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"What price growth...?"
Copyright 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Local News : Sunday, May 17, 1998

Final thought: Maybe it's not them but us

The motorists of King, Pierce, Snohomish and Kitsap counties drove more than twice as many miles on the region's streets and highways in 1996 as they did in 1980.

But in that same time the four counties' population grew only 40 percent.

Land devoted to jobs and homes in King County increased 37 percent in the 1980s.

But the county's population grew at just half that rate.

What's going on here? Why are the problems most often associated with growth - traffic congestion and sprawl - increasing so much more rapidly than the region's population?

Because population growth isn't the sole cause of our growing pains. Planners say changes in the way we live - newcomers and natives alike - also contribute, big-time.

Not only are there more of us, we drive farther and more often than we used to. Our development patterns - large-lot suburban subdivisions and low-rise office parks - are consuming more land.

Seattle environmental researcher Alan Durning, who co-authored a book last year on the Northwest's population growth, concluded only about half the increase in traffic and sprawl could be attributed simply to our increased numbers.

"Even if you stopped population growth, things would still get worse," says University of Washington urban-planning professor Gary Pivo, "because our behavior is getting worse."

The solution to what we think of as growth's ills really lies in changing our behavior, many argue. That would be more productive and more realistic than a crusade to stop population growth, they say.

The premise underlies the state Growth Management Act. The law calls for development that is more compact, less dependent on the automobile, lighter on the land. The solution isn't to grow less, it says, just better.

"There's a big difference between growing dumb and growing smart," says Kathy Fletcher, executive director of the environmental group People for Puget Sound. "Up until now, we've grown in a dumb way. There's so much more we can do before we even start talking about stopping growth."

But the lifestyle changes that "smart growth" entails haven't always proved popular. One example: West Seattle's revolt a few years ago against zoning a high-density "urban village" into its midst.

The region's citizens may dislike sprawl, but many also resist what's heralded as the solution: density. They may dislike traffic, but many also resist transit.

King County Councilman Brian Derdowski, for one, wonders whether it's fair to push people who already live here to change their lifestyles, as the Growth Management Act and other policies ask, if it's only to accommodate more newcomers.

Durning and other supporters of limiting population contend that changing behavior, while commendable, is only a short-term solution. Whatever gains it offers eventually will be overtaken by population growth.

An example: Seattle's water system serves 80 percent of King County's population. Thanks to aggressive conservation programs, per capita consumption has dropped 14 percent since the late 1980s.

System managers expect to wring still more water from conservation, but they say it can't go on forever: By 2014, population growth will require the region to develop another major water source.

What's true for water is true for other resources affected by growth, says Eben Fodor, an Oregon planning consultant and slow-growth advocate: Per-capita consumption can be reduced, but ultimately it may not matter if the number of capitas continues to increase.

"Smart growth gets you to exactly the same place as dumb growth," Fodor says. "You just get there first-class."

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