For the upcoming 2021 Washington legislative session, Futurewise is proposing several significant changes to the state’s Growth Management Act. Under its campaign called Washington Can’t Wait, the organization is proposing substantial changes to the law. Fitting this hot, tumultuous year, Futurewise is proposing amendments that will compel counties and cities to add stronger climate change, housing, and environmental justice components to their comprehensive plans. 

With a focus on the Growth Management Act (GMA), it would be predictable for a development watchdog to keep its eyes and contacts in urbanized areas. That kind of gatekeeping, however, would run counter to many of the equity ideas that Washington Can’t Wait is trying to add to state law. During the upcoming Week of Action from November 16-20, the campaign is drawing on voices from every corner of the state to contact legislators in a show of support for the legislative work to be done. In that way, Futurewise is living the equity and environmental justice ideals they promote.

The Washington Can’t Wait’s campaign coordinator is Jamie Ptacek. “We are actively seeking ways to be more equitable and inclusive in our work as an organization, including in building this campaign, from the crafting of our legislation to the ways we are engaging in our communities,” she said. A broad coalition is necessary for developing the legislation, getting it passed by the Washington legislature, and implementing the policies in the coming years.

The GMA is the mechanism through which local cities and counties produce comprehensive plans. According to Bryce Yadon of Futurewise, “comprehensive plans are supposed to be a roadmap that is translated into actionable items and outcomes” by municipalities and counties. The local jurisdictions then set zoning and policies to achieve these outcomes.

Some parts of the current GMA are more successful than others. “We have seen parts of comprehensive plans be actionable items,” Yadon says. “Those are items in which it is easy to measure an outcome such as protecting farmland and reducing growth in rural areas. We know that this isn’t enough, and Futurewise wants to see comp plans be actionable and produce the outcomes the GMA is intended to produce.”

Specific numbers can be developed for two of the targeted amendments: housing and climate change. The housing element can change the definition of “affordable” housing or promote duplexes, triplexes, and infill housing that is missing in many jurisdictions. These goals can be reviewed during periodic check-ins to see if the investments are working. 

The climate element can have targets for greenhouse gasses and vehicle miles traveled that will be reviewed by the Washington Department of Commerce and the Washington Department of Ecology. These numbers will drive investments in transportation funding. 

As Yadon points out, “The more definition we can add that are clear requirements and outcomes the more actionable that the comprehensive plans become.” 

That leaves the third proposed amendment–environmental justice–notoriously more difficult to measure.

For the campaign, environmental justice has two parts. First is the fact that there is environmental injustice. Environmental degradation disproportionately and consistently impacts the communities where Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are forced to live.

The second part is actively pursuing justice through a process to ensure that communities are being treated fairly and are given the opportunity to be involved. “When we approach the planning process with an eye towards justice,” says Ptacek, “we take important steps to ensure that the disproportionality in who is bearing the brunt of environmental impacts does not persist.” This involves participatory planning, centering voices of impacted communities, and looking to the past to actively undo discriminatory and exclusionary land-use policies. 

Africatown has demonstrated that community-led engagement and planning improves outcomes on social housing projects. Crowds of people came out to celebrate the ribbon cutting for the Liberty Bank Building. (Photo by Natalie Bicknell)

The proposed GMA amendments reflect these principles, Yadon said. “One way we are approaching this is to require cities to review and address policies that are rooted in racial bias and result in exclusionary housing outcomes. Another approach is to address the disproportionate impacts of air, water, and other forms of pollution and to address the compounding environmental impacts.” The bill will also require counties and cities to involve all communities in culturally appropriate ways in the planning process.

Here, Futurewise is leading by example. “In developing these policies,” Ptacek says, “we are engaging with stakeholders and organizations across the state who represent a broad range of interests and identities–from groups focused on justice and equity, to advocates for affordable housing and organizations working to ensure we protect our environment and natural resources.”

During the upcoming Week of Action, the group is trying to make it as easy as possible for people to reach out to their legislators. Washington Can’t Wait will be providing a Guide to Action that includes scripts, templates, campaign resources and step-by-step directions for outreach. A team of volunteers is sending reminders and offering support to people who sign up to write letters and make phone calls. Ptacek hopes “to make contacting your legislators as easy as possible so that even if you only have five minutes one day next week, you can help make a difference by adding your voice to the chorus of others that will be urging their legislators to update the GMA.”

One of the partnering groups is Share the Cities, which is planning a Climate Action Flashmob for November 18th at noon. According to organizer Laura Loe, the outreach is important because time is short for the next round of comprehensive plans to acknowledge climate injustice. “This is work everyone who cares about affordable housing and climate change should be plugged into. All the [planning] acronyms obscure the deep transformative change that Washington Can’t Wait is trying to bring about through state level changes to the Growth Management Act.”

Here at The Urbanist, we try to keep tabs on the systems that perpetuate racism in our community. We try to call them out when we find them in weird places, from the mortgage interest deduction to reliance on police cruisers to municipal boundaries. The deep structural problems are the ones that keep catching our attention because of their persistence. Even after a year of protest and half-steps and exhaustion, the systemic issues seem more immovable. Is it appropriate for an organization like Futurewise to use up political capital on a really hard systemic question like environmental justice? 

