This editorial was published by the Columbian of Vancouver, Wash.
Washington’s population is increasing. You probably knew that.
With a robust economy and a dynamic culture and a slew of natural amenities, our state is attracting newcomers from all over. The latest numbers, released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau, suggest that Washington’s population has topped 7.5 million. It wasn’t all that long ago — 1990, in fact — that fewer than 5 million people lived in the state. Washington ranked 18th in population when Nirvana hit the big time; now we are 13th.
We’re pretty sure the borders haven’t changed since then, so it is safe to say that density has increased. Because of that, it is tempting to lament development and to long for the days when we could cross the Interstate 5 Bridge without requiring bananas and trail mix for stamina.
But it is more productive to embrace the increased population (well, not literally; that would be a lot of hugs) and recognize its benefits while preparing for the future. States in the western U.S. are growing faster than the rest of the country because they are desirable places to live — and that is preferable to the alternative of being undesirable.
Among the fascinating aspects of the latest population report is that urban and suburban areas remain the fastest growing in the state. The increases are concentrated in the metropolitan counties of Clark, King, Pierce, Snohomish and Spokane, belying frequently expressed concerns that too many people are paving over the state’s cherished rural areas.
Washington’s Growth Management Act has been essential for limiting sprawl and allowing for smart growth of urban areas. Adopted in 1990, the law maintains local control of growth boundaries under guidelines established and managed by the state, rather than centralized planning handed down by overlords in Olympia.
The process has been effective, yet the Growth Management Act should be revisited. As a 2016 guest opinion in The Seattle Times stated: “Ultimately, there is a point where a growth plan must be aligned with market realities. Rigid adherence to growth targets at a time when we are experiencing a dearth in land supply and far-greater-than-expected population growth is simply irresponsible.”
In larger counties, demand has outpaced supply, leading to stressed housing markets and resulting in sharp price increases. In addition to many residents being priced out of the market and having to move elsewhere, the situation has contributed to a growing homelessness crisis in urban areas.
That stress also impacts smaller cities outside the urban core, with many residents choosing to escape the bustle of the cities or seek more affordable housing.
Take Ridgefield, for example. According to the new population estimates, Ridgefield once again is the fastest-growing city in the state, with population increasing 15 percent over the past year. In February, the Columbian reported: “In the past two years, Ridgefield has added 8 miles of new roads, 16 miles of new sidewalk and 4.4 miles of new water lines.” That shows no sign of slowing; local school officials predict another 50 percent increase in enrollment by 2023.
Ridgefield is an extreme example, but it represents the growth management questions that are being pondered throughout the state. Effectively finding the answers will be essential to maintaining Washington’s desirability and making it attractive for future generations of newcomers.
Some residents might decry the prospect of even more people arriving in the state. But that prospect is preferable to having people scrambling to leave.