also, “Bossy and plain as an old tin pail.” Marriageable age for a woman used to be childbearing years- from age 14 to common early death for same reason. “Plain” meant ten years older than 14.

      But “bossy” was the average bachelor’s worst problem with a grown woman whose spinning wheel assured she’d never starve to death for lack of a miserable marriage to a cruel flea-bitten lout whose income wouldn’t buy him a used pair of pants.

      Which brings us to residential affordability. Life in general for both genders changed massively for the better when they could move to cities, where they could earn enough for a house not made of mud.

      “Housing affordability” doesn’t mean lower prices. It means being paid enough money for one’s skills to buy a home, free and clear. Age 25 means enough time ahead for enough bubble-bursts to appreciate a forty year old woman to sew up your corporate T-shirt so you can look for a job.

      Mark Dublin

  3. There’s also a big NIMBY problem to getting more growth in the city. Look what a battle it was just to upzone areas right next to future Link stations.

    1. Why wouldn’t I want to revel in everything I’ve been saying about the complete nonsense of planning in this region being true? And why Seattle is headed towards becoming America’s Worst Place to Live!

      Almost Half of America’s Biggest Cities Are Basically Built Like Giant Suburbs

      The U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t distinguish between urban and suburban tracts in its official data. So Kolko and Trulia developed their own definition by asking more than 2,000 adults whether they thought they lived in an urban, suburban, or rural neighborhood. “Our analysis showed that the single best predictor of whether someone said his or her area was urban, suburban or rural was ZIP code density,” Kolko explained in an article for Fivethirtyeight this week. “Residents of ZIP codes with more than 2,213 households per square mile typically described their area as urban. Residents of neighborhoods with 102 to 2,213 households per square mile typically called their area suburban.”

      http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2015/05/22/urban_density_nearly_half_of_america_s_biggest_cities_look_like_giant_suburbs.html?utm_campaign=trueAnthem%3A+Trending+Content&utm_content=5560d1f904d3015511000001&utm_medium=trueAnthem&utm_source=facebook

      1. For someone who hates a place as much as you seem to hate Seattle, you sure are reluctant to leave. Don’t you want sandblasted eyeballs in Pasco?

        Answer: “No, I want to convince others to leave so I can have it like it was when I grew up!”

        Just for the record, I want to convince people to leave who are mired in the “growth at any cost” mania which has wrecked so much of America’s landscape. Folks who want to visit and appreciate the wilderness from smallish houses in urban settings are welcome.

    2. I don’t live in Seattle.

      I live in Kent.

      And I consider myself a resident of Washington State.

  4. Wait, when did Seattle become 90% urban? Apparently the bar for ‘urbanity’ is pretty low. Just goes to show how suburban the other cities in the top 10 are.

    Their criteria are explained in the article. They asked 2,000 random people whether they believed their neighborhood was “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural.” They then compared their answers against the population density of respondents’ zip codes, and came up with some cutoffs: people living in zip codes with population density above 2,213 households per square mile are most likely to say they live in an “urban” area, 102 to 2,213 households per square mile most commonly call their area “suburban” and below 102 is “rural.”

    Their “bar for ‘urbanity'” is based off of how real people define the word, which seems pretty reasonable to me.

    1. Yeah, but I think most people would consider that bar pretty low. Looking through Seattle as well as Bellevue, Kirkland and the like shows that 2,213 is really low. That being said, I think most people in Seattle, if they took the same poll, would consider themselves urban.

      1. Most people on here would consider that bar pretty low. I would probably agree with that opinion. But most people in the US would probably consider that bar to be about right, given that it was set based on random residents’ own opinion about whether the place they personally live is urban, suburban, or rural.

      2. Well, my point is basically repeated by Chad. It is pretty hard to find census tracts around here that are that low. Looking through areas of Bellevue that contain absolutely no apartments and plenty of cul-de-sacs reveals census tracts double that number. It is only when an area includes a big park or lake that you start getting that low.

        So this may just be a statistical anomaly. It works for other parts of the country but not as well here. I’m not sure why. It might have to do with our natural surroundings. Our sprawl occurs around natural border that are then cut off. Basically, much of our suburbia is where a particular area is very close to (and the census tract includes) a natural area. There is it a very interesting definition. It means a lot of places in Issaquah and Lake Sammamish as well as one corner of west Magnolia (a corner that includes Discovery Park) are suburban. I could see that. These are areas where wildlife mixes with residential life. A worthy definition for suburban, that’s for sure.