Ptacek looks at it a different way: “These issues may be uncomfortable and difficult to address, but not anywhere near as difficult as the realities of communities and individuals whose lives have been defined by their unfair exposure to the worst impacts of environmental degradation and climate change. People whose air is choked with pollution from nearby industry, whose homes are in the pathways of airports, whose water and land is impacted by environmental degradation that they did little to cause- these are the people who live in true and harmful discomfort.”

Or, as Ptacek puts it, “It’s true, racism in our land-use policy is deeply imbedded, and that is simply a sign that we are long overdue to right our wrongs. Just because something is difficult and uncomfortable doesn’t mean it isn’t the right thing to do.”

You can join the Washington Can’t Wait campaign for its Week of Action, November 16-20. Sign up here

The Take Climate Action Zoom Flashmob with Share The Cities is Wednesday, November 18 at 12pm.  Sign up here. 

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.

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.

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Daniel Thompson

There is no dispute in my opinion that climate change is the most existential long term issue facing us, and that it will require global coordination, especially among emerging markets like China and India.

The two greatest contributors are of course generating electricity and internal combustion engines, including transit.

What concerns me however is every special interest from Urbanism to “equity” to affordable housing are using climate change to support their cause, when often there is very little relation. It is what I call the “cause du jour”.

In the past, the argument was commuting from suburbs to large cities for work created huge amounts of carbon, which is true. Urbanists proposed density that would require everyone to live closer to their work, and ideally walk or bike since transit also produces a lot of carbon, to reduce miles driven (the bike groups do a good job of exposing the hypocrisy among the transit advocates when it comes to global warming, except only 2% commute by bike). However, the coming of EV’s — from delivery trucks to cars to pick up trucks to SUV’s — with larger battery reserves (around 500 miles is considered necessary) negates this entire argument. We can eliminate carbon from commuting and driving without having to change citizens’ housing desires or lives because an EV simply replaces an internal combustion car and is a better vehicle. Of course this eliminates one of — if not the — central pillars for Urbanism.

This has led to Metro’s decision to electrify its entire fleet by 2026, a very expensive proposition that will require large cuts in number of buses and to service hours, because it would not look good if by 2026 transit was less climate friendly than an electric SOV. However, those service cuts will impact poor communities of color the most because they often have to take transit. So they will get fewer buses that will be electric. Their daily lives will go backwards because transit has so wrapped itself in global warming rather than its primary mission, transportation for the poor.

Next we have working from home. Actually WFH is the central theme of Urbanism: not only is the commute from home to work short, it is non-existent. There are no carbon emissions, even if you own a gas powered car or truck. Tens of thousands of workers will no longer have to spend 60 or 90 minutes every day packed into a crowded bus or train with sick passengers, or wait outside for a bus to go home among a sea of homeless tents. Yes, this ideal of Urbanism will be in the suburbs, but the ultimate goal is to reduce carbon emissions, not forcibly change people’s lives or housing desires. Or is it?

But then you have Sound Transit, which tends to fund all these studies like the PSRC 2050 Vision Statement. Few have wrapped themselves in global warming more than ST, despite the endless amounts of concrete poured, and endless diesel machinery building the rail lines. On the eastside, electricity is from PSE, and is around 37% coal generated. But no one ever talks about that.

But working from home will significantly reduce commuter transit ridership (although it will eliminate carbon emissions from commuting), and ST has made wild claims for future ridership to sell rail, like 50,000 riders/day on East Link by 2030. Of course, ST is also the main proponent of TOD and upzoning residential neighborhoods along rail, as well as disadvantaging cars or Uber/Lyft to FORCE travelers onto transit, not to reduce emissions but to meet its crazy ridership projections. But TOD and upzoning won’t reduce carbon emissions (which will be eliminated by WFH and EV’s), it is just a desperate attempt to manufacture ridership on light rail when future ST light rail will mostly depend on subarea equity.

Finally we have affordable housing. Urbanists (and ST) argue that by creating TOD’s and upzoning expensive residential neighborhoods, and simply building more (small) units upzoning alone — without public subsidies — will create affordable housing. The problem is builders want to upzone expensive neighborhoods precisely because they want to build unaffordable housing, because that is where the greatest profit is. Once again the unpredictable — working from home — will do more to create affordable housing than TOD’s or upzoning, because now workers can live anywhere from Snohomish Co. to Kitsap Co. to cities south of Seattle, or rural parts of East King Co., including Cle Elum, where the housing already exists, is not new, is immediate, is affordable, and is large enough to meet their new WFH lifestyles.

Working from home solves carbon emissions, affordable housing, and equity immediately, although it undercuts transit and Urbanism.

Since the writing is on the wall, this brings us to “equity”. Urbanism, according to Urbanists, is more “equitable”, but nothing bears that out. Housing is not more affordable (if not publicly subsidized) in dense neighborhoods like Capitol Hill (or in any urban core like NY), it is more expensive per sf. In fact, urbanism leads to upzoning, which requires new construction, which is always the least affordable housing per square foot, and upzoning + new construction is the definition of gentrification.

