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Seattle’s Urban Villages Strategy Yields Mixed Results For Sustainable Growth

It’s been 20 years since Seattle adopted a growth management strategy based on so-called “urban villages.”

Those are neighborhoods targeted for high density to help reduce urban sprawl. A new report gives the city a mixed review. Among the critiques: people aren’t living close enough to where they work.

One way to see how Seattle’s growth management has played out over the two decades is by taking a stroll through the heart of Ballard. It’s one of the largest of 10 neighborhoods examined in the new study.

“I think it really is the poster child for the urban villages strategy,” said former Seattle City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, who was hired by Seattle’s mayor to write the report.

“Ballard grew by about 3,000 households over the past 20 years,” Steinbrueck said.

That’s about a quarter of the entire population in the neighborhood now. So, like most of the city, it's growing fast and becoming more densely populated. And Steinbrueck says about 75 percent of the growth has in fact ended up within the boundaries of designated urban villages like Ballard.  

“The place has been revitalized in a big way,” Steinbrueck said. 

Standing on the corner of 15th and Market Street, Steinbrueck points to several large new apartment blocks that loom above a mix of older architectural styles. There are plenty of local shops that have remained, along with bigger chain brands in the retail spaces at street level. He says it's not all good; he knows some people don't like the formulaic style of many of the buildings that have gone up recently. But they are absorbing a lot of density, as planned.

“And one of the things that I particularly like about Ballard is it has a very high pedestrian density. You know, you see people on the street as we do right now, all hours of the day, the evening. It’s a friendly, popular place to be.”  

Developers have added tree plantings, wider sidewalks, more public walkways and public art. And everything you need is available on foot, or a short bus ride away.

“That’s one of the foundational principles of the urban village strategy is that we can make transit work better — we’re seeing a bus go by right now — if we can concentrate jobs and housing in the urban villages and centers," he said.

Steinbrueck’s report is nearly 200 pages long and looks at changes in 22 different indicators in these urban villages – everything from crime rates and birth weight of infants to tree canopy. It shows the city’s sustainability is increasing in many ways. Transit use has mostly gone up, for example, while per capita water and energy consumption have gone down.   

But Steinbrueck says while the city predicted almost exactly the number of new homes its urban villages would absorb, it overestimated the number of jobs nearby.  

“So what you’re seeing is that people are choosing to live in Seattle, putting up with the traffic and the commute times, and working on the Eastside," he said.

Salaries and wages tend to be higher there, he says.   

According to U.S. Census figures cited in the report, only 38 percent of Seattle’s population live and work in the city. And twice that number, 62 percent (281,161), work in Seattle but live outside the city.

Along with supporting more growth in transit use, Steinbrueck says the city needs to reassess its job growth strategy and create more job centers closer to where people live.  

His recommendations are meant to help the city craft its growth management strategy for the next 20 years.

Also on his wish list are more consistent data-collection methods, to enable better use of big data capabilities as the city moves forward with targeted investments to address things like poverty, crime and housing affordability.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to