        But it also means that most of Bellevue is not suburban, and never was. I’m not talking about places in Bellevue that have evolved to add apartments, but places like those mentioned in the first paragraph (cul-de-sacs, wide streets and no apartments). I shouldn’t say “never was”, though. When these were first built, they were surrounded by rolling hills. So some areas that are “emerging” suburbs fit that definition. But once they fully develop — once they mow down enough trees and put up enough houses — they lose that definition. I’m not sure if most people would agree with the label, is all I’m saying. It seems silly to say “this used to be suburban, but then they put in another suburb next to it, so now it isn’t”. Setting a number that low leads to that sort of definition.

    2. Defining urban or suburban is an interesting subject. Perhaps like Justice Stewart, I know it when I see it.

      The five thirty eight article does an excellent job of trying to come to grips with the subject. They mentioned that there is no official designation. So they started with a survey. I think it would be very interesting to see what Seattle residents answered in such a survey. In any event, they go on to list various statistical correlations that easily explain why Seattle is considered very urban. Density is the biggest predictor, and the bar is set so low for suburbia that just about all of Seattle is considered urban. But they also mentioned that people who live in older neighborhoods, close to businesses or just close to the heart of the city tend to consider themselves urban. That makes sense to me, and I think most of Seattle would consider themselves urban for that very reason.

      Yet there are places in the city that could easily be considered otherwise. For example, western Magnolia has nothing but houses (no apartments) and is so residential that in some cases you have to walk over a mile to get to the nearest store. Having said that, I’m sure many residents would bristle if you suggested they lived in the suburbs. They do, after all, live in the city, and are less than five miles from the most densely populated area in all of Washington State (Belltown). The density numbers of that part of Magnolia (or any similar place you can think of) is not as low as one might expect. These areas are nowhere near the “urban/suburban” line. So despite the fact that there is nothing but houses here, and some of these houses are on big lots, it is more urban than a typical American suburb. My guess is that it is because most of the lots are relatively modest, as are the streets.

      There is the other issue, of course, which is housing style. People associate suburbia with cul-de-sacs. I live in a area (Pinehurst) that I consider to be “old suburban”. The lots are bigger than most in the city, but there is a solid grid. I think folks here wouldn’t consider themselves suburban because the streets are straight. There are enough nearby businesses and apartments to support their case as well.

      Areas like West Magnolia are rare. There are spots here and there, but most of the city either has a mix (like Pinehurst) or an even older grid of housing (or both). Much of the Central Area as well as the area north of the ship canal is like this. The older it is, the more it is like it. Houses tend to be on smaller lots, with apartments sprinkled in between. Some might call these houses suburban, but I wouldn’t. It is always tough to draw the line, of course, but row houses aren’t suburban, in my book. Neither are houses that run very close to the property line (as they often do in much of Seattle).

      Terms like urban and suburban are very crude, and lack any scientific designation. Even to represent a housing style they are too rough to be of much use. You could probably come up with several styles, just for Seattle. Most of these areas mix. For example, much of Fremont is a very common housing style found within the old city limits. The houses are on standard, relatively small lots, fairly close to each other. You can see blocks and blocks of nothing but houses. But walk a little ways away, and you can see apartments. In that regard, it is like the Central Area or Pinehurst, but I wouldn’t categorize them as being the same. The Central Area has smaller, more irregular lots, while the Pinehurst houses have bigger lots (and no sidewalks). So that is four categories (three for houses and one for apartments). Of course, the apartments in the area look substantially different than those in South Lake Union or Belltown. There is enough variety to make rough terms like “urban” and “suburban” very crude.

      1. Magnolia has long considered itself an in-city suburb. That’s its main marketing point: it’s more residential than Fremont or Queen Anne, but conveniently close to the city.

        “Urban” and “suburban” are ambiguous in a country where San Jose is considered urban. You also have to look out for average density vs population-weighted density. San Jose is considered more urban than Seattle, and Los Angeles over New York, because of average density. But if you count only the areas that are at least streetcar-suburb density, you get a much different answer with New York on top, and Seattle higher than San Jose. That’s what we care about: the kind of density that reflects neighborhoods like the U-District, Mission District, north side Chicago, row house neighborhoods, etc. And that’s what population-weighted density gives you. Zip-code density is in between: it’s better than considering the entire metropolitan area as a unit, but it may still skew things, as for instance, 98105 includes the U-District but it also includes lower-density areas around it.

