The Evolving Urban Area: Seattle


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While having lunch at Seattle’s Space Needle, the casual observer might imagine that one of the densest urban areas in the country lies below. Immediately south of the Space Needle is one of the country’s main city centers. In 2000, downtown Seattle had the seventh largest employment base of the country and was one of the densest. Its impressive and tight buildings bear witness to a past steeped in history. For over 60 years, between 1914 and 1990, downtown Seattle had the tallest building on the West Coast, Smith Tower, and was the fourth tallest building in the world when it was built. He held the title for 55 years, from 1914 to 1969, when another Seattle building briefly took the title (1001 4th Avenue). Later (1985), Seattle’s Colombia Center became the first building on the West Coast to exceed 75 stories, but by 1990 had been adopted by the American Bank Tower in Los Angeles (see Elliot Bay photograph and note 1).

However, appearances can be deceptive. In 2000, Seattle ranked last in urban population density of the 11 urban areas of the 13 western states with more than one million people (just behind Portland, which ranked second to last). The density of the Seattle urban area was about 60 percent less than that of Los Angeles, the densest urban area in the United States. Even the urban areas of Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, famous for their vast expanse, were denser than Seattle. Updated urban density data from the 2010 census will not be available for at least a year.

Seattle’s historic Central Municipality is also not particularly dense. With a population density of 7,200 per square mile, the city of Seattle is considerably less dense than several Los Angeles suburbs such as Santa Ana (12,000) and Garden Grove (9,500). Even so, the city of Seattle is almost two-thirds Following dense than the city of Portland (4,400), despite the latter’s demands for densification.

The 2010 census: The 2010 census shows a continued dispersion of the population in the Seattle metropolitan area (Figure 1). The Seattle metropolitan area, officially the Seattle Combined Statistical Area (Note 2) is made up of the central Seattle metropolitan area (King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties) and five exurban statistical areas, Bremerton (Kitsap County), Olympia (Thurston County), Mount Vernon (Skagit County), Oak Harbor (Island County) and Shelton (Mason County).

Seattle Combined Statistical Area: Population 2000-2010
Zoned 2000 2010 Switch % Share of growth Share of population
City of Seattle 563,374 608,660 45,286 8.0% 9.2% 14.5%
Balance: King County 1,173,660 1,322,589 148,929 12.7% 30.3% 31.5%
Pierce and Snohomish counties 1,306,844 1 508 560 201 716 15.4% 41.0% 35.9%
Metro area outside of Seattle 2,480,504 2,831,149 350 645 14.1% 71.2% 67.4%
Metropolitan area 3,043,878 3,439,809 395,931 13.0% 80.4% 81.9%
Exurban metropolitan areas 663 260 759,503 96,243 14.5% 19.6% 18.1%
Combined statistical area 3,707,138 4 199 312 492 174 13.3% 100.0% 100.0%
Calculated from US Census data

City of Seattle (Historic Central Municipality): Overall, Seattle’s historic downtown area grew 8.0%, from 564,000 to 609,000 between 2000 and 2010, which was one of the healthiest increases among major cities. Adding 45,000, the city still only accounted for 9.2% of the population growth of the Seattle metro area. The city of Seattle now represents less than 15% of the population of the metropolitan area, up from 36% in 1950 (same geographic area). In 1950, the city of Seattle had almost two-thirds of King County’s population. In 2010, the city of Seattle accounted for less than a third of King County’s population, despite annexations. As the city continued to shrink its share of the metro area’s population, the impressive downtown area also lost its dominance and by 2009 had fallen to 8 percent of metro area employment.

Inner suburbs: Areas outside of the city of Seattle accounted for over 90% of the metro area’s growth. The inner suburbs, which includes residential development south, north and east of Seattle in King County, grew more than 50% faster than the city of Seattle, at 12.7% between 2000 and 2010. The inner suburbs grew from 1,170,000 to 1,320,000, adding nearly 150,000 new residents, more than three times the city of Seattle’s increase. King County, outside of Seattle, also captured 30% of the metro area’s growth and now has 32% of the metro area’s population. The eastern suburb of King County is home to one of the nation’s largest, most diverse and prosperous outlying towns, Bellevue, as well as the Microsoft campus in neighboring Redmond.

Outer suburb: The outer suburbs, which include Pierce County (Tacoma is the county seat) and Snohomish County, grew 15.4%, nearly double the growth rate of the city of Seattle. The outer suburbs grew from 1.3 million to 1.5 million, adding 200,000 new residents, more than four times the city of Seattle’s increase. Pierce and Snohomish counties captured 41 percent of the metro area’s growth and now represent 36 percent of the metro area’s population.

Peri-urban areas: Peri-urban statistical areas have grown almost as rapidly as the outlying suburbs. Between 2000 and 2010, peri-urban areas increased their population by 14.5%. The exurban statistical areas accounted for 20% of the population growth of the metropolitan region. These more remote areas have grown from 660,000 to 760,000 people, adding nearly 100,000 new residents. This is more than double the increase in the population of the city of Seattle. About 18 percent of the metro area’s population lives in statistical exurban areas, a larger number than that residing in the city of Seattle.

The dispersion continues: Seattle’s dispersion, like that of metropolitan areas across the country and around the world, has been going on for decades. The city of Seattle has only accounted for 5% of the metro area’s population since 1950 (Figure 2), with suburbs and suburbs accounting for the vast majority of the increase of nearly 3,000,000.

Despite the pre-census media and academic noise that metropolitan areas were no longer dispersing, the census revealed an entirely different and even embarrassing truth. This does not mean that residents of the entire metropolitan area, suburbs and city centers, should not be proud of an attractive urban territory in an incomparable natural setting. Yet the vast majority of the region’s population and employment growth takes place outside the core. Seattle follows the national and international model towards an ever greater dispersion.

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Note 1: Downtown Seattle is on a hill, and newer buildings are usually on higher ground than Smith Tower, making the height difference larger.

Note 2: “Combined statistical regions” were previously “consolidated metropolitan statistical regions”.

Top photo: Downtown Seattle from the Space Needle (by author)

Wendell Cox is visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers in Paris and author of “War on Dreams: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens Quality of Life

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