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.

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