Wonkabout Washington: The Climate Change/Land Use Nexus and Washington Can’t Wait

Downtown Tacoma with Link train. (credit to Kaizer Rangwala)

How have you been breathing lately? Not well I’m guessing. The last few weeks have seen Seattle, along with cities up and down the West Coast, choked in a surreal, oppressive smoke. For the last six months, it seemed that the outdoors was the only safe haven from Covid-19. But since late August, those of us fortunate enough to have secure housing have been trapped inside.

Meanwhile, our houseless neighbors are faced with an impossible choice between overcrowded indoor shelters or hazardous air quality outside. The smoke is a visceral representation of policy failures to meaningfully tackle climate change, environmental justice, and affordable housing.

The Climate Change/Land Use Nexus

The science is clear that we need to decarbonize our communities rapidly if we’re serious about a livable future. Yet, Washington continues to lag in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 2008, the legislature set targets to match 1990 GHG emissions in 2020, then reduce to 25% below 1990 levels in 2035 and by 50% in 2050. Even these targets are not aggressive enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change on shorelines, forests and water supplies. In 1990, Washington state sent 90 million metric tons of GHGs into the atmosphere; in 2017, that number was 97.5 million. So, so far, not looking great at meeting our first target.

Vehicle emissions are the biggest contributor to Washington’s GHG emissions, accounting for 44.6% of the state’s emissions. While many proposals have been introduced over the years (including a carbon tax or low-carbon fuel standard), readers of The Urbanist know that one of our best solutions doesn’t involve decarbonizing cars: it’s investing in communities where people don’t need a car at all to get around.

Dense, affordable, walkable, and transit-oriented communities are one of our best tools in the fight against climate change. In a recent interview, former California governor Jerry Brown noted that “ingrained policies in states like California, with its sprawl, devotion to single-family houses and reliance on automobiles, had also contributed to the [wildfire] crisis.” In contrast, the 2019 C-40 cities report noted 30 major cities across the world have already reduced their GHG emissions by at least 10% since 2015, with London, Berlin, and Madrid averaging a 30% reduction and Copenhagen reaching a whopping 61% emissions reduction.

Here in Washington, we’re over 50 years into the suburban experiment that moved (mostly White) people out of cities and into car-dependent suburbs and exurbs. The impact of encroaching development on Washington’s natural areas led to a movement that helped pass the Growth Management Act (GMA) in 1990, making Washington one of the few states in the nation with a statewide framework for planning for growth.

However, 30 years later, we’re seeing the limitations of the GMA as written. While Washington’s cities and counties are required to update their comprehensive plans every eight years, these plans don’t adequately address our affordable housing needs to make it possible for people at every income level to live in cities. Worse, they aren’t required to plan for climate change or environmental justice at all.

If we want to make serious progress on reducing our GHG emissions, we need a more robust planning framework that requires our communities to plan for climate change mitigation and adaptation, and to build enough housing at every income level to make it possible for Washingtonians to live car-free lifestyles.

Washington Can’t Wait for action on climate change

In the next few years, our biggest cities and counties will be updating their comprehensive plans, establishing a road map for growth for the next decade. We can’t wait another decade to take action on today’s biggest challenges.

That’s why next week, on Thursday, September 24th, Futurewise will officially launch our Washington Can’t Wait campaign to fight for a GMA that meets today’s challenges. The GMA currently has 14 elements that comprehensive plans must account for, like housing, transportation, and utilities. We’re fighting to add a climate element, strengthen the housing element, and incorporate environmental justice throughout the Act.

RSVP now to meet with State Representatives Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien) and Davina Duerr (D-Bothell) and learn how to get engaged on this campaign. Together, we can secure a more equitable, affordable, and sustainable future for everyone in Washington.

We hope you loved this article. If so, please consider subscribing or donating. The Urbanist is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that depends on donations from readers like you.

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.

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Daniel Thompson

I agree with Paul W. I think it is absurd the PSRC is issuing a 2050 Vision Statement that is predicated on 2018 data pre-Covid. Even the pre-Covid 2050 Vision Statement had exaggerated future growth estimates, and ST’s future ridership projections have always been exaggerated. In 2019 ridership increased 1%.

