With an economy that continues to outperform the rest of the country, Washington appears to be prospering. According to the latest report by the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council (ERFC), the state unemployment rate is 4.6 percent, the lowest since October 2018’s 4.4 percent. In three months, the nonseasonal workforce increased by 20,800, while state revenue continues to come above forecasts; between June 11 and Sept. 10 the state received $160 million more than expected.
However, Strong Towns President and Founder Charles Marohn warns that growth shouldn’t be confused with prosperity. Marohn recently spoke at an annual conference for the Washington Planning Directors.
During a Sept. 30 video interview with Ballotpedia discussing his new book Strong Towns, Marohn said: “every city that I’ve ever interacted with in Washington state…is financially insolvent, has more long-term liabilities than they have tax capacity,” he said. “Oftentimes today we look at places that are growing and we say ‘Well that place is successful.’ We equate growth with success, and for good reason. (But) when we look into the financials of that, that correlation breaks down.”
Marohn’s central argument is that after World War 2, U.S. cities adopted a new type of economic development that placed growth in the outskirts of town, rather than expanding within existing infrastructure. As a result, local governments financially struggle even as they experience population and economic growth, because the long-term cost to build and maintain that infrastructure is greater than the tax revenue generated.
If that’s the case, it’s a dilemma Washington already faces and won’t go away soon. With a state population increase of 1.7 million since 2000 (from 5.8 million to 7.5 million), the central Puget Sound region alone is expected to gain another 1.8 million residents by 2050. Since 2010, state revenue has increased from $15.1 billion to almost $24 billion in the most recent fiscal year.
At the same time, the growth has brought with it challenges regarding housing affordability – as well as traffic congestion in the Seattle metro that is now among the worst in the nation. At a state level, some lawmakers have sought to reform the state Growth Management Act (GMA) passed in the 1990s and intended to cluster growth in urban areas. However, a common criticism of the law is that it places too many restrictions on local planning.
While Marohn said Washington “cities all need to thicken up without adding any more liabilities” if they’re to absorb further growth, he added that cities need more flexibility than what states typically allow. “Our state governments have become the ultimate helicopter parents. At the end of the day, if we want our cities to be strong, they need to be able to adapt, to change, to evolve. Don’t allow the growth to bail you out from asking more difficult questions.”
For local planners searching for inspiration, Marohn points to the city of Memphis’ new comprehensive plan that reemphasizes existing communities.
He said it’s the one city “where they said ‘this works’ and did stuff we recommended they do. They really benefited from a Strong Towns approach.”