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Precedented Growth

The current spurt of population growth in Seattle is a big one. We’re on track to grow by 130,000 people this decade rising to a population of 740,000 by 2020 and it has become journalistic convention to refer to this growth as “unprecedented” – which is odd. Seattle is a city with a short history, but we have an even shorter memory.

Seattle is a western boomtown and frenetic, cyclic growth is in the city’s DNA. At the current rate, this decade of growth will not be the largest increase in a single decade ( even just counting since 1900). That occurred in 1900-1910 when the city added 156,000 new residents, and increase of 194%.

In percentage terms our “unprecented” decade appears even less notable. Our projected increase of 130,000 would be 21% above the population in 2010. Certainly nothing to sneeze at. But still, just since 1900 this is only our fourth highest growth rate. The city grew by 27% between 1940 and 1950 and 33% between 1910 and 1920, after the aforementioned 194% growth rate 1900-1910.

The most remarkable thing about the new growth of our city is that for the first time since 1930 Seattle is growing faster than the Puget Sound region as a whole. Puget Sound is only on track to grow by 14% this decade, compared to an average growth rate of about 30% since 1900. For the first time in a long time Seattle’s share of the regional population is increasing – by about a percentage point to 19%, down from a high of 52% in 1920.

If you care about sustainability, or if you just like the benefits of urban living this is great news! We have sacrificed vast tracts of beautiful forest and farmland to asphalt and bluegrass to build our suburban living quarters surrounding the city. This seems normal, but it’s a choice. When we travel to foreign countries we often delight in the “quaint”, compact, neighborly places we visit which are so close to working and natural landscapes. We could choose to live in such places ourselves.

Just outside Vienna, Austria

We are in fact making progress in this direction, as these growth statistics show. We also are approaching 30 years with perhaps the most robust growth-management program in the nation, the Washington State GMA, which is responsible for some of this trend.

Building on “vacant” land is easy. The plants and animals don’t know to file a lawsuit or form a neighborhood association. There aren’t conflicts with existing residents because there aren’t any and open land can be divided up into parcels for sale and construction.

Adding people to cities is hard. Existing residents can’t help but notice the change, which is among the most visible elements of the mix of disappointments brought on by the passage of time and mortality. As with most things, compassion and creativity make it bearable while corporate and bureaucratic efficiencies make it less so. If we value the awesome landscapes of our special spot in the world, we should try our best to accommodate our new neighbors close to us. We’ve done it before and we can do it again.

* population statistics are from US census bureau. 2020 estimates are straight-line projections using 2016 census bureau estimates.

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