The proof in working from home post Covid can be found in the lease renegotiations going on in Seattle right now. Working from home saves employers tremendous amounts of money, and allows the employee to claim the home office deduction.

If the goal is to reduce carbon emissions from transportation that is easy, without forcing families into dense apartments with no yards or garages: the electric car. Tesla claims it has a 900 mile battery in the works.

Again I find it absurd the PSRC’s 2050 vision statement calling for transit oriented development mentions nothing about electric or self-driving cars in the next 30 years. In 2050 transit as we know it today will be obsolete, and self-driving cars will provide the poor with door to door transportation like the wealthy have with cars.

Seattle citizens began fleeing to the suburbs in the early 1970’s for schools and safety. 22% of Seattle parents send their kids to private K-12 schools, the second highest percentage in the U.S. after San Francisco. That tells me something is seriously wrong in Seattle.

The same events are compounded today in Seattle. Now all those suburbanites won’t have to jam onto a crowded bus to commute into Seattle for work, and then wait in the dark on 2nd Ave. among a sea of tents for the return bus. The one thing Seattle had going for it — it’s historic residential neighborhoods — will be destroyed by the new zoning allowances.

The fundamental dispute between “urbanists” and suburbia is urbanists believe zoning should serve transit (mostly because of ST’s financial influence) and suburbanites believe transportation overall should serve their desired zoning since that is why they moved to suburbia.

Finally let’s look at “equity” in urbanism, and Seattle’s recent upzoning of its residential neighborhoods. Now each lot 4000 sf or greater can have three separate legal dwellings with up to 13 unrelated tenants.

First, this has made single family homes even more expensive because each lot is now valued by investors as a three unit multi-family rental project. What urbanists neglect to mention is over 50% of Seattle residents now rent, and so never realize the gains.

Second, none of these tiny units will be for sale, because since the owner of the property no longer has to live in one of the units the lots are purchased by absentee rental landlord trusts.

Third, rezoning or upzoning requires new construction to become effective, but new construction is always the least affordable. Upzoning the central district displaced all the Black residents to ghetto suburbs in south Seattle. Gentrification is devastating to poor residents, but then urbanists are primarily white. How is that equitable? Despite its claims of progressiveness Seattle is 6% Black, one of the lowest percentages for any major city.

I agree with Sound Cities Assoc. that local cities must control their own zoning, not the county, PSRC, or state I have worked in downtown Seattle for 30 years and what I see today is a meltdown of new urbanism. I don’t see tourists returning, the infrastructure has been ignored during economic good times, businesses are moving East, the only people on the streets are street people, and soon the tens of thousands of suburban commuters who had to commute into Seattle each day will be able to work from home.

New urbanists in many ways got their dream: working near home, and fewer carbon emissions because no one needs to even take transit. Except this is happening in suburbia, not Seattle which inherits the most disadvantaged citizens but will see deep declines in tax revenue even after Covid-19 from the loss of commuters, tourists, residents, and commercial development.

If Seattle is the poster child for urbanism I don’t see the appeal. The one demographic missing from consideration are females. What female in her right mind would walk around Seattle in the dark, even (or especially) the commercial core at Westlake.

If you truly want to lower carbon emissions there are ways to cut carbon from transportation that don’t require living in a tiny apartment in a dense building waiting for a packed bus.

Covid-19 and working from home will rebalance the revenue and activity from Seattle to surrounding cities. Seattle is looking at a new reality in which it will have to deal with declining revenue, expensive infrastructure, an increasing poor and homeless population, lack of pedestrian-commuters so the street scene is like today, an amateur council, and another flood of white flight from the wealthier neighborhoods, although this time the flight won’t be all white.

Let’s see how things shake out post Covid before remaking the suburbs in Seattle’s image.

Paul W.

The GMA is flawed. It assumes each job entails a commute, and with a large part of the urban workforce working remotely the numbers of commutes in the future will be far less than forecast. That means we don’t need new residential units or worksites in the urban growth centers in nearly the numbers forecast. It also means we don’t need more transit. What we do need are incentives and penalties for large employers to ensure they don’t force more commutes out of their workforces than necessary.


