Sunday, October 3, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Staying livable: Fight sprawl by keeping growth in urban centers

Special to The Times

My favorite part of every return flight home is when the plane passes high over the shoulder of Mount Rainier. Far below unfolds a landscape of forests, river valleys, lakes, cities, towns and farms. At its center lies Puget Sound, a shimmering inland sea, artery of life, highway of commerce and namesake of this region.

Over 3 million people live here, yet this region also provides habitat for eagle, bear, orca and salmon. Who can crest the Cascades, look down from 30,000 feet, and not feel relieved and proud to have arrived home to this region, arguably the nation's most livable? What makes this place so attractive and "livable"? High on the list are outdoor recreation and nature close at hand. Some would credit a regional ethic that welcomes new people and new ideas, learns from the experiences of other places, and rewards innovation in business, academia and the arts. Still others would point to the wide variety of living and employment choices available in the diverse communities scattered across the region.

Essential to "livability" is the ability to economically sustain citizens. Yet, if ongoing state and regional economic-development efforts bear fruit, how can we preserve the other dimensions of this region's livability? What key actions must we take in order to maintain livable communities within a sustainable landscape?

The framework for answering these questions is Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA), adopted in 1990. This law is a rarity among states, because it obliges cities and counties to adopt comprehensive land-use plans with teeth, effective development regulations and growth-focused capital budgets.

Consistent with the need for economic vitality, it requires local plans to accommodate forecasted growth. Significantly, however, it also mandates that environmentally critical areas (such as wetlands and related hydrological systems) be protected and that agricultural and forest resource lands be conserved.

Why did the Legislature adopt GMA in the first place? Before 1990, there was no legislative mandate to use land efficiently. Many cities indulged in strip commercial development and large-lot zoning and underinvested in infrastructure. Counties permitted this pattern to leapfrog into the countryside, effectively "suburbanizing" much of the rural area and eroding the viability of nearby agriculture and forestry uses.

The emerging pattern of growth was a landscape of sprawl — anonymous low-density development with choked roads, worsening air quality, fragmented governmental accountability, marginal services, declining resource industries and seriously degraded wildlife habitat.

By passing the GMA, the Legislature acted to direct urban development to urban areas and to reduce the loss of rural and resource lands to sprawl. In contrast to the blurred landscape of the pre-GMA era, the law now requires sharp functional and visual distinctions between three fundamentally different landscapes: urban growth areas (UGAs); rural lands; and resource lands (primarily agriculture and forest).

In Central Puget Sound, the urban growth areas total about 15 percent of the total land area, while rural and resource lands constitute another 25 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Two landmark legal cases highlight the importance of protecting resource lands and rural lands in this three-tiered landscape. In 2000, the Washington Supreme Court rejected a King County action allowing urban recreation uses on agricultural lands in the Sammamish Valley, citing the GMA's "mandate for the conservation of agricultural land." In 2002, the court reversed Thurston County's decision to extend sewer lines into a rural area, citing the act's requirement to "protect rural areas from sprawl."

Even with this strong legal footing, for the long-term viability of rural and resource lands, regulation alone is not enough. Those parcels that are most valuable, most visible and at greatest risk to development pressures must be further protected by innovative public-private partnerships, such as transfer of development rights programs and even outright acquisition.

For a long-term strategy of a three-tiered landscape to succeed, it is vital that communities within urban growth areas continue to be places where people want to live, work and play. Three things are key to urban growth area viability and community livability:

1. Plan for appropriate urban densities

From 1995 to 2000, the vast majority of growth in our region (87 percent of population, 96 percent of jobs) occurred within UGAs. To continue this success, we must dispel the myth that our cities are "built out."

Much of the past decade's growth took place in some of our oldest, densest and, by many measures, most livable cities, such as Seattle, Edmonds and Kirkland. Together with the other 79 cities in the region that are even less dense, our communities have tremendous unused capacity to accommodate growth.

To maximize housing opportunities, our communities must provide everything from cottages, detached homes and accessory dwelling units on individual lots to townhouses, mid-rise and high-rise apartments and condominiums.

The densest housing will be in transit-served urban centers and emerging mixed-use districts, but even detached housing must use urban land frugally.

Ten years of GMA legal precedent has established that four dwelling units per acre satisfies the low end of densities required within UGAs. Any widespread pattern of urban lot sizes below this density is generally prohibited.

In limited environmental circumstances, lower densities (larger lot sizes) may be warranted within the UGA. For example, lower densities are appropriate in the Hylebos Wetlands in Federal Way and the Snohomish River Estuary because such systems are large in scope, complex in structure and possess a high rank order of ecological value.

This does not mean that rigorous protection of lesser critical areas is not required, but simply that in such situations larger lot sizes are not the appropriate tool. Instead, the creeks, ponds and small wetlands found in many city neighborhoods will be protected by development standards such as setbacks, buffers and grading limitations.

Equally important will be the evolution of a culture of environmental stewardship among the many citizens through whose backyards even the smallest of streams flow to reach the Sound.

2. Design for density

Concerns about denser development often focus on impacts, such as traffic and storm runoff. While engineering solutions and mitigations can ameliorate many impacts, they do not address what lies at the core of most debates about density and urban infill — fears that a community's sense of place, indeed its very livability, is at risk.

Unfortunately, bad examples abound — too many new developments did not respect the context of the site or the character of the community. But it doesn't have to be that way.

A successful strategy for livability is the practice of community design — civic design of public spaces and facilities, and design review of private projects.

The Juanita Village mixed-use project in Kirkland is a good example of what can happen when a community takes the time to illustrate its vision for redevelopment with detailed design standards. Such standards, administered through design review, instruct architects and developers about how to respect context and build consistent with desired character.

Design standards can even ease the growing pains of infill in neighborhoods of detached homes, for example, by requiring that lot layout, grading plans, building bulk and orientation minimize the loss of privacy and maximize retention of existing trees.

Clear design standards lessen uncertainty for neighbors and developers alike. Such standards reduce the need for discretionary permit processes to achieve a community's desired outcomes, which in turn minimizes the costs due to delay, uncertainty and appeals. City councils should spend less time conducting project appeal hearings and more time fine-tuning the kind of design standards that can directly shape the location, character and quality of all new development.

3. Fund the public realm

A common misconception is that GMA's concurrency provisions — providing infrastructure concurrent with demand — somehow guarantee uncongested roads and sufficient parks. What these provisions actually require is, in effect, an acknowledgment that "you get what you pay for" and itscorollary — "you don't get what you don't pay for."

The consequence of underfunding the public realm, in the face of ongoing growth, will be degraded livability. Within the urban area, this means more congested roads, less green space, fewer library hours, slower police response times and less accessible human services.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, taxes are the price of civilization. Our willingness to fund the public realm is the price of keeping our communities livable.

It is important to understand that density, per se, is not our real objective; however, it is one important way to achieve several objectives essential to livability. These include assuring a range of housing choices for an ever diversifying population, achieving economies of scale in providing public infrastructure, making cities vibrant, interesting places to live, and forestalling the development pressures that erode the sustainability of rural and resource landscapes.

If we succeed, this magnificent region can remain a treasured home, not just from 30,000 feet in the sky, but on the ground in the everyday lives of this and future generations.

Joseph W. Tovar is director of special projects at the Northwest Center for Livable Communities at the University of Washington. He served on the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board from 1992 to 2004 and was Kirkland planning director from 1981 to 1992. E-mail him at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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