Wendell Cox recently wrote a very odd piece on urban growth in Seattle. I was planning a detailed rebuttal but I have better things to do with my life, so I’m just going to make fun of it instead.

What’s wrong with it? Let’s start with the first two paragraphs. They’re about the population density of western US cities, and they’re interesting enough until you get to the last sentence: “Updated urban area density data from the 2010 census will not be available for at least a year.” In other words, the stats he’s using are from 2000, now more than a decade out of date.

Why even bother writing this stuff then? It probably became irrelevant sometime around 2002 or 2003.

When Cox finally does get around to using 2010 data, he devises a bizarre scheme for classifying growth. According to Cox, Seattle is the core city; most everything else in King County is an “inner suburb”; Pierce and Snohomish Counties are “outer suburbs”; and Kitsap, Thurston, and Skagit Counties are “exurban areas.”

Tacoma is an "outer suburb," according to Wendell Cox. (Image credit: Flickr user shingst)

Geographically literate readers will recognize that Cox is therefore designating the city of Tacoma, founded in 1875, as an “outer suburb.” That would be news, I imagine, to the 200,000 people who live there.

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  • That makes Everett an “outer suburb” too. Much-younger Bellevue is an “inner suburb.” (Curiously, in Cox’s narrative Bellevue is not only an “inner suburb” but also an “edge city,” despite the fact that it is 25 miles from the edge of the metropolitan region and only 10 miles from downtown Seattle.) State capitol Olympia, which was incorporated as a city in 1859, six years before Seattle, is an “exurban area.”

    Growth in places like Bellevue is proof that cities are dispersing, according to Cox. (Image credit: Flickr user Cyber M@@K.)

    Weird. It turns out that when you define highly urban areas as suburban or exurban then you can “prove” that almost all growth happens outside the city. It’s almost like he’s cooking the numbers to support his biases.

    Cox also argues (through an unhelpful chart that’s difficult to fact-check) that only a tiny share of the metro area’s growth since 1950 was in Seattle. But that’s largely a manufactured argument. By cherry-picking 1950 as a starting point, he can make claims about growth that include the several decades of urban flight when suburbs boomed in marked contrast to center cities.

    Recent figures, however, reveal considerably more parity in growth rates. In fact, during the last decade, the city of Seattle accounted for more than 11 percent of the region’s growth (if you use a sensible version of the metropolitan area)—more than double the figure that Cox cites.

    Places like Olympia are "exurban," according to Cox. (Image credit: Flickr user dreamsjung.)

    All told, Seattle’s population grew by 8 percent from 2000 to 2010 (and even Cox has to acknowledge it’s “one of the healthiest increases among major cities”). It’s true that some other places in the Puget Sound region grew faster in percentage terms, but it’s not exactly like the town is drying up and blowing away. In fact, one of Seattle’s biggest problems right now is housing affordability, meaning that the demand for city living is pushing up the price of the limited supply of available housing.

    Of course, Cox’s gimcrack analysis is all in service of his ongoing crusade to promote sprawl and denigrate transportation choices. So it’s not surprising that Washington Policy Center’s Michael Ennis jumped on the bandwagon to trumpet increasing “suburbanization,” and this “despite costly regulations to increase density.” Naturally enough, Ennis provides zero evidence for either claim, in part because they’re not true. If anything, the reverse is true: highly restrictive zoning regulation in every city in the region puts a severe and costly brake on the density that would “naturally” occur in its absence. But whatever.

    There was a time when I felt like Cox produced interesting empirical arguments to support his dislike of cities and growth management. I mostly disagreed with him, but at least his writing felt worth getting exercised about. Nowadays, he sounds more like someone plinking the same piano key over and over again: repetitive and annoying.