A Tale Of Two Cities

Who sprawls the most? It depends on whose definition you use.

5 minute read

July 8, 2002, 12:00 AM PDT

By Richard H. Carson

Richard CarsonThe Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area, where the states of Washington and Oregon are separated by the mighty Columbia River, is a planning house divided. The two Pacific Northwest states have long been considered by the planning faithful as the twin mainstays of progressive statewide land use planning. However, a planning schism has been created because of the poor research of an over zealous environmental organization. Seattle based Northwest Environmental Watch says in a new report that that the Vancouver, Washington side of the river "sprawls" and that the Portland, Oregon side doesn't.

As the former director of planning for METRO (the Portland area regional government) and the current director of planning for Clark County (Vancouver, Washington), I am in the unique position of understanding the planning practices on both sides of the Columbia River. The fact is that Oregon and Washington both have state mandated land use planning. If you look at the growth management requirements in each state you will find they are almost identical. For example, both:

  • Have state-mandated planning goals,
  • Created special land use courts to handle appeals,
  • Require city and county 20-year comprehensive plans,
  • Require urban growth boundaries,
  • Have similar density targets (6-10 units/acre),
  • Require capital facility plans,
  • Allow for impact fees to finance capital improvements, and
  • Require the review of performance of zoning before moving boundaries.

However, there are some important distinctions. Washington has two growth management tools that Oregon doesn't - Concurrency and SEPA. Concurrency requires that services be available concurrent with development. It's also called "pay as you grow." If the transportation, education, water, or sewer systems don't have the capacity or adequate service levels to accommodate development, then a moratorium can be put in place. This is true in Oregon, but only when there is a complete system failure.

Washington also has the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA) that requires cities and counties to review development projects for environmental impacts. If the preliminary review finds significant potential impacts, then an environmental impact statement can be required. This is a tool that Oregon environmentalists have tried repeatedly to get enacted, but failed in securing.

But the big difference is time. Oregon created statewide land use planning through Senate Bill 100 in 1973. Washington did the same with its Growth Management Act in 1990. The Portland area urban growth boundary was established in 1979 and Clark County in 1994. So Clark County created its urban growth boundary 15 years after the Portland area. This also means that the Portland area has gone through its first 20-year land supply. Clark County has only gone through seven years of its first 20-year land supply. In theory this means we should have 13 year's worth of undeveloped land still available. So if you analyze air photos, as the Northwest Environmental Watch did, then you will find a lot of vacant land inside the urban growth boundary in a comparison with Portland. But it's not sprawl. It would look no different than Portland did before it was built out.

Let's face it. There are studies out there that say anything we want. For example a recent study published by the University of Southern California says that Portland area sprawls more than Los Angeles -- with densities about one-half of LA's. Also the website Sprawl City ranks the Portland-Vancouver area as number 42 for sprawl out of the 100 largest urbanized area. They say we have more sprawl than cities like Indianapolis, Salt Lake City, Dayton, Cleveland and Las Vegas.

However, I think everyone would agree that the 2000 Census is the most definitive information source. The census provides two interesting facts. First, it shows that the Portland metropolitan area's density is one of the lowest among West Coast "Metropolitan Areas." Second, a comparison of the counties in the official 2000 Census Portland-Salem-Vancouver "Metropolitan Statistical Area" category shows that Clark is the third most dense out of the seven listed counties.

Metro Areas Density per Square Mile Counties Density per Square Mile
San Fransico 955 Multnomah (OR) 1,518
San Diego 670 Washington (OR) 615
Seattle 492 Clark (WA) 549
Los Angeles 482 Marion (OR) 241
Sacramento 353 Clackamas (OR) 181
Portland 326 Yamhill (OR) 119
Eugene-Springfield 71 Polk (OR) 84

Does this mean that Portland or Clark County has failed to manage growth? Of course not. In the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area we have been very progressive about how we manage growth and are very protective of our quality-of-life. My point is that there is no common definition about what sprawl is, but there is lots of conflicting evidence about who has sprawl. The Sierra Club says "Sprawl is low-density development beyond the edge of service and employment, which separates where people live from where they shop, work, recreate, and educate - thus requiring cars to move between zones."

Unfortunately, the debate around sprawl has degenerated into an argument about just density, instead of about quality-of-life and the cost-of-services. When I worked in Oregon in the 1970s we called it "leap frog" development. The purpose of urban growth boundaries was to protect farmland, make the delivery of infrastructure cost-efficient and to phase development sequentially. It is a very practical and rational approach.

One of the reasons that Clark County was the fastest growing county in the state of Washington and in the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area in the last decade is because we have also focussed on quality-of-life. People are moving here because we have exceptional educational systems, we have high home ownership rates and we are family-oriented.

As a planner who has worked on both sides of the river, I am concerned about such divisive and parochial rhetoric about sprawl. This should not be a petty political tale of two cities. It should be a positive planning story of one great metropolitan area. I say it's time to drop the sprawl rhetoric and for us to work together on our collective future.

Richard H. Carson is the director of Clark County's Department of Community Development and the former director of planning for Metro. He is also a former elected official of the American Planning Association (APA). He currently maintains APA's "Internet Planning Media" and the independent "About Planning" websites.

View More
Aerial view of homes on green hillsides in Daly City, California.

Depopulation Patterns Get Weird

A recent ranking of “declining” cities heavily features some of the most expensive cities in the country — including New York City and a half-dozen in the San Francisco Bay Area.

April 10, 2024 - California Planning & Development Report

Aerial view of Oakland, California with bay in background

California Exodus: Population Drops Below 39 Million

Never mind the 40 million that demographers predicted the Golden State would reach by 2018. The state's population dipped below 39 million to 38.965 million last July, according to Census data released in March, the lowest since 2015.

April 11, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

A view straight down LaSalle Street, lined by high-rise buildings with an El line running horizontally over the street.

Chicago to Turn High-Rise Offices into Housing

Four commercial buildings in the Chicago Loop have been approved for redevelopment into housing in a bid to revitalize the city’s downtown post-pandemic.

April 10, 2024 - Chicago Construction News

Woman with long hair wearing Covid mask sitting on underground train station bench looking at her watch as subway train approaches in background at Hollywood/Western station in Los Angeles, California.

How California Transit Agencies are Addressing Rider Harassment

Safety and harassment are commonly cited reasons passengers, particularly women and girls, avoid public transit.

April 17 - The American Prospect

Nighttime view of wildfire in Los Angeles hills.

Significant Investments Needed to Protect LA County Residents From Climate Hazards

A new study estimates that LA County must invest billions of dollars before 2040 to protect residents from extreme heat, increasing precipitation, worsening wildfires, rising sea levels, and climate-induced public health threats.

April 17 - Los Angeles Times

Bird's eye view of oil field in New Mexico desert.

Federal Rule Raises Cost for Oil and Gas Extraction on Public Lands

An update to federal regulations raises minimum bonding to limit orphaned wells and ensure cleanup costs are covered — but it still may not be enough to mitigate the damages caused by oil and gas drilling.

April 17 - High Country News

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.