Seattle's Urban Villages strategy has been working, especially in the dense downtown area. Flickr/terasia

The city's urban villages strategy is working—in some parts more than others.

In 1992, then-Mayor Norm Rice announced a strategy to reduce urban sprawl in Seattle. The idea was to channel future growth into so-called "urban villages": walkable, affordable sections of the city that contained residential, commercial, and recreational structures. Now, 20 years after that plan's implementation in 1994, a new report says that it has been successful.

Well, mostly.

"The goal of directing the growth to the villages—spot on," says Peter Steinbrueck, the former Seattle city council member whose firm was commissioned to conduct the research. "What it didn’t accomplish was equitable distribution."

As a part of the urban village growth strategy, Seattle was divided into residential urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban centers based on density (from low to high). (Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project)

Steinbrueck's firm analyzed neighborhood-level city-wide data and scored 10 of the 30 urban villages on 22 indicators. It found that between 1994 and 2014, 75 percent of the housing growth in the city occurred in the 30 urban villages, which means that the city achieved its biggest goal. Transit networks vastly improved, and eight of the 10 villages saw a significant rise in people taking public transport on weekdays. The villages hosted 80 percent of new jobs. Tree cover also increased.

But while urban villages seem to have exceeded their growth targets, others fell short of neighborhood targets, says Steinbrueck. Neighborhoods like North Beacon Hill and Westwood-Highland Park—areas with a majority of non-white residents—saw very small increases in population. Other areas, like Lake City, saw disproportionate growth (85 percent) in residents.

Some of Seattle's urban villages experienced more growth than others. (Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project)

Overall job growth in the urban villages also missed its goals—especially in the post-recession period. The 56,594 new jobs created in these areas only met 38 percent of the 20-year target, and most of these were clustered around the dense downtown spots. More than half the people who worked in the city (62 percent) still commuted from outside it.

The 56,594 new jobs created in urban villages only met 38 percent of the 20-year target. (Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project)

The analysis revealed that some of the villages still suffered from high rates of poverty and everything that comes with it—unemployment, poor public health, and low levels of education. At the same time, these areas weren't all financially neglected. For example, the Rainier Beach area was three times as poor as the West Seattle Junction area, but it saw one of the highest public investments in infrastructure between 2005 and 2010 relative to other urban villages.

Steinbrueck hopes the findings lead to more insight about the urban growth program so both policymakers and residents know which places deserve more attention and whether the money allocated is making a difference.

"The neighborhood-level data can serve to inform more of an acupuncture approach," he says.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo of shoppers in the central textile market of downtown Jakarta.
    Design

    How Cities Design Themselves

    Urban planner Alain Bertaud’s new book, Order Without Design, argues that cities are really shaped by market forces, not visionaries.

  2. Young students walking towards a  modern wood building surrounded by snow and trees
    Environment

    Norway’s Energy-Positive Building Spree Is Here

    Oslo’s Powerhouse collective wants buildings that make better cities in the face of climate change.

  3. A pupil works on a cardboard architectural model at a Hong Kong primary school.
    Design

    The Case for Architecture Classes in Schools

    Through the organization Architecture for Children, Hong Kong architect Vicky Chan has taught urban design and planning to thousands of kids. Here’s why.

  4. The Metropolitan Opera House in New York
    Equity

    How Urban Core Amenities Drive Gentrification and Increase Inequality

    A new study finds that as the rich move back to superstar cities' urban cores to gain access to unique amenities they drive low-income people out.

  5. A photo of a man sitting on a bench in East Baltimore.
    Equity

    Why Is It Legal for Landlords to Refuse Section 8 Renters?

    San Jose and Baltimore are considering bills to prevent landlords from rejecting tenants based on whether they are receiving federal housing aid. Why is that necessary?