Civic Indicators Highlight Seattle’s Progress, Challenges

Roosevelt Crane

Redevelopment around a future light rail station looms in the Roosevelt urban village. Photo by the author.

Correction: The SSNAP report has been updated to correct statistics on where Seattle residents work. 38.2 percent of Seattle’s employed residents work outside of the city, not 62 percent.

A new report by consulting firm Steinbrueck Urban Strategies, headed up by former City Council member Peter Steinbrueck, details the changes Seattle’s urban villages have experienced over the past 20 years. This information will be used by planners to prepare for the next two decades with the Seattle 2035 comprehensive plan update, though the study itself has some issues. This post is lengthy, so readers are encouraged to scroll to the topics that interest them.

The Seattle Sustainable Neighborhoods Assessment Project (SSNAP) assesses the city’s original 1994 comprehensive plan and “urban village” strategy, which called for focusing growth in existing commercial centers. SSNAP found that, in terms of population and employment growth, the urban village concept has been successful. About 75 percent of new households and jobs in the last 20 years have been located in hubs like downtown, Ballard, and Beacon Hill. On the flip side, public investment has not been equitable across the city’s 32 villages. And many of them are not achieving goals in housing affordability and access to education. The project aims to form lessons from the past and make recommendations for the city’s future.

Many cities are now using indicators, which are metrics that measure various aspects of civic life. Indicators are most often used as annual benchmarks to check progress towards social, environmental, and economic goals. Sustainable Seattle was the first to do so at an urban level in the early 1990s. SSNAP developed 22 such indicators in four categories: resource use and conservation; healthy communities; open space and development; and shared prosperity and opportunity.

Seattle DPD - SSNAP Report 2014

Seattle’s urban villages. (City of Seattle, Steinbrueck Urban Strategies)

The authors selected 10 urban villages for analysis based on geographic distribution and diverse demographic characteristics. The ten selected are, from north to south: Lake City; Licton Springs; Ballard; University District; Eastlake; Downtown; Beacon Hill; West Seattle Junction; Highland Park; and Rainier Beach. Much of the report’s data was not divisible at the urban village level, or was not available at all for certain neighborhoods. This makes clear from the get-go that the study’s methodology has limitations.

Citywide, Seattle faces the challenge of planning for 120,000 new residents in 60,000 new households over the next 20 years. The city’s goal is to balance this with 1.8 new jobs per household, and with the current balance at 1.6 this means over 180,000 new jobs are needed in same time period. Along with attracting employers, the City will need to update zoning rules to enable sufficient capacity in urban villages, which make up only a small portion of the city’s land. According to SSNAP, 69 percent of the city’s developable land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes, which means the core neighborhoods are going to become far denser than they already are. Their boundaries may also need to be expanded, spilling larger buildings into quieter neighborhoods to the delight of urbanists and the dismay of homeowners.

Another key point is that only 61.8 percent of employed Seattle residents work in the city itself. 38.2 percent commute outside of the city for employment. In an email, Steinbruck told me, “This is an important measure of regional growth management, which seeks to reduce travel trip [sic] by linking residents more closely to employment centers.” The Puget Sound Regional Council has not established any goal related to this fact in the Vision 2040 plan, which is preparing for a regional population of five million. The situation also highlights the immense appeal of living in the central city, the huge amount of employment growth in the suburbs, and the pressing need for building up multi-modal transportation systems that accommodate bi-directional commuting patterns.

Resource use and conservation

The six indicators in this category looked at how efficiently the city is using its resources, namely in the realms of traffic, utilities, and historic buildings. This is representative of environmental stewardship.

