A bullet train shoots past skyscrapers in Seattle, ruffles tulips in Skagit Valley, and rises above wetlands in Whatcom County before depositing dozens of commuters just south of the Canadian border. They alight and make the 15-minute walk to a cluster of towers, ringed with plants, overlooking parks of varying geometries. Apartments and offices share these structures; the corporate types who reside here only venture to vintage metropolises for meetings once a week. Many never leave this nascent urban village, following its network of paths to schools and restaurants and evergreens that, not long ago, presided over empty fields.
This is 2050, Cascadia-style. Or at least it could be. In September a report commissioned by leaders across the region called for something bold: the creation of several cities from scratch on underdeveloped lands between Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. To proponents, it’s a forward-thinking stab at managing population growth over the next 30 years. To critics, it’s a potential business-led boondoggle.
Nobody can quibble with the root of the report. Cascadia—a philosophical movement as much as a designation for the verdant stretch of Pacific Northwest that claims British Columbia—has a growth problem. If the report’s projections hold, our neck of the woods will welcome 3.6 million more people over the next three decades, a 30 percent hike in population that would put a significant strain on our quality of life. By 2035, our traffic would be worse than the bumper-to-bumper in Los Angeles. By 2040, our housing would be less affordable than San Francisco’s or New York City’s. And while our greenhouse gas emissions would maybe dip, we’d have zero chance of reaching Paris Agreement targets. Essentially, Seattle and other progressive Cascadia bastions would become what they currently disdain. “All of that quality of life, which is why we came or we stay, is going to be greatly diminished,” says former Washington governor Chris Gregoire.
That is, unless we do something drastic. Enter the Cascadia Innovation Corridor report’s proposed “hub” cities, dense centers that could be developed 40 to 100 miles outside of the region’s three major metros. New communities of 300,000 to 400,000 people—larger than Spokane, smaller than Portland—would lower housing costs, commute times, and emissions across the region, according to an analysis conducted by Boston Consulting Group. “Anchor” (read: tech) employers would bring offices and jobs. And at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour, a bullet train would whisk part-time commuters to bigger analog cities.
The cross-border collaboration behind the report doesn’t present the “hub” city idea as the lone solution. “Other paths toward success may be viable,” write Gregoire and Greg D’Avignon, Business Council of British Columbia president/CEO (the duo co-chairs the CIC’s steering committee).
But the analysis outlines why traditional “build out” or “build up” tactics may not work here. For cities in Cascadia, water and mountains box in many build-out blueprints. And, after factoring in other density projects, building up enough to house the remaining 1.3 million people would require the three cities to turn 40 percent of their single-family homes into four-unit complexes by 2050.
The latter deal-breaker is more controversial. The report does support more multi-unit homes in existing cities to absorb a portion of the projected population growth. But it stops short of recommending mass upzoning, in part because of “fierce political opposition” to the idea in California. That frustrates some. “It seems more clear the study is being used to justify a fatalistic attitude toward reforming zoning in [the] Seattle region, rather than an idea really centered around environmental sustainability as billed,” Doug Trumm, executive director of Seattle-based urban policy site The Urbanist, has written.
Gregoire asserts there’s “little appetite for density” in the urban-suburban medley here. As the CEO of Challenge Seattle, an alliance of local business leaders that backs the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, she often talks about the “quiet crisis” that cranes can obscure. “There’s little incentives, little being built, and little availability for middle-income housing,” she says. “And through our study, you can see we’re pushing those folks out of the areas they serve, whether they’re a firefighter, a teacher, a nurse.”
With more development, these middle-income earners could live closer to work or hop aboard the bullet train instead of clogging roadways and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. Still, at a projected cost north of $20 billion, the train project alone has no shortage of fiscal skeptics. And the construction of hub cities raises questions that go beyond the logistics of funding it. Foremost: Where would these cities go?
The smoky shadow of a massive oil refinery seems like an unlikely place to stage a city, but don’t tell Satpal Sidhu that. The Whatcom County executive can rattle off the reasons why the yawning fields near British Petroleum’s (BP) Cherry Point facility in Blaine would make for an appealing development site—the power, the fiber internet connection, the few thousand acres zoned for urban growth, the proximity to both Seattle and Vancouver. “Whatcom County is very much suited for a hub city,” says Sidhu.
He read Cascadia Innovation Corridor’s report shortly after it came out this past fall and shared it with the county’s council members. The concept of a city built from the ground up piqued his interest; the U.S. usually shuns the strategy embraced in other parts of the world (the report cites Forest City, Malaysia, as an example of a budding hub city). “I personally don’t think this is a radical idea,” he says.
For Sidhu, a small business owner who grew up in India, economic development is paramount to any functional hub city plan. Microsoft, CIC’s chief private partner, once set down roots in Redmond when it wasn’t quite so suburban. Would the software giant, or Amazon, venture north?
Sidhu points to the many modes of transit in Bellingham, just south of the Cherry Point refinery, as a draw. The city can already tout an airport, Amtrak station, I-5 access, and a port. A study of the high-speed rail has included the county seat in its preliminary route outlines, a possible hint that a hub city could sprout nearby.
The separate Cascadia Innovation Corridor report doesn’t offer any such clues for potential locations. Gregoire stresses that communities must guide development discussions, though she does point to a possibility. “If you look south of Vancouver and north of Everett, that’s a lot of agriculture in there.”
But “agriculture” doesn’t mean undeveloped to those who work the land, says Ron Wesen, a Skagit County commissioner and fourth-generation dairy farmer. “It’s been over 100 years developing in the farm ground,” he says of those who till the earth tucked between Everett and Bellingham.
Then there’s the scale of the upheaval. Adding 300,000 people to a county of less than half that would be “a huge, huge change in our makeup.”
Still, Wesen braces for some level of change. After its population more than doubled between 1960 and 2010, Skagit County authored its own plan, preparing for another doubling by 2060. Hills near I-5 could absorb some newbies, leaving the farmland, and the county’s beloved tulips, unbothered. “I like what we have right here,” says Wesen, “but change is going to happen, so we have to figure out how we can make that change better.”