How Well Can a City Predict Its Future 20 Years Out?

In 1994, Seattle won praise from urbanist thinkers nationwide with its 20-year plan for population and economic growth.
May 2015
The urban village of Ballard received what amounted to a physical makeover under Seattle's Comprehensive Plan. Shutterstock
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

Twenty years ago, Seattle was America’s epicenter of urban planning. Its mayor, Norm Rice, had sponsored and guided into law a long-range blueprint that laid out in copious detail what the city was projected to look like in the faraway year of 2014.

According to Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan, as the document was officially known, the city would emerge from a period of slow growth and increase its population significantly in the ensuing two decades. It would use its planning tools to direct the new growth into 39 “urban villages” scattered across the city. These communities would gradually evolve into urbanist showplaces: compact enclaves organized around walkable streets, neighborhood commerce, reliable public transportation and abundant green space. Elements of the plan seemed to come straight out of the writings of Jane Jacobs, the author of the influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Not only would the urban villages be pleasant to live in, Rice projected, but they also would be family-friendly. The last thing he wanted, Rice said, was for Seattle to be a beautiful place too expensive for middle-class families with children to live in. “The worst thing that could happen to Seattle,” Rice declared, “would be to become like San Francisco.”

Seattle’s Comprehensive Plan won praise from urbanist thinkers nationwide. “We are all trying to copy it,” said then-Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. Within Seattle itself, however, a fair amount of opposition developed. The local Chamber of Commerce thought the plan was anti-automobile and would mean fewer customers for merchants “stranded” far from public transit lines. Developers complained that they would be blocked from creating new projects outside the urban-village framework.

Neighborhood activists thought the villages would be forced to take on too much density and fought against the requirement that a quarter of all new housing be “affordable.” Homeowners worried that the cheaper housing units would be a drag on their property values.

Rice made concessions to some of this opposition. Language calling for a decrease in automobile traffic was removed from the plan, and the affordable housing mandate was reduced by two-thirds. In the end, Rice and his allies managed to get the plan through the city council on a rather stridently debated 6-3 vote. In the years that followed, Seattle’s planning officials generally followed the guidelines that the plan dictated. But the plan itself gradually faded from public controversy; indeed, it ceased to attract much public interest at all.

That changed in 2013, when newly elected Mayor Ed Murray did something mayors typically forget to do. He asked what the consequences of the once-famous urban plan had been. And he hired Peter Steinbrueck, a longtime city councilmember who had opened up a private urban consulting firm, to launch a study to find out. Steinbrueck’s team spent a year on what it called the Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project, studying 10 of the urban villages in minute detail and gathering more general information about the city itself. Earlier this year, it produced a 170-page report.

Some of the changes that had come to Seattle over the past 20 years didn’t require a microscope to detect. The two decades since 1994 have been a time of prodigious growth for the city. Seattle underwent a series of painful economic slumps in the 1970s and 1980s, largely a result of job losses in aircraft-related industries. (Boeing alone lost more than 60,000 jobs during this period.) But the mid-1990s witnessed the beginning of a sustained economic boom. Over the next 20 years, the city’s population increased by a generous amount virtually every year. In 2012 and 2013, Seattle was the single fastest-growing big city in the U.S.

But where exactly was all the growth going? Steinbrueck’s study answered that question in confident terms: It was going to the urban villages, just where the original planners had wished. According to the study, some 75 percent of all the growth within the city limits had occurred within these urban villages. This was true even though the urban villages had comprised only about one-third of the city population when the plan went into effect. The planners of 1994 had estimated that the next two decades would bring the city between 50,000 and 60,000 new housing units; the higher-end estimate turned out to be almost exactly right. “It’s pretty remarkable,” Steinbrueck told me, “that they predicted, within a very narrow range, the number of people who would live in the city 20 years later.”