  • Transit ridership: Seattle transit ridership continues to grow, with over 300,000 daily rides on the Metro bus system within city limits. From 2004 to 2014, ridership per person per acre increased in all of the study areas except Eastlake. This indicator does not include data from Sound Transit or other agencies.
  • Traffic counts: Though traffic volumes have decreased over the past decade, of the ten study areas the U-District had the highest traffic volumes compared to its capacity. While the data didn’t include occupancy or vehicle types, an overall decrease in volumes suggest opportunities to reconfigure arterial streets with protected bike lanes and bus-only lanes.
  • Residential energy use: Energy use per person has been steadily declining, dropping 17 percent from 4,777 kWh in 1994 to 3,948 kWh in 2010. While energy efficient appliances help, the project credits Seattle City Light’s conservation programs and environmentally minded residents. One-third of downtown’s commercial properties are LEED certified. Data was not available at the urban village level.
  • Residential water use: Since 2004 water use per capital declined in all of the urban villages, except for a slight uptick in the U-District, which also has the lowest consumption on the order of 1,500 cubic feet per year.  Not surprisingly, neighborhoods with lots of single family homes like West Seattle Junction have higher water use per capita, edging towards 3,000 cubic feet per year.
  • Residential landfill waste: Also trending downward, this measure declined an impressive 30 percent from 1990 to 2010 to 0.19 tons (380 pounds) of solid waste per capita. While data is not available for urban villages specifically, the citywide recycling rate as of 2013 is 56.2 percent. The previous comprehensive plan set a goal for 69 percent by 2020, which will probably be met.
  • Historic preservation: This simple measure only reported that the city has 346 official historic landmarks, with 180 of those added since 1994. While it is notable that downtown has the largest share, this indicator would be more useful if it provided any indication of the importance of historic landmarks or comparing preservation and demolition over time.

Healthy communities

Indicators in this category reflect general well-being of neighborhoods, including safety and health.

  • Crime related 911 calls: While not a perfect representation of actual crime statistics, this measure showed a decline in 911 calls to report violent, vice, and property crimes in all ten urban villages between 1998 and 2013. Downtown had the highest volumes in both years, and also the biggest drop. Emergency calls may be linked to residential stability and social cohesion in neighborhoods.
  • Access to arts and culture: This measure counted theaters, galleries, arts offices, rehearsal rooms, libraries, music clubs, museums, and cinemas in each of the urban villages being studied, and expressed access to them as a ratio to the size of the village. Downtown scores best, with one cultural center for every five acres. The residential villages, such as Eastlake and Westwood, scored lowest. The authors acknowledge that while such amenities can enhance community spirit, they may also be indicative of gentrification and rising property values.
  • Farmer’s markets: Of the ten villages studied, five have active farmer’s markets. Downtown alone has three, including two offshoots of Pike Place at City Hall and in Pioneer Square. Such markets provide access to local food and community cohesion. This measure is difficult to compare urban villages with, though there is a clear opportunity to expand the markets to neighborhoods without them.
  • Community gardens: This indicator has more useful data for analysis, as the city’s Department of Neighborhoods runs a formal “p-patch” network of community gardens citywide. The program is so popular that the wait lists for plots average two years long. The authors indicate that an ideal ratio is one garden per 2,500 households. Three of the studied villages have no community gardens, while the U-District has the most at three. Megan Horst, a UW planning student, has done an inventory showing there are 45 unused city-owned parcels, 122 school properties, and 129 parks that are suitable for urban agriculture.
  • Low birth weights: Defined as less than 5.5 pounds, the prevalence of low birth weights is a proxy for community health and nutrition. Downtown and Rainier Beach had the highest rates, over 8 percent during the 2000-2012 study period. But rates in the other eight villages varied widely. Efforts to address other public health problems, such as drug addiction or food deserts, could improve infant health.
  • Life expectancy: From 2000 to 2010, average life expectancy at birth has been on an upward trend across the ten urban villages. But it also varies by quite a bit between them; children born in Lake City can expect to live to 80, while those born in Eastlake can expect to live to 85. Research has shown that availability of open space, exposure to pollution, crime, healthcare access, and a variety of other factors play into this indicator.

Open space and development

These indicators are perhaps the most influenced by land use policy and reflect the effects of the concentration of urban growth.

