The Road Map to Washington’s Future: Missed Opportunities

On June 30, 2019, after almost three years of work, the Ruckelshaus Center’s Road Map to Washington’s Future delivered to the legislature a “comprehensive and collaborative look at the Growth Management Act.” Leading up to the report’s release, Futurewise was hopeful that we would receive a data-driven analysis of the impacts that the Growth Management Act (GMA) has had on growth and sprawl in Washington. In particular, we were interested to see recommendations released regarding climate change, public health, and housing equity–three priority areas underserved by the current GMA framework.

Unfortunately, the final report (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, and Vol. 4) lacks scientifically researched, community-based, or quantitative evaluation of how the GMA has impacted residents and the environment over the last three decades. This deficit leaves a significant gap that stands as a barrier to bold policy action.

The Road Map is based almost entirely on subjective information from surveyed or interviewed participants. The lack of a scientifically researched, community-based, or quantitative evaluation of how the Growth Management Act has performed in the last 30 years is a significant oversight. Unfortunately, while there are some transformative concepts proposed in the report, the lack of quantitative analysis makes it very difficult to discern how to evaluate those concepts–particularly given that there are at least some attributed statements made in the report that are verifiably false.

Many of the most critical reforms are left to be determined by a series of future convenings, which will take significant funding and time to pull together–in some cases with no discernible path forward given the conflicting perspectives of the assumed stakeholders.

For example, the report’s highlighting of the use of adaptive management and regionally-based approaches makes a lot of sense, particularly considering how regions–rather than individual cities or counties–will need to react and plan together for the impacts of climate change. However, rather than researching and providing recommendations on which regions and which issues are most likely to be impacted in common ways across the state and highlighting the partners and issues that are the highest priorities, the report only speaks broadly of bringing together urban and rural interests for regional summits.

This approach places a heavy burden on state and other agencies to develop the research and data that will support these summits, and pushes the timeline for meetings, deliberations, and action out for years–if not decades–beyond what will be needed to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. This approach of loosely recommending the convening of interests and stakeholders to determine the next course of action is common across the critical issues discussed in the report.

Priorities Moving Forward

Planning and funding for climate adaptation and resilience is one of the single most important policy areas that the GMA should address, and we agree with all of the proposed Transformative Actions in Section 3.1.

We principally support the creation of a “…mechanism to link local and regional planning to the State’s adopted schedule and targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions” from which many of the other recommended actions would flow. We also support the “key reform” of adding a planning goal to the GMA calling for plans and regulations to be resilient to climate change and natural disasters and to mitigate and adapt to these events.

Missing from the recommended actions on climate is focused attention on the need to develop state-level climate adaptation and resilience strategies that will trickle down to implementation policy areas like the GMA. For example, local land-use decisions that respond to sea-level rise would benefit from a clear and decisive policy directive from the state on retreat and defense strategies in coastal areas.

Additionally, ensuring that GMA policies and processes lead to racially equitable outcomes for Washington residents is a top priority for Futurewise, and we welcome the Transformative Actions in Section 5.1 that address developing racial equity metrics, evaluation tools and performance measures.

Missing from this section of the report are two important aspects of equity-focused work. The first is a stated commitment to asking communities of color and vulnerable communities what they need from growth management in order to succeed and thrive.

We know first-hand that the data and evaluation tools that are readily available to measure inequities and develop methods for delivering equitable outcomes frequently do not represent the lived experience of vulnerable communities. Before we seek to collect and analyze data, we need to engage with community and learn what’s important, what’s missing, and what would potentially cause more harm than good. Secondly, equity is an outcome, but it is also a process. The future convenings, initiatives and data collecting efforts outlined in the Road Map–and there are many–need an agreed-upon framework for using an equity lens in the process, and one that is developed with community and embedded in each effort.

Finally, the report falls short of addressing the GMA Housing Element reforms that would create an equitable and measurable approach to ensuring housing for all current and future residents, and a housing accountability framework for local jurisdictions that is rooted in community.

A racially equitable approach would include incorporating “affirmatively furthering fair housing” policies, accompanied by housing analyses and policies that require jurisdictions to allow and promote the housing that meets local and regional needs. Even more importantly, the report does not address the impacts of displacement on vulnerable communities, nor the impacts on the areas that are serving displaced populations. Understanding and addressing displacement on a local and regional scale is a critical body of work that must be part of the state’s growth management strategies for the foreseeable future. The impacts of not addressing displacement will be felt through increases in sprawl, in vehicle-miles-traveled, homelessness, and public health crises.

All in all, the Road Map to Washington’s Future has elevated some areas for further conversation and policy development but missed an opportunity to present recommendations based on quantitative analysis. Futurewise has identified a number of other priority areas flagged in the Road Map that deserve further evaluation and action. For a full run down, check out our blog post. Looking ahead to the 2020 legislative session, Futurewise will be developing a policy agenda that responds to needed reforms to fight climate change, protect health and advance housing equity.

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Futurewise works throughout Washington State to encourage healthy, equitable, and opportunity-rich communities and to protect our most valuable farmlands, forests and water resources through wise land use policies and practices. Founded to help support implementation of the first-in-the-nation Growth Management Act, we focus on directing equitable growth into our urbanized areas and preventing the conversion of wildlife habitat, open space, farmland, and working forests to subdivisions and development.