British Columbia boasts the second longest lifespan in the world and is a regional model for smart growth, but lags significantly in economic security for its residents. That’s according to the first edition of the Cascadia Scorecard, a new gauge of regional progress released today by Seattle-based research center Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch). Overall, the Pacific Northwest has made gains since 1990, according to the Scorecard, but its record is marred by failures. For example, BC’s poverty rates have increased over the decade, while national rates have declined; and satellite maps show that since 1976, the province has clearcut almost one-fifth of the forests in two key interior forest areas.

“Celebrity scandal and stock prices make headlines,” says Sightline research director, Clark Williams-Derry. “But to be more successful as a region, we need to pay attention to critical, slow-changing trends that more dramatically affect our future.” The report—Cascadia Scorecard: Seven Key Trends Shaping the Northwest—details how British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho are doing and spotlights places that “score” best in each trend.

Selected during a three-year research process from a list of nearly 1,000 candidate indicators, the seven trends include health, economy, population, energy, sprawl, forests, and pollution. Highlights of the findings are:

  • Second in the world on lifespan: British Columbia has the longest life expectancy in the Northwest, and if it were a nation, BC would rank second in the world on lifespan, the best single indicator of human health. A BC infant born in 2002 can expect to live for 80.7 years. If lifespan gains continue apace, BC will reach Japan’s best-in-the-world mark of 81.3 years in 2006. Good community design and greater access to health care may contribute to BC’s longevity.
  • Economic security slipping for British Columbians: In a troubling trend, between 1990 and 2002, the BC poverty rate crept up from 14.7 percent to 17 percent, while the national poverty rate dipped to 14.4 percent. Beginning in 1998, BC unemployment rates exceeded those of Canada and, by 2002, of any American state. And while Canada reduced its child poverty rate by two percentage points from 1990 to 2002, BC’s rate stayed about the same at 17 percent.
  • Vancouver and Victoria lead region in compact growth: By mapping growth patterns in the seven largest Northwest cities over the last decade, the Scorecard shows that though cities have become slightly more compact, sprawl still dominates the region. Among midsize cities, Victoria is by far the most compact, with 34 percent of residents in compact communities in 2001. Boise, with roughly the same population as Victoria, has only 7 percent of residents in compact neighborhoods. Vancouver is the region’s clear leader, with more than 60 percent of residents in compact neighborhoods in 2001, but Seattle and Portland have both made recent gains in growth management. (See maps p. 41–48.)
  • New gauge of forest stewardship maps 30 years of clearcutting: Using satellite maps from the NASA Landsat system, the Scorecard tracks 30 years of clearcuts in five forested “study areas”—including two contiguous BC interior forest areas—as a rough gauge of how well northwesterners are safeguarding their natural heritage. From 1976 to 2002, almost 20 percent of the forest in the two BC areas was clearcut, with most of that cutting in virgin forest. The study areas include the Bowron Cut, the largest clearcut in the world. More than 91 percent of the clearcutting occurred in the forests managed by the provincial government. (See maps p. 49–56.)
  • Northwest receives low “score” on energy efficiency: Although the Pacific Northwest has reduced its per capita energy consumption by 4 percent since 1999, the decline hasn’t been enough to budge it off the high plateau where it has been stuck since the 1970s. Measuring use of highway fuels and nonindustrial electricity as a proxy for overall energy use, the Scorecard gives northwesterners low marks. Although British Columbians can claim relatively low per capita energy use—about one-third less than residents of the Northwest states—it has been slowly climbing over the last decade. And countries like Germany and the United Kingdom use less than half as much gasoline per person as BC residents. Overall, the typical northwesterner uses nearly as much energy as a Texan and more than a Californian.
  • Historic lows in population trends: In good news, the region’s birthrates and teen birthrates have dropped to historic lows in the last decade as the region’s women increasingly choose to have small families, later in life. British Columbia has the lowest teen birthrate by far—one-third that of the Northwest states—but the province’s teen birthrate is still double that of Italy, Japan, and the Netherlands.
  • “Body burdens” of harmful toxics: The Cascadia Scorecard tracks concentrations of pollutants in northwesterners’ bodies by analyzing breast milk in Pacific Northwest mothers for levels of three worrisome substances: dioxins; PCBs (polychloryl biphenyls); and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), chemicals widely used as flame retardants. (Preliminary results are available for Washington State; Sightline will release full results for this indicator later this year.)

The Scorecard also uses an innovative method to mark how far the region is from reaching a real-world goal for each indicator. The region is furthest from the goals for energy and sprawl. For example, if northwesterners continue reducing energy use as they have been, it will still take 86 years to achieve Germany’s 2001 energy efficiency. In compact growth—where the model is Vancouver’s rate of 62 percent of residents in compact communities—the region’s largest cities are overall 60 years from the goal.

To move the Northwest closer to such goals, the report recommends systemic solutions that would influence millions of daily decisions across the region. These include tax shifting to favor energy efficiency and smart growth; comprehensive testing of toxic body burdens; and better monitoring of the region’s progress through projects like the Scorecard.

Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that covers the Pacific Northwest, also known as Cascadia, a region including British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and adjoining parts of Alaska, Montana, and California. The Cascadia Scorecard will be updated regularly both in publications and at  this website.

March 11, 2005