Urban lifestyles help to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem
The state of Washington estimates that the Puget Sound area will grow by more than 1.5 million residents within the next two decades. That is expected to have profound effects on the environment as more and more people move to undeveloped areas. The race is on to protect this critical rural habitat, but planners say what happens in the cities may be just as important.
If you want to protect forests, maintain water quality and restore salmon runs, then you should focus on the cities and urban landscapes of Puget Sound, officials say.
This counterintuitive approach is a key element of a proposed state and federal plan to reduce the rate of new development taking over ecologically important areas. It is known as the “Land Development and Land Cover Implementation Strategy,” and it addresses one of the central questions for Puget Sound recovery: Where do we put the millions of people who are now flocking to the region?
Over the past 150 years, Puget Sound has lost more than two-thirds of its old-growth forests, more than 90 percent of its native prairies and nearly 80 percent of its tidal marshes, according to figures from the state's Puget Sound Partnership. Each acre converted from natural landscape to housing and commercial development tends to degrade water quality, increase the risk of flooding and damage fish and wildlife habitats, despite modern land-use regulations designed to minimize damage.
But protecting the remaining high-quality habitat is just half of the strategy, says Doug Peters, watershed planner with the Washington State Department of Commerce whose agency helped lead the early planning efforts.
The other half, he said, involves finding less sensitive places where people can live and work — places where people desire to move. That may be easier said than done.
“I think the central battle will be in the urban areas,” Peters said, noting that higher-density residential development is needed to protect intact habitat elsewhere. Innovative developers working with state and local governments may be able to create unique urban settings where people would want to live.
The new strategy is part of a larger effort funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize and measure Puget Sound recovery. [Read more about this process in our ongoing series.] One of its many goals is to slow the rate of development in areas where construction of new houses, roads and utilities is causing the greatest disruption of natural functions.
The strategy's first step was to identify areas that are both ecologically important and under high pressure for conversion to development. An interdisciplinary team of state and federal agencies, NGOs and tribes was brought together to assign ecological values using existing information about hydrology, habitat and biodiversity. Development pressure was scored using factors such as ownership, zoning and long-term legal constraints on the use of property.
After the analysis was completed, some 1.1 million acres, or 12 percent of the entire Puget Sound land area, was assigned the status of “ecologically important lands under high pressure for development.” Such lands were judged to be the highest-priority for reducing conversion from undeveloped to developed status.
In addition to protecting forests, the state promotes a policy of maintaining agricultural lands. These lands support the regional economy, produce locally grown food and can also protect natural habitat.
One of the approved “targets” for addressing development pressures is to reduce the conversion rate for these priority lands to less than 0.15 percent over a five-year period. In other words, no more than 3/20 of 1 percent of these lands, measured by area, should be developed in any five-year period.
When this target was approved in 2011 by the Puget Sound Partnership, the rate of conversion was 0.28 percent for the five-year period from 2001-2006. Officials were hoping the rate of conversion would slow down. But when they reviewed progress in 2013, they found an alarming increase in the conversion rate — reaching 0.36 percent for the 2006-2011 period. Conversions, as detected by satellite imagery, were taking place more than twice as fast as the target required.
Of the total acreage developed from 2006 to 2011, 31 percent was on lands deemed to be of high ecological importance, while the remaining 68 percent was on lands of low ecological importance according to the resulting draft report.
Reasons for the high rate of conversion are still under review, but the report points out that three of the 12 Puget Sound counties accounted for just over half of the total conversion of these priority lands, based on limited data available.
In Mason County, the conversion rate was 0.37 percent among its ecologically important lands under pressure for development, while Pierce County was at 0.28 percent and Skagit at 0.26 percent.
Mason County is generally rural with extensive ecologically important lands but few cities or designated urban growth areas to absorb the population, Peters said. Many people move to Mason County to get away from urban living, he said, and that results in a greater conversion of lands deemed ecologically important.
"If you are looking for rural land on which to live, you probably don't care about urban services very much,” he noted.
King County, at the other extreme, absorbed more population since 2010 than all the other Puget Sound counties combined. But the lowlands in King County have been so highly developed that most of the county’s ecologically important lands — except for Vashon and Maury islands — are found in the Cascade Mountains.
As the regional population grows, more people are willing to purchase 5, 10, or 20-acre home sites, Peters said. The economic incentives are often backward to the goal of protecting sensitive lands, since land costs are generally cheaper away from urban areas.
For developers, construction in urban communities involves infilling among existing buildings or else redevelopment that requires removal as well as new construction. Costs for upgrading stormwater, sewers and utilities are often higher than building anew in outlying areas.
Market forces tend to remove commercial forests and farmland — so-called working lands — from production, although the state's 1990 Growth Management Act has slowed the rate of conversion by requiring counties to accommodate growth in designated urban growth areas while zoning some rural lands for long-term commercial uses.
Many people prefer to live on larger properties in less-dense communities because of perceptions about greater safety, privacy and room for family activities, according to the report. In choosing a place to live, people may overlook the downside of rural living — such as higher transportation costs and longer travel time for getting to jobs, shopping and community activities.
...recent studies suggest a growing desire among millennials for compact, walkable communities.
On the other hand, recent studies suggest a growing desire among millennials for compact, walkable communities, the report says.
Colin Hume, a watershed ecologist for the Washington Department of Ecology, said understanding market forces and people's aspirations for a specific way of life are key factors in changing the trends.
“How do we incentivize and help people recognize that there is a lifestyle within urban areas that is attractive?” he asked. “Will the millennials have the same values as older generations?”
Government policies along with actions by developers can encourage construction in urban areas, while other policies and actions can discourage growth in rural areas, said Hume, who worked on the Implementation Strategy.
Ultimately, however, people who have purchased rural property have a right to develop it within applicable legal constraints, he said. That's why it is critical for rural landowners to have an understanding of ecological processes as they go about making choices regarding the future of their lands.
As the report states, “In order to make progress toward preserving working lands and their ecological function, the economic, political, and social factors underlying the trend toward subdivision and conversion to development will need to be addressed.”
Strategies for change
State and federal strategies in a nutshell:
The report identifies many strategies that could help to shift development patterns, but the authors urge land-use officials to be on the lookout for unintended consequences — such as higher housing costs that result from policy changes. To avoid such consequences, strategies can be adjusted as needed to obtain the desired outcomes — a process called adaptive management.
The draft report is scheduled to undergo additional review by representatives of forestry, agriculture and development interests before it is completed, according to Libby Gier of the Washington Department of Natural Resources, who is now coordinating the effort.
“The most achievable path forward is through public-private partnerships,” Peters said. “It takes private-sector investment to build things that government can't build.
“I see our historical development patterns as causing most of our problems,” he said, pointing out that the major cities were built on the region's most sensitive estuaries with railroad tracks altering the shoreline.
It is not too late to make changes that could leave a positive effect on the ecosystem 100 years from now, Peters said. The costs of protecting ecologically important lands are within reach. But the challenges will only increase as the population continues to grow and future “climate refugees” move into the region to escape harsher climate conditions elsewhere.
“If ever there was a time for concern,” Peters said, “that time is now.”