      2. Yes, if you look at the census tracts, you can see that it often includes things like lakes. This makes sense — it is much easier to draw the borders that way. But if you are looking at density (number of people per square mile) then it skews the numbers. Personally, I would remove the parks and water from the square mile calculation, and assume the few people who lived there lived in a nearby area. I think you would get a much more realistic view of density as a result. I wouldn’t mind both (just as Wikipedia lists the total area and land mass of a city).

    3. A fully-developed residential neighborhood, with primarily single-family homes, will have a population density of 4,000 to 5,000 people per square mile. A population density of less than this is due to commercial, industrial, park or undeveloped areas bringing down the average. (Or large lot developments, like 1 acre per home).

      An “urban” cutoff of 2,200 people per square mile will take in fully-developed suburban residential areas, typical of inner ring suburbs, if the region has land constraints and the industrial/natural areas are elsewhere. For example, Mountlake Terrace has a population density over 4,000 people per square mile due to a lack of non-residential areas. Most other “major” suburbs have lowest population densities since they have large tracts of land devoted to non-residentialness.

      1. It’s 2,200 households, not people, per square mile. Which, using the average of ~2 people per household in Seattle, roughly equals 4,400 people per square mile.

      2. Now you tell me! Ha — that makes way more sense. You can pretty much erase much of what I said here. That number seems way more reasonable. There are a lot more areas in in Puget Sound that fit that definition for suburbia. There are a handful in Seattle, and a lot more in, well, the suburbs.

    4. I’m not sure that population density alone is really a good measure of urban anything. It’s a measure of population density. Remove all the office buildings and what you get is a bedroom community, no matter how dense it happens to be.

      Seattle population density according to Wikipedia:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Seattle
      6,717 per square mile, and this is the most dense city in Washington.

      The most densely populated city in Oregon is Johnson City, at 8,085 per square mile
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson_City,_Oregon
      It is 100% single family residences around a single medium sized pond. It has virtually nil in terms of office buildings and no industry at all, and it requires no vast tracts of land devoted to parking beyond resident requirements. It is absolutely 100% suburban by any definition. The fact that it lacks any sort of vitality that is required for a true urban environment, or for that matter even an actual functioning small town, doesn’t show up at all in population density statistics.

      It seems to me that maybe a better way of measuring density would be something along the lines of some sort of economic activity per square mile. GDP/square mile or something like that?

      1. Good point. The focus here has been on housing styles, not economic activity. A high rise apartment in the suburbs is still a suburb. That being said, the main reason the researchers used that measure is because they found a strong statistical correlation. The high rise in the suburbs might feel urban to the folks who live there — maybe there are a bunch of shops on the first floor — so the measure works OK. But numbers like you suggest would be interesting. I think you would find a few places, like Detroit, for example, have become suburban (so much loss of economic power that people have to go a long ways to work or do anything). But when it comes to self labeling your area as urban or suburban, the density measure might be the best thing we have (especially if you adjust for uninhabitable land).

      2. Those population density numbers are way old (from the 2000 census, I think.) Seattle’s current population density is 7969/square mile.

  5. Fascinating stuff. This is a great report on a fairly difficult subject to quantify. I agree with your conclusion — the growth model is way out of date. The trend is obvious and it is towards the city, not away from it.

    It is not surprising that much of the country sees more suburban growth than urban growth. Green field development can lead to a very sudden increase in population, and do so very cheaply. But replacing very valuable property in the city with more densely populated housing is very expensive. The fact that we are growing so fast despite the high cost and limited opportunities for development just shows that there is extremely high demand for living in the Seattle. If the city ever updates its ADU laws, Seattle could easily find itself back on top of the charts, and with lots of affordable housing as well.

    1. It’s also the mathematical skew of low numbers. If your town has 100 people and it adds 100 more, that’s 100% growth and a huge impact on the area. If those same 100 people move to a city of 500,000, that’s 0.02% growth and the existing residents don’t even notice.

      1. Yeah, but is that really happening in those other cities? A city like Austin or Phoenix or Fort Worth probably has had suburbs for a long time, and they make up a big part of the overall city (like Seattle). So if they add 2% (for the entire surrounding suburban area) it is a huge increase.