In other important respects, the projections were far off the mark. The Comprehensive Plan assumed that there’d be at least 131,000 more jobs in the city by 2014, but the final figure, somewhat shockingly, fell short of the target by 74,000. Some 38 percent of Seattle residents with jobs were commuting to work outside the city limits. In other words, Seattle was losing much of its role as the employment center for its sprawling metropolitan region and was becoming more of a residential center. Knute Berger, a prominent urban affairs blogger in the city, recently proclaimed that Seattle was well on the way to becoming a “bedroom community.”

More ominously, Rice’s vision of a city that would be attractive and affordable to middle-class families never came to pass. Seattle drew ever closer to San Francisco as a magnet for singles and childless couples. By 2014, only 15 percent of the city’s residents were under 18, compared to 24 percent for the nation as a whole.

Equally striking was the disparity of results among the urban villages that Steinbrueck’s group studied. Most of the 10 villages examined closely in 2014 had moved at least a few steps in the direction that the original planners envisioned. They had viable neighborhood commercial institutions; they had made themselves hospitable to pedestrian activity; they were better connected to public transit than they had been in 1994; and they were adding green space regularly.

But at the bottom of the scale there were villages that not only had failed to improve after 20 years but had gone in the other direction. Rainier Beach, the weakest performer, had a 12.3 percent unemployment rate in 2014 and a poverty rate of more than 24 percent. This was true even though the city had spent more money on Rainier Beach than it had in other neighborhoods studied. The public spending was not accompanied by any significant level of private investment.

The fact that not all the urban villages have succeeded may not come as a shock to everyone. Among all the diverse communities within a big city, there will always be success stories and problem cases. But it brings up what may be the most interesting critique of the entire plan: that rather than helping to foster successful communities through a tangible set of urban policies, the framers simply chose neighborhoods that in most cases were already doing well in 1994 and then declared victory when these places continued to gain population and thrive.

The authors of the study insist that the generally positive outcome of the urban-village strategy “has been achieved through Seattle’s effective planning policies and zoning regulations.” And there’s no question that planning and zoning have made some difference in the years since 1994. New rules on height, density and mixture of uses made room for a larger number of newcomers to live in the designated urban-village neighborhoods. In several cases, city investment in sidewalks and streetscape made them more enticing to outsiders seeking a place to settle. The urban village of Ballard, languishing as a faded industrial district in the 1990s, received what amounted to a physical makeover under the Comprehensive Plan. “Zoning is the iron hand here,” Steinbrueck says. “All of this is a testament to the power of zoning.”

But the study also concedes that “once the underlying zoning for an area has been established, market forces take over and will largely determine the rate of growth.” And that raises an important urban policy question that concerns not only Seattle but also every city in the country: How much does a neighborhood’s fate depend on the choices of city planners? To what extent is it simply the result of market forces and the developers who make bets based on what the market tells them?

For all the incentives provided by the Comprehensive Plan, it still seems fair to point out that most of the designated urban villages would probably be doing quite well now even if the concept had never been implemented. The majority of them had a strong sense of local identity and pride, along with a network of community leaders even more intensely dedicated to neighborhood prosperity than to the city as a whole. This was an advantage that existed long before 1994; it couldn’t be created from scratch by a comprehensive plan. Most of the urban villages were architecturally distinctive and visually appealing; none of them contained the concentrations of blight and decaying housing stock that have long plagued many of the cities of the industrial East and Midwest. The only urban village that is thought to lack much physical distinction, Rainier Beach, is also the only one that has failed to make any progress over the past 20 years.

And behind all of this lies the inescapable reality of Seattle itself: scenic, mild in climate and home to a generation of entrepreneurs who have not only created vast private fortunes but also have nurtured a culture of civic engagement that has become a staple of local life since 1994. In the 20 years since the Comprehensive Plan was adopted, Seattle has been a place that people all over the country wanted to move to. Given the city’s advantages, Rice’s vision was probably destined to succeed. Without them, it might not have had the chance.