The Sustainable Thurston project, spearheaded by the Thurston Regional Planning Council and fueled by a $1.5 million federal grant, kicked off in early 2011 with a direct question to the region’s 250,000 residents: How do you want the community to look, function and feel in 2035?
The answer to that nuanced, multi-faceted question starts to take shape with the release of a draft plan named “Creating Places, Preserving Spaces.” The 200-page-plus sustainable development plan is designed to help guide economic growth, land-use decisions, water and energy use, food supply, and a whole range of actions the public and private sectors could be asked to take to make South Sound a more livable, vibrant place over the next 20 years.
The draft plan is actually a much bolder vision than what was contemplated last spring when hundreds of community leaders and citizens were working on it. That’s because the computer models and number crunchers showed them that working within current city and county land-use plans does not lead to a sustainable future where the quality of life of future generations is enhanced — rather than compromised — by the actions of today.
For instance, if we keep sending 13 percent of our population growth into the rural areas of the county, we will lose by 2035 nearly one-third of our farmland — about 15,600 acres — and 10 percent of our forest lands, or more than 19,000 acres.
Here’s another sobering fact: From 1950 to 2008, the county lost 90,000 acres of farmland to development, or 50 percent of the total. We can all picture a housing development sitting atop rich agricultural soils.
We’re doing better controlling sprawl than 10 years ago when the rural areas snagged 38 percent of the growth. But if we want a strong local food economy, healthy rivers and streams, adequate water supplies, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles, we must redirect some of the remaining 13 percent to urban centers and areas zoned for urban-style density.
If successful, reduced rural development could also save our region some $1.6 billion in road, water, sewer and other infrastructure costs, money that could be used to help redevelop our urban neighborhoods and corridors, build more affordable housing, reduce stormwater runoff to the benefit of Puget Sound and help make Intercity Transit work for more people. On the public transportation front, there’s plenty of room for improvement when you consider that less than 7 percent of the housing units built since 1995 sit in urban centers or corridors with top-notch transit service.
It won’t be easy to reform land use countywide. Writing a plan is kid’s stuff compared with implementing it, especially when two of the key actions could be increased urban density and downzoning of rural lands. But there are a couple of silver linings in the sustainable development plan. For instance, the land supply in the urban growth area is adequate to accommodate 20 years of protected growth population. And the buildable lands can handle the 60,000 new jobs likely to be created by 2035 under a moderate growth scenario.
The document also makes the point that it’s time for the community to start planning smartly for the changing demographics and cultural shifts in behavior. By 2035, nearly 20 percent of the Thurston County population will be 65 or older, compared with 12 percent today.
The baby boomers will require more housing options in neighborhoods served by public transit and with easy access to goods and services. Sounds like an incentive to redevelop the urban corridors of Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and downtown areas of cities and towns throughout the county. “Drive-only” neighborhoods just won’t work for our aging population.
Today’s young adults are another population cohort whose housing needs are not adequately met by today’s housing inventory. The percentage of 16-to-24-year-olds without a driver’s license is roughly 30 percent, which is the highest in 50 years. They know firsthand how expensive it is to own and operate a car. For this generation, neighborhoods easy to walk and bike, and served by frequent public transit, are critical.
Seniors and young adults alike would be well-served by a shift in the urban-rural growth curve.
In 2010, about 47 percent of the urban households in Thurston County lived within one-half mile — a 20-minute walk — to basic goods and services. The Sustainable Thurston draft plan, if enacted, could bump that number to 72 percent by 2035.
Think of Creating Places, Preserving Spaces as a community conservation plan that continues. The Thurston Regional Planning Council will accept public comment on the draft plan through Oct. 2, and probably endorse a plan by the end of the year, then forward it to area jurisdictions for their consideration. Then the hard work would really begin.
Meanwhile, the plan will be presented at two public meetings this week: Olympia City Council, 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the Intercity Transit Authority, 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.
For more information on how to get involved, go to sustainablethurston.org.