Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
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.
"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."
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.
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 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.