East Capitol Hill and the Central District where I grew up were “gentrified” and upzoned, and it did create a lot of expensive dense new housing for non-Black tech workers, but it also displaced the historical Black neighborhood to Rainier Valley. So “Urbanism” has displaced these Black citizens to what are commonly referred to as urban “suburbs”, and now because of “climate change” they will get electric buses with much less frequency and service (and fewer police). Great deal.

Finally let’s look at one of the partners with Futurewise for upzoning, and HB 1923, that would have mandated Seattle style residential upzoning for the entire state (except is always set at a population threshold that exempts Medina because that is where all the Microsoft execs live, and the last thing they want in their neighborhood is density or affordable housing, God forbid), the Master Builder’s Assoc. Does the MBA really care about global warming, and does its political PAC for campaign donations “The Affordable Housing Council” (because it is tricky for Democrats to accept donations from the MBA) really care about affordable housing like say, ARCH? Of course not, otherwise they would not be so intent on upzoning residential neighborhoods and other areas where the land is very expensive to begin with. ARCH will tell you the very first factor for affordable housing is the cost of the underlying land. You are never going to build non-subsidized affordable housing on Mercer Island, that has virtually no intra-island transit so everyone needs a car.

The MBA is really after upzoning all those expensive large residential lots, and like Seattle ideally eliminating the requirement the property owner live onsite if there is more than one legal dwelling, which then turns every neighborhood into an (expensive) rental neighborhood prime for large property trusts, like in Seattle where over 50% of residents rent.

Global Warming is too existential an issue to be coopted for the cause du jour, or builder profits. Urbanism needs to survive on its merits, which means those who want an urban lifestyle, ideally without the need for a car, but it won’t be inexpensive, and needs two key things: 1. Safe streets. Without safe streets you can forget about Urbanism because you wont’ have any women, or anyone, on the streets. They will Uber/Lyft to go even a few blocks. This is the main reason Seattle is seeing an exodus of high end renters in the urban core right now; and 2. Somehow affordable urban units because Urbanism is mostly a lifestyle for the young and those without kids. As I have said before, Urbanism is a male oriented life style, and suburbia a female oriented lifestyle, and since retail follows women (and so do husbands) if the streets are not safe for women they will move to where they are, and so will the retail, and living in a tiny dense unit without any street life or retail is the definition of a ghetto.

Finally you have “sprawl”. King Co. alone is nearly the size of Rhode Island. The four county area of Kitsap, Snohomish, Pierce and King Counties is huge, much is already zoned residential, and under HB 1923 every rural lot can now be upzoned to three houses (which is what the MBA was really after), which is where everyone will be moving with WFH (and why Snohomish Co. just upzoned its rural lands as part of the PSRC 2050 Vision Statement). The U.S. has around 2.4 billion total acres with 975,000 million devoted to farming and ranching, and 640 million acres owned by the federal government. 3 million acres are currently devoted to urban/suburban areas. The GMA sets out boundaries for growth, but those areas currently designated for residential development in the four county area can house millions of more residents, and will with WFH. If anything upzoned our rural areas it was HB 1923, thanks to the MBA and Futurewise.

Let’s get real about global warming and stop coopting it, and be a little more suspicious of those who look to profit from upzoning and TOD (although I think Urbanists are sincere if a little naive about their goals and “partners”). Transit will fundamentally change with WFH and driverless technology, but usually change is good. Affordable housing requires public subsidies. EV’s will eliminate carbon emissions from driving and is here but needs subsidies. Urbanism needs to compete based on its lifestyle, and to do that it needs safe streets and a vibrant retail/restaurant scene, not trying to force citizens who have different needs and families to live that way, and no longer have to with working from home. No one undercut transit more with Uber/Lyft pre-Covid than Urbanists, because the fares in an urban area are so competitive, and the service so much better than transit.

Change is almost always good, and if anything positive came out of Covid-19 it is working from home. Now let’s find a way to reduce carbon emissions in the production of electricity, one that will be affordable for emerging economies who will produce all the carbon in the future, and forget about mandating zoning changes for the MBA.

Douglas Trumm

Hi Daniel. This is Doug (sorry for name glitch). Thanks for reading, but these comments are getting real long and all over the place. Our comment policy requires succinctness and not trolling authors and very often you simply disagree with everything about the article and pepper them with factual inaccuracies that it can be tedious to correct. For example, you don’t hear about Sound Transit using coal energy because it’s not true. They’ve used 100% renewable energy since 2019.

You clearly like to write. Rather than writing these giants comments perhaps you may like to start a blog of your own. We know you think work from home and autonomous electric cars will change everything and challenge the tenets of urbanism. We don’t need to be reminded on every one of our articles.

So, I’d encourage you to be succinct, stay on topic, and make a new point rather than repeat your same points in each comment, otherwise we will have to start enforcing our policy by deleting comments that break these rules.