Fueled by a $1.5 million federal grant, Thurston County civic and elected officials hope to rally the public around a vision of a more sustainable future.
Sustainability, once a rallying cry of environmentalists and community activists, has gone mainstream.
“Sustainability is kind of like art — it means different things to different people,” Thurston Regional Planning Council executive director Lon Wyrick said in a meeting with The Olympian editorial board.
Simply put, it’s a way of living that meets the present needs of a community without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs, too.
Some 29 partners, elected and nonelected officials alike, are working under the umbrella of the Thurston Regional Planning Council to define a vibrant and resilient future, then identify actions that must take place to make it happen.
This is all happening against a backdrop of continued population growth in Thurston County. Today’s population of 252,000 in Thurston County is expected to grow to 420,000 by 2040.
The community-wide conversation dubbed Sustainable Thurston accepts the notion that the growth will occur, that there will be no barriers or government attempts to limit that growth.
There are some voices in the community that consider unquestioned growth a precursor to an unsustainable future. They would argue that the local inventory of resources, including land, water, air quality, housing and food supply can’t accommodate that many more people without degrading the quality of life that currently exists.
If nothing else, Sustainable Thurston will provide a public forum to air out a wide range of questions and answers, challenges and opportunities about how Thurston County will grow over the next 30 years.
It’s the most far-reaching, comprehensive attempt to shape the community’s growth since the state Growth Management Act was approved in 1990.
Sustainable Thurston has already engaged 180 people in developing 12 white papers that attempt to describe the current condition and future challenges in such areas as housing, food and water supplies, economic growth, public health and safety, transportation and others. Here are some of the findings:
• Thurston County will need another 80,000 housing units by 2040 to add to the existing inventory of 108,000 housing units. A shortage of senior housing and low-income housing looms as the baby boomer population enters retirement years. The population of those 70 and older is expected to grow by about 40,000 in Thurston County over the next 30 years. And low-income housing is not keeping pace with the 130 percent increase in low-income households over the past 20 years.
• The greatest potential for job growth in Thurston County is in the health care business sector.
• Reclaimed water will be a more important part of the region’s water budget in the decades ahead.
But there are still a number of unanswered questions about how clean highly treated wastewater needs to be to avoid degrading receiving waters and to secure public acceptance for its use.
• Thurston County residents generally fare well against statewide trends in public health, but there is room for improvement. For instance, about 19 percent of the county residents 18 and older smoke cigarettes, compared with 15 percent statewide.
In late March or early April, Sustainable Thurston will host a series of public forums all across the county to share their findings and seek comments on how citizens here define a sustainable future.
Next year, Sustainable Thurston hopes to come up with a shared vision for growth, an action plan to achieve the vision and performance measures to gauge how well the community is meeting its goals.
“We’re not starting from scratch,” Olympia Mayor Steve Buxbaum said. “We’re building a common vocabulary that we can then turn into an action plan.”
For Sustainable Thurston to work, there will need to be widespread participation in the process and community consensus — both daunting tasks.
The public is encouraged to get involved and take an active role in shaping the community’s future. To learn more about Sustainable Thurston, go to sustainablethurston.org.