        But if you do focus on individual census tracts, then the exact problem you mention appears. That is why this map is so misleading — http://www.theurbanist.org/2015/05/08/map-of-the-week-densification-is-everywhere/
        It is much better to just look at absolute numbers if you want to look at a trend. Those numbers show a greater interest in moving to the city than the suburbs.

  6. Its depressing that many of us think that being the fastest growing city is important. What’s important is whether the city is a good place to live, work and play. That’s what has made Seattle great…….not its growth rate. Try to keep that in mind when discussing your ideological fervor about cities.

    1. Seattle has always had an inferiority complex. I’m sure it is common in smaller cities. This lead to lots of boosterism, which in turn lead to the “lesser Seattle” movement.

      What is interesting here is not that we are #1 (or #2) but the way in which we are growing. What is obvious when you look at the numbers is that the city itself is what is growing — despite the really high cost. The key paragraph in this whole thing is the last one. The rest of it is very interesting, but from a policy standpoint, meaningless. The city itself is growing much faster than the suburbs (and could easily grow a lot faster with some really simple and popular changes). The PSRC should adjust their approach accordingly.

    2. Seattle could be a better place to live, work, and play if anti-urban ideologues didn’t hold sway in the public discourse and local government.

    3. It’s not ideology that drives many of us to favor urban growth, it is the facts. Dense, urban cities are greener, more diverse, healthier, and more sociologically satisfying to live in than low density living arraignments where people usually find themselves car dependent and often socially isolated.

      We see Seattle’s current rapid growth as rapid progress towards an improved future, and ya, we celebrate that.

  7. Something important to note is the Seattle has 9% of the state’s population, but in 2014 had 32% of its new housing and 17% of its population growth (24% in 2013!). That’s great news for urbanization, the environment, everyone’s commutes, and battling future rent increases.

  8. This is just a anomaly of Seattle’s misguided and retrograde Forced Urbanization policies — preventing the natural growth of moderate cost housing in the suburbs, misusing Federal subsidies to prevent building regional transit networks and highways, and out and out chicanery with public building by the centrist landowners.

    Sans tar and feathers, a Special Prosecutor and stiff jail sentences are the answers to Seattle’s current woes of intractable traffic, and unaffordable rents.

    1. Seattle does not block growth in the suburbs, or take federal subsidies out of the suburbs’ hands. Neither Sound Transit nor WSDOT are Seattle entities. And WSDOT, in case you hadn’t noticed it, is focused mostly on suburban highway expansion (405, 509, 520). The only highway project wholly within Seattle is the DBT. And the only light-rail line wholly within Seattle is… there isn’t any yet.

      1. And even the DBT is more about people from the suburbs passing through Seattle (an alternate route for when I-5 is backed up) than people that actually live in Seattle.

        It is also difficult to imagine any kind of transit bus (except, perhaps, deadheads to/from Central Base) using the DBT in the foreseeable future.

    2. To see what limits growth in the suburbs, look at the suburban city governments. For instance Kirkland, which is trying to channel all growth to an undesirable area far from downtown where there’s little evidence people or businesses will want to live there. Seattle overly protects its single-family areas, but the suburbs do it much more so and have a greater percentage of single-family areas. That’s the #1 thing that’s hindering suburban growth.

    3. Not true John.

      Our central planners are Bailoists and keep predicting high growth in the outer ring suburbs and exurbs. And so a disproportionately large amount of our infrastructure investments are being spent to support this projected growth. As shown in this and other posts this growth is pure fantasy. It simply isn’t happening. Instead the growth is happening in the center city and inner ring suburbs where we have a growing infrastructure gap.

      1. There has not been one single new highway built, or street redefined as a highway, in King County over the last 25 years.

      2. Not true John.

        Starting in 1992 SR 18 has quietly been turned from a 2 lane surface road into a 4 lane controlled access freeway.

    4. John,

      I don’t normally respond to you because I find your comments to be little more than rolling, but this comment is just too ridiculous to ignore.

      Seattle is not forcing anybody to move into the city – Seattle doent have the power or jurisdictional control to even attempt such a thing. In fact, if anything the local governmental policies favor suburban and rural development over urban development. The fact that Seattle is so handily outpacing the suburbs in growth despite all the supposed financial advantages lavished on the suburbs speaks volumes to the weaknesses of the suburban model and the demographic shifts favoring cities.

