The numbers were staggering. The reaction was swift.
“Last year, enough people arrived in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties to fill Cheney Stadium nearly 10 times over,” The News Tribune’s Kate Martin and Debbie Cockrell reported, citing data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“From April 2016 through April 2017, the population of the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area grew by more than 64,000 people,” the story continued.
While it may be tempting to see all of this as a harbinger of bad things and traffic jams to come, here’s the honest truth:
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Growth in this region is going to happen. It’s as inevitable as taxes and long lunch lines at MSM.
So instead of moaning and groaning, the thing to do is plan for it — and plan wisely.
On Facebook, however, that didn’t stop readers from quickly expressing their disgust at the new Census data.
“Time for me to get the hell out of Tacoma,” wrote one person.
“High density populations = Cesspools,” offered another.
I get it. Complaining about newcomers from California, or even newcomers from Seattle, is a treasured pastime. It can be fun, even cathartic.
On the other hand, it certainly won’t stop new residents from deciding to call this place home. The economy is strong, home prices in King County are bonkers and the quality of life in our neck of the woods is difficult to beat. Why wouldn’t people want to live here?
Locally, the Census numbers revealed a growth rate consistent with how it feels. It broke down to more than 46 people moving to Pierce County or being born here each day of 2017. Nationally, Pierce County’s growth ranked 26th; a little more than 17,000 people arrived here in 2017 than the prior year.
That’s a lot of folks, and for Pierce County it's a safe bet that it won't slow down anytime soon.
“I think the numbers confirm what we’re all seeing real world, and it just emphasizes why we need to be incredibly smart about planning the future of our cities,” Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello said.
He’s correct on both fronts. Unless you’ve somehow managed to stay locked in your basement, you’ve seen the impacts of growth all around us — from increased congestion to the hot real estate and rental market to the time it takes to checkout at the supermarket.
As chairman of the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Growth Management Policy Board, Mello also knows a thing or two about planning for the future. While many seem to be focusing on the potential negative impacts of population growth, there’s just as much potential to make growth a good thing, he said.
Can growth go wrong? Of course it can. Look no further than the sickening sprawl of unincorporated Pierce County for evidence of what not to do and what we must protect against in the future.
But growth can go right. Mello pointed to potential upsides, like an ability to spread the tax burden, grow jobs and small businesses, increase housing and transit options and better support the cultural amenities that make a city a city.
“Growth, when done right, can continue to support and enhance the things that we love about Tacoma,” Mello said.
The question, of course, is what does “done right” look like?
“It’s directing the growth to our already built communities, like Tacoma,” Mello explained.
That means focusing on increasing density in our compact business districts, which has the added benefit of protecting single-family neighborhoods.
It means supporting mass transit in heavily populated areas — and then funding it — while acknowledging the risk of directing limited state and federal transportation dollars to the outskirts..
It means designing Tacoma’s futures around people, not cars, and making our neighborhoods safe and walkable with smart pedestrian design.
In short, it means being very deliberate in how we envision Tacoma’s future and then acting accordingly with smart policy and development.
There are perils to growth, but there’s also promise.
“Either you can direct growth and mold it to gain all the positives for our community that we can get, or you can get run over by it and be faced with all the downsides. I’m about directing that growth,” Mello said.
When it comes to a growing population in years to come, “there’s no alternative,” the councilman added. “It’s not possible to put gates up on either side of I-5.”
That’s the cold, hard truth, like it or not.
In other words, if you don’t like what last week’s Census data revealed, you probably should move …
Because there’s a newcomer — or 46 of them — waiting to take your place on the day you leave.