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What’s Next for Planning in Washington?


November 6, 2015 by Jill Sterrett
Category: Comprehensive Planning-Growth Management , Planning Advisor

What’s Next for Planning in Washington?

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the 1990 Growth Management Act in Washington. Joe Tovar’s excellent article from December 2014 reflected on the problems GMA was designed to solve, whether the Act has been effective, and how it should change to address new planning issues. With this article, let’s look ahead to see: What’s Next? What are the emerging issues that urban planning can address?

Cities and counties all across Washington are in the process of updating their comprehensive plans, with deadlines ranging from 2015 to 2018, depending on their location in the state (see map). While the requirements of GMA for planning are substantially the same as those adopted in 1990, the issues that planners need to address have changed. The top 5 of these emerging issues are highlighted below.

Climate Change

First among these issues is climate change. In a 2013 survey, APA members in our state identified climate change as the primary challenge we face. In 2008, the state legislature adopted targets for greenhouse gas reduction, but there is no mechanism to connect these targets to land use and transportation planning.  Greenhouse gas reduction is mitigation planning, for climate change – reducing the causes. Cities can be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by creating walkable places, encouraging bicycle use, increasing density near transit stations, and planning for community supported solar energy use.

We also need to look at adaptation planning for climate change – how to prepare our communities to deal with hazards and impacts of climate change. Some 30 towns and coastal communities along Puget Sound and the Washington coast will be affected by increased storm surges and rising sea levels of up to 56 inches in some areas by 2040 (and more thereafter!). Increased spring rains may contribute to landslides, such as those shown in Oso in March 2014. Eastern Washington communities are likely to see increased wildfires, more frequent drought, high heat periods, increased vector-born diseases, and changes in agricultural productivity – worsening from the conditions we saw in 2015. Planning for a future where the baseline is continuing to change requires new approaches to long range planning. Cities can undertake a vulnerability assessment to determine which of these hazards are likely in their community and can plan for emergency measures, changes in land use, and relocations of infrastructure to avoid the worst of the impacts.

Aging Infrastructure

Another major issue is planning and funding upgraded major infrastructure. Not only is our infrastructure aging and upkeep long neglected, but also our demands on infrastructure are expanding with increases in population. And the nature of infrastructure is changing with new systems, such as solar and wind energy, and technology advances that allow more automated and integrated systems. This is a national issue, as well as a state and local one. But it will require action at all levels to be effective. Funding the massive changes needed to update aging infrastructure is a statewide and national issue, but we need political pressure to spur action.

Connection between Planning and Public Health

A third issue is the increasing recognition of the connection between planning and public health and between planning and food supplies. We can plan cities that encourage walking, biking, and active living that will reduce the obesity epidemic that contribute to chronic disease and increase public health. Public Health officials throughout the state are interested in collaborating on this issue and are developing tools to help. At the same time, we need access to healthy foods for all citizens to support this healthy lifestyle. 

Communities can begin by identifying “food deserts” where full service grocery stores and farmers markets are absent and local residents must travel to find healthy foods or resort to fast food meals. Planners are banding together with food producers, distribution centers, and commercial outlets to encourage more farm-to-table options and locally grown foods. Cities that develop local food policies can coordinate and help manage a process that has been largely left to the private market in the past.

Social Equity and Social Capital

A fourth issue is the influence of planning on social equity and social capital. In our cities, where you live affects your opportunities, such as access to education, jobs, and social services. Increasingly we are recognizing that planning can alter the existing imbalances and tip the scale toward equitable and just opportunities for all. By designing places for people to gather and interact and by getting citizens involved in the plans we prepare, planners also can build social capital – that sense of caring and commitment to one’s own community and how it is governed. Getting citizens of all social classes and ages in local government provides a basis for more equitable decisions on local issues.

Regional Collaboration

A fifth issue is the importance of regional collaboration. Many of the challenges we face do not reflect the jurisdictional boundaries of our cities and counties. Watershed planning, climate change, regional open space, and transit services are a few of the many examples. Increasingly, small communities are banding together with neighboring communities to address common problems or share resources. Also, larger cities participate in regional councils to share resources and achieve a common vision. With GMA’s requirements for consistency between plans, the door is open for regional collaboration to address a wide variety of common problems. 

The APA Washington Chapter is developing a legislative agenda to clarify our position on what legislative actions are needed for planning in our state to address these 21st century challenges. We are also continuing to coordinate with other groups, such as the Association of Washington Cities, the Washington State Association of Counties, PAW, Futurewise, AIA, ASLA and others.

The APA Washington Chapter is also continuing to explore these issues and develop tools for planners in our state. Check out the sources listed below for more information.

Further Information

These sources are available for more information:

  • The APA Washington Chapter is organizing a GMA 25th Anniversary conference this year which will take a deeper look at the accomplishments and future of the Washington Growth Management Act. The conference will be held on November 13th in Tacoma.  Registration is now open.
  • The past, present and future of planning in Oregon and Washington is the subject of a new book from Planners Press, which I helped edit, called Planning the Pacific Northwest. Portions of the information for this article was drawn from Section 3 of this book. (Thanks to the authors of those chapters for making this possible!) You can order Planning the Pacific Northwest from Planners Press or Amazon.
  • The APA Washington Chapter has developed a website for planners and city officials to provide toolkits including resource guides, discussion papers, and guidelines. This “Ten Big Ideas” website addresses many of the topics mentioned in this paper: climate change, ecosystems, social equity, health, food & agriculture, social capital, regional governance, local government capacity, economic development, and infrastructure. Portions of the information for this article was drawn from the Ten Big Ideas website.

Photo courtesy of Peter Stevens.

About Jill Sterrett

Jill Sterrett writes for MRSC as a Planning Advisor.

Jill Sterrett has more than 30 years of experience as a planner and consultant to federal agencies, utility companies, and local governments in Washington State, Oregon, and California. Jill's areas of expertise include planning for climate change, comprehensive plans, historic preservation, strategic planning, and environmental planning. Jill is currently teaching as an affiliate instructor at the University of Washington in the Department of Urban Design and Planning, where she teaches a graduate course in Climate Change and Infrastructure.

The views expressed in Advisor columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.

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