      Give it up. Seattle and cities in general are on a roll, and things don’t look likely to change anytime soon. Don’t be such an ideologue that you can’t acknowledge basic facts.

    5. Traffic is always intractable – traffic expands to the size of the road. I don’t see the connection between “forced urbanization” (whatever that means) and rents, perhaps you can elaborate.

    6. Moderate priced housing in the suburbs hasn’t been built since maybe the 1960s. Instead, new housing in the suburbs is mostly stuff like 9 bedroom houses along Hood Canal or other high priced houses where the builder has great profit margins.

      People need to live somewhere. Thus, absent other controls, the free market means the price of housing will increase until wages are fully consumed by housing and other necessities. Charging what the market will bear for a necessity means that very thing. The market will bear very high prices because doing without isn’t an option.

      1. That’s why height limits and FAR limits need to be removed. Developers *will* start building up if it’s legal, and that *does* create more housing.

  9. The census estimates are for July 1, 2014. If the recent growth rate has kept up the last year, Seattle probably has 680,000 to 685,000 residents as we speak. This is far in excess of the previous population peak of 557,000 in 1960. We have been charting new territory since 2000.

    However, the Washington State OFM has a different view of Seattle’s population growth, estimating 640,500 on April 1, 2014 (http://www.ofm.wa.gov/pop/april1/default.asp). Don’t worry, those numbers aren’t used for anything except distributing state revenues or developing PRSC projections.

    My take is that the Olympia-based population projection staff are still using models calibrated in the 1980s and 1990s, while the US Census recognized urban market shifts in their projections since 2010.

    1. Don’t worry, those numbers aren’t used for anything except distributing state revenues or developing PSRC projections.

      Oh that’s it? I was about to get upset.

      *poker face stare*

      1. Yes, unfortunately the State OFM estimates have more real-world impact that the US Census annual estimates, which primarily result in blog listicles. The 10-year census results matter for various types of Federal funding, but the next one isn’t until 2020.

    2. OFM and Census use entirely different methodologies to arrive at their estimates, so they are not directly comparable.

      OFM’s estimates are based on housing units with an occupancy rate and household size applied (broken down into 1, 2, 3-4, and 5+ unit structures). Housing unit data comes from the cities and counties themselves, and is based on permits. Occupancy rate and household size are estimated and generally based on decennial census data, with year-to-year adjustments applied.

      Census uses population, determines births and deaths, and estimates migration.

    1. Dude, look at your own video. There isn’t a building in sight. That is not a dense urban area, this is rural area – probably some sort of festival or pilgrimage in a rural area in Pakistan (I’d guess). What you posted is more akin to the traffic jams that occur in Monroe during the Evergreen State Fair. It has nothing to do with urban issues, unless of course you are advocating for locating stadiums and event centers in urban areas where there is the infrastructure to handle crowds.

      1. Ballard doesn’t have true High Capacity Transit (yet), and what was shown in that vid really was true HCT – just not under the conditions that most of us westerners would accept. But I’d love to give it a try sometime.

  10. Regarding that low bar for being urban:

    About 15 years ago, I was on a bus on the transit mall in downtown Portland. A Japanese tourist was in the seat behind me. He seemed to be a big confused, and finally asked:

    “Please, can you let me know when the bus gets to downtown Portland?”

    When I told him that is where he already was, he got off the bus, and last I saw was on the sidewalk looking around trying to figure out what sort of half-horse town he had found himself in.

  11. In the very first sentence, there is a word spelled incorrectly. “It’s” should be “its”. Please change it.

  12. Seattle transportation planning should but doesn’t capably preceed major development.
    Seattle’s transit systems don’t work and won’t overall, throughout the region, to reliably, conveniently
    serve patrons nor sufficiently guide growth. Cities built to serve motorists, even motorists flee, driving
    or flying, curtesy GM and/or/and Boeing, only to find the same asphalt ruins elsewhere.
    Welcome to the Hotel California.

    1. Seattle transportation planning should but doesn’t capably preceed major development.
      Seattle’s transit systems don’t work and won’t overall, throughout the region, to reliably, conveniently serve patrons nor sufficiently guide growth. Cities built to serve motorists, even motorists flee, driving or flying, curtesy GM and/or Boeing, only to find the same asphalt ruins elsewhere.
      Welcome to the Hotel California.

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