Seattle – In the last decade, development consumed nearly an acre of land an hour in the Northwest’s three largest metropolitan areas, and the Seattle area sprawled and paved more than either Portland or Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s one finding of Sightline Institute’s new state-of-the-region report, This Place on Earth 2002: Measuring What Matters. The book assesses the Northwest’s progress in ten key areas of environmental and social well-being, giving the region a mixed review overall.

Other top news includes a historic pause in the loss of roadless areas, an unexpected leveling off in emissions of greenhouse gases, and a growing gap between rich and poor-despite the recent economic boom.

This Place on Earth 2002 is a first effort to develop a regional index that tracks not just economic gain, but whether the economy is bringing us a better way of life.

“The Northwest’s accounting isn’t much better than Enron’s,” says Sightline research director Clark Williams-Derry. “We follow economic trends like bankruptcies, business starts, and money supply on a weekly basis. But we do a much worse job of tracking trends like child poverty, unplanned births, and greenhouse gas emissions. And we don’t track other important areas–such as levels of toxics in the human body–at all. So we never know the real bottom line.”

Top findings for the region include:

  • Seattle sprawling, Vancouver growing smart, Portland splitting the difference: Using satellite imagery and census data, This Place on Earth 2002 maps out a decade’s worth of growth in Seattle; Vancouver, BC; and Portland. While the cities grew by roughly the same number of people during the 1990s, the Seattle area sprawled the most, with car-dependent, low-density areas accounting for 60 percent of its growth. Vancouver grew “smartly,” with compact, pedestrian-friendly communities accounting for 80 percent of the city’s population growth over a decade; and Portland grew in a fairly even mix between high- and low-density areas. The Seattle area also lost the most land to development-about ten acres a day. (Portland lost eight acres a day and Vancouver, BC, four acres a day.)
  • Trucks gaining on cars: The Northwest’s vehicle fleet expanded to 12 million in 2001-more cars than licensed drivers. In good news, the fleet’s growth has slowed to match the pace of population growth. But fuel efficiency has decreased as trucks have proliferated: including SUVs and minivans, trucks already outnumber cars in Idaho and will outnumber them in Oregon before 2002 is over.
  • Income inequality booming: Despite the recent economic boom, the gap between rich and poor-an important indicator of societal ills–has also grown considerably. From the late 1970s to the late 1990s, even while the highest-earning fifth of US Northwest families saw their income grow by $38,000 (adjusted for inflation), the income of the lowest-earning fifth actually fell. Other trends also testify to a rising tide of inequality: in the 1990s, prisons were the fastest-growing form of housing in the Northwest, followed by second homes.
  • Climate-changing pollution leveling off: Emissions of greenhouse gases in the Northwest remained constant in 2001, bucking a long upward trend. Unfortunately, this stabilization was not because of smart policies and conscious choices, but because shutdowns at the region’s aluminum smelters halted their voluminous releases of heat-trapping chemicals.
  • Forest roads taking less of a toll: The national forest road system in the Northwest states shrank by 4,400 miles between 1991 and 2000, thanks to the US Forest Service’s new efforts to obliterate roads. As a result, ecologically valuable roadless areas in the northwestern United States have stopped shrinking, the first such pause in generations.
  • The impact of 16 million northwesterners: A welcome trend is that some per-person environmental impacts have leveled off: Vehicle numbers, energy use, and emissions are now rising in rough proportion to population growth, more slowly than in previous years. But per capita impacts are still high and population keeps growing. The Northwest’s population-which reached 16 million people in 2001-has doubled since 1965, and since 1990 has grown as fast as India’s. Its growth rate slowed somewhat in 2000 and 2001 but is still high.

This Place on Earth 2002 finds that, in general, human northwesterners–with the notable exception of the poor-are doing better than the nonhuman Northwest. But the major conclusion is that improving the region’s well-being will require much more rigorous tracking of trends that matter.

“The first step is to develop indicators that spring from the region’s values, not just from the marketplace,” says Alan Durning, Sightline’s executive director. “And the next is to pay attention to them-as closely as we follow the vacillations in GDP.”

The report cites a number of promising areas to measure in the future, including number of miles driven (a better indicator of cars’ environmental impacts than vehicle numbers); unplanned births (a good indicator of a number of trends, including stress on families); and human contentment (or “the happiness quotient”), measurable using established survey techniques.

This Place on Earth 2002 suggests that the Northwest could develop a powerful battery of such indicators for perhaps $5 million a year—“roughly what the region currently spends on soft drinks in a day.”

Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that covers the Pacific Northwest, a region including British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and adjoining parts of Alaska, Montana, and California. Lead author is Sightline research director Clark Williams-Derry; coauthors include executive director Alan Durning, editorial director Ellen W. Chu, and research associate Eric de Place.

March 20, 2002