But greater Seattle-Tacoma is still the most sprawling metropolis in the Northwest
Release date: Jul 26, 2002

Seattle – Some 33 percent of King County residents lived in compact neighborhoods in 2000, up from 28 percent in 1990. Pierce County, meanwhile, posted the lowest gains in “smart growth”: In the 1990s, its share of residents in compact communities only increased from 11 to 12 percent. That’s according to a new study of census data released today by Seattle-based Sightline Institute. Titled “Sprawl and Smart Growth in Greater Seattle-Tacoma,” the study also finds that the Seattle-Tacoma area is the most sprawling major metropolis in the Pacific Northwest.

The report, which uses census data and mapping to rank compact growth in the region’s cities and municipalities, notes that greater Seattle-Tacoma is expected to add nearly one million people by 2025. If area municipalities do not grow more compact over that time, new development will overrun an additional 170,000 acres—an area twice the size of Seattle and Tacoma combined.

“But our analysis shows that growth doesn’t have to mean sprawl,” says Sightline research director Clark Williams-Derry. “By channeling new growth near the region’s city and town centers, rather than at the urban fringe, we’ll save open space and make transit more cost-effective.” Growth accommodated in compact neighborhoods—such as Wallingford in Seattle and Crossroads in Bellevue—consumes less land while giving transit the concentrated ridership it needs and bringing destinations close enough that walking and cycling become viable alternatives to driving.

Sightline calculates that with modest increases of density, greater Seattle-Tacoma could accommodate all expected population growth without encroaching on any more rural land at all—and the region still would not be as compact as greater Vancouver, BC, today. Other key findings include:

  • In the 1990s, the population in greater Seattle-Tacoma increased by 461,000 people. The majority of population growth—55 percent, or 253,000 new residents—took place in sprawling, low-density areas with fewer than 12 people per acre. Nearly two-thirds of the population growth in Pierce County was outside of towns or cities, as was roughly half the growth in Snohomish County, and about one-fifth the growth in King.
  • Within the counties, municipalities grew in radically different patterns. Everett, Federal Way, and especially Seattle led in compact growth. In 2000, half of the region’s smart-growth residents lived in Seattle, with 68 percent of the city’s population living in compact neighborhoods (at least 12 residents per acre). Federal Way and Everett are the second and third most compact municipalities, but have only half as large a share of residents living in compact neighborhoods as Seattle.
  • In 2000, Sammamish, Kenmore, and Mill Creek were the region’s most populous cities with virtually no residents in compact communities. Bellevue, Shoreline, and Puyallup, meanwhile, had far fewer residents in compact neighborhoods than would be expected for cities of their sizes.
  • The report also estimates how much land greater Seattle-Tacoma might have saved with modest increases in density. If the region’s urban and suburban areas had the average density of Vancouver BC, 233,000 acres—an area larger than four Seattles, and larger than the size of Mount Rainier National Park—would still be open space today.
  • “Sightline Institute’s analysis shows that we can have great neighborhoods where residents can walk to shopping and parks and take advantage of fast, reliable public transportation,” commented Tim Trohimovich, planning director of 1000 Friends of Washington. “Portland and Vancouver are examples of beautiful and appealing cities that are stopping runaway development from destroying farms and forests.”
  • The report expands on the smart-growth research presented in Sightline’s most recent publication, This Place on Earth 2002: Measuring What Matters. The book is the first step in a multi-year project to develop an index of social and environmental progress in the Northwest.

Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that monitors the region’s progress toward a sustainable economy and way of life and identifies the most important reforms for the region to adopt. See the full copy of the report and maps.

July 26, 2002