  • Area of parks and open space: This standard quality of life measurement used by many cities has a baseline goal of one acre of open space per 1,000 households in Seattle. With the exception of Rainier Beach, most of the ten urban villages do not meet this goal or barely exceed it within their boundaries. However, the study authors also calculated the addition of park space within a quarter mile of the villages’ boundaries, showing much higher numbers. The selected villages are densely developed, but immediately outside the villages lower densities permit larger parks. The city is working on acquiring more park space. The comprehensive plan identifies the minimum size of useable open space as 10,000 square feet.
  • Proximity to parks and open space: This indicator measured what percentage of residents within urban villages are within a quarter mile walk of a park, including parks a quarter mile outside of the village boundaries. Most of the selected villages score fairly high, with the exceptions of Westwood Highland Park and Aurora-Licton Springs. As with the previous data set, this indicator has not been traceable over time.
  • Tree canopy coverage: Urban trees provide numerous benefits, such as shade, habitat, stormwater filtration, and human livability, though they must be carefully maintained to prevent damage to sidewalks, power lines, and other infrastructure. From 1993 to 2014, there were increases in tree canopy coverage in eight of the urban villages, now with a current average of 18.2 percent compared to 28.5 percent citywide. Seattle has a detailed Urban Forest Management Plan with a goal of increasing tree coverage citywide to 30 percent of the land area, an ambitious goal. Since 2007, 3.5 trees have been planted for every tree removed. The analysis did not differentiate between trees on private parcels and trees on public land.
  • Impervious surfaces: Roads and buildings are impervious to rain, necessitating complex stormwater systems that convey water to streams and holding ponds where it can return to the water cycle. Reducing impervious surfaces reduces the need for such systems, and this can be achieved with green roofs, permeable pavement, and bioswales. For this indicator, the authors look at two time spans. From 1995 to 2011,  there were increases in of impervious surfaces in all of the urban villages and a 1.5 percent increase citywide. Percent of land covered by impervious surfaces is higher in urban villages than citywide.

Shared prosperity and opportunity

These indicators evaluate the allocation of public resources and services to assess differences in equity between urban villages.

  • Public infrastructure investment: The budgets from 2005 to 2014 were used to calculate the distribution of money spent on capital facilities in each of the ten urban villages, including everything from parks and libraries to streets and sewers. Of $445 million spent in villages during this period, most was spent in downtown, Rainier Beach, and West Seattle. However, the authors readily admit that this data is not useful due to inaccurate and ambiguous project locations. Better tracking is needed in the future.
  • Neighborhood matching fund: This fund provides competitive funds to volunteer groups for small neighborhood projects. It has provided $49 million to over 4,000 projects since 1998. The funding is needs-based and has not been distributed proportional to geography or population; for instance, up to 2014 Rainier Beach received $159 per person and Ballard only $3 per person. The study notes that the funding data is only available at the “neighborhood district” level, which encompasses areas outside of the urban village boundaries. The authors recommend better tracking and more equitable project selection.
  • Academic performance: This indicator measured the rates of fourth graders meeting standards on performance tests. From 1998 to 2013, all of the elementary schools within or near the urban villages (excluding downtown) have seen increasing scores, but there are substantial differences. Only 62 percent of Rainier Beach students met the standards in 2013, for example, compared to 88 percent in Lake City. Student performance may reflect other factors, like health and family stability.
  • Unemployment rate: While Seattle has had an unemployment rate lower than the rest of the nation, this varies across the urban villages. The 2008-2012 American Community Survey shows census blocks in the Rainier Valley had the highest rates, above 12 percent, while West Seattle Junction was the lowest at 4.5 percent. These numbers can provide direction on efforts to improve employment, workforce training, and social support.
  • Poverty rate: As of 2014, the U.S. poverty level for a family of four is an annual income of $23,850 or less, and in Seattle the 2008-2012 American Community Survey estimated 13.2 percent of residents fall within that. Rates across the ten urban villages varied significantly, but Rainier Beach, downtown, and the U-District have seen the highest rates at over 20 percent.
  • Housing cost burden: Also using 2008-2012 data, this indicator shows what percentage of income residents are paying for housing. Over 30 percent is considered a moderate burden, and over 50 percent is a severe burden. The U-District has the highest share in these two categories, with over 50 percent of the population burdened by housing costs, but the problem is prevalent throughout the ten study areas and is different in scale and cause. Housing affordability is being studied by a mayoral committee and needs to go beyond issues of supply and variety.

SSNAP concludes with a comparison of other municipal indicator projects, community profiles, and how neighborhood planning can move forward with involved citizens. Overall the report is somewhat disjointed, with wildly different data timelines and geographic scales. But this is a reflection of opportunities to improve data collection and reporting at public agencies, providing more reliable and consistent tracking on an annual basis at the urban village level. Regardless, SSNAP is a launching point for conducting similar assessments on a regular cycle to evaluate citywide progress and civic health.

To learn more about the report, you can download it (PDF) from the Seattle 2035 website or view a summary presentation (PDF).

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5 Responses to Civic Indicators Highlight Seattle’s Progress, Challenges

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