It’s not just work travel. Homes in the middle of the city tend to require less travel for other purposes as well, be it taking kids to school, getting groceries, or visiting friends. And it also means that what travel does happen is better suited for walking, biking, or riding transit. Finally, remote work is really an office-worker thing. There are a ton of service jobs for which remote work is inherently impossible. Even office workers, remote work is not a panacea. There is a productivity and morale cost in having no face-to-face contact with co-workers.

Let’s of people assume that transit is all about the 9-5 workers going to downtown in the morning and back in the evening. In reality, it’s only one component of the transit ridership picture.

Paul W.

There are two main problems with the GMA’s requirement that cities zone to allow so many additional residences and worksites. First, it encourages what the PSRC does, and how what the PSRC does is implemented in the Puget Sound region: zoning for lots of one bedroom residences in towers, and lots of individual worksites in towers, near train stations in the designated “urban growth areas.” That satisfies the GMA’s mandates for allowing additional residences and worksites, but it creates pockets of dystopian urbanscapes near light rail stations. No families can thrive there. Second, the way the GMA is implemented in the region around Seattle is relying on massive projected train ridership to move vast numbers of daily commuters who supposedly would reside and work in urban growth centers. Those vast numbers of train riders projected for over the next four decades will not materialize, primarily because remote working will be a big part of the employements of many, many residents in this area. For those reasons the GMA needs to be revised in light of current trends — the theories underlying its adoption 35 years ago no longer hold water.


So, what you’re saying is that the “right” GMA is essentially no growth management at all. Just build wherever, turn the entire cascade mountains into sprawl, and as long as employers encourage work-from-home, it’s “ok” because the only thing that matters is the vehicle-miles traveled between home and work.

I’m saying, no. You’re assumptions that offices are dead is still mostly speculation. Large tech companies (Amazon, Facebook, etc.) are continuing to invest large sums of money in more office real estate – which they wouldn’t be doing if they thought every employee working permanently from home would be the norm for the foreseeable future. Sure, as long as the companies continue to hire, the desks in the offices will still get filled.

Similarly, the statement that highrises are “distopian” is also one person’s opinion, stated as a fact. Obviously, everybody doesn’t feel that way, or the residential towers in Belltown would be empty. Just because you don’t personally want to live in a particular environment doesn’t mean that everybody else doesn’t either.

GMA is also about far more than managing home->work trips. You completely ignore the fact that people travel for other reasons and congestion during so-called “off-peak hours” is a real thing, and walkable neighborhoods reduce the amount of car travel necessary for those trips.

GMA is also about more than just travel. As we saw just last week in California, when everybody buys an acre of forest and carves a home out of it, then, when the forest burns down, the house burns down with it, and it’s up to the local firefighters to risk their lives to contain the fire and the local taxpayers to buy the homeowner a new house. Places that are high-risk of burning up in a wildfire, people simply shouldn’t be building on to begin with. But, people have to live somewhere, and the easiest way to accommodate more people without putting more homes in fire zones is more density in the cities that are already developed. Hence, growth management.


Re your “So, what you’re saying is that the ‘right’ GMA is essentially no growth management at all. Just build wherever, turn the entire cascade mountains into sprawl…”

No, that’s not what Paul is saying. What I think he’s saying is revise the numbers and locations of projected jobs and housing. There will likely be somewhat less demand in the highest-density (and most expensive) districts.

The job of agencies like PSRC is to look farther ahead, to recognize and project the likely changes resulting from catastrophes such as COVID. The old assumptions underlying growth projections need a second look, at a minimum.


Two counters to the “zoning for lots of one bedroom residences in towers”

1) The market is clearly demanding one bedrooms over multi-bedrooms. It shows up in prices and private development is responding accordingly, and is a function of steadily decreasing household size. Given the housing prices, we need more family-sized housing AND more single occupancy housing, but I think the market is responding appropriately by delivering more single-bedroom in Seattle. This is not a function of zoning … if anything, zoning prevents some types of zero or single bedroom ‘micro’ housing.

2) Towers around a link rail station are only happening in 3 locations – downtown Seattle, U District, and Bellevue. Lynnwood and Tacoma aspire for similar density, but the other 24 growth areas are intended for lower density development. Check out downtowns of Bothell, Redmond, or Kirkland for a more ‘midrise’ growth center. I think you’ll find those all more ‘family oriented’