The South Sound has unique assets that contribute to the quality of life, from breathtaking scenery and numerous cultural attractions, to affordable housing. Nonetheless, the area has long been seen as a secondary player in the Puget Sound region.
Local leaders want to change that perception. They see an opportunity to make the South Sound more competitive and to boost its economy and quality of life.
“There’s a need to move beyond the idea of being secondary in this metropolitan region,” says Ali Modarres, Ph.D., a professor and director of Urban Studies at the University of Washington Tacoma.
Many local agencies and nonprofits are focused on aspects that make a community more livable, but there is no common definition of a livable community. The challenge is that a strong competitive edge needs a more coordinated effort.
To encourage creative collaboration, UW Tacoma is leading an alliance of leaders from the public, private and nonprofit sectors called the South Sound Alliance. Modarres hopes this informal group will start a conversation about policy and other important issues that help shape a collective vision for the region.
The goal is to bring different perspectives and stakeholders to a broader discussion of issues that affect the South Sound, from planning and homelessness to family-friendly improvements. “It’s an experimental project to see if leadership in the South Sound can interact and share ideas on a regular basis instead of engaging in one-time efforts,” Modarres says.
“It’s more of a conversation, from a regional perspective, of what livability means,” he says.
Livable Communities a Growing Planning Trend
Lauren Flemister, a senior planner with the City of Tacoma, says that livable communities discussions are part of the urban resurgence seen in many areas nationwide.
“We’re paying now for all the poor development decisions we’ve made in the past,” she says. “We’re largely built-out in Tacoma and see the same problems all over the country. We realized that part of the problem is that we’re car-centric.”
Flemister, who was previously a planner with the City of Auburn, has also worked in urban planning and policy at large national firms, the Environmental Defense Fund and the United Nations. She says that the two major components of a livable community are access and opportunity.
“The communities that aren’t as livable tend to have a large deficit in economic opportunities and schools, and have less park space and healthy foods,” she says. “It’s a lack of access to the things that make life productive and enjoyable.”
Planners like Flemister are grappling with how to find the “sweet spot” between livability and equity. Part of the challenge is to undo the development trends of the past six or seven decades, which focused on suburban, spread-out areas where people relied on cars for transportation.
“Corporations and people are moving back to cities and they have a thirst for amenities,” she says. “Cities are trying to play catch-up while also focusing on equity and bringing more livability to areas that have been historically underserved.”
What Makes a Livable Community?
Amy Pow, principal planner with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s Environmental Health Division, agrees with Flemister that equity is an important aspect. She sees it as part of the “triple bottom line” for a healthy, or livable, community. The three elements are equity, a strong economy and a healthy environment.
“The triple bottom line is the basis of sustainable development; it’s what livable communities are all about,” she says.
Pow, who leads the agency’s Healthy Community Planning Program, says there’s no cookie-cutter way for creating a livable community. But regardless of how each community customizes the approach, she says it’s important to address both the physical and social aspects.
“We need complete neighborhoods for all income levels and cultural and racial backgrounds where everyone can access services, amenities and facilities to meet their daily needs within walking distance,” she says. “But we also need to create an environment where people can connect with one another socially.”
While the definition of “livable” varies from one community to the next, Pierce County Economic Development Director Denise Dyer describes the common thread as “live, work, play.”
“It’s a community where you can work and get the job you want and where there’s plenty of activities, from cultural to recreation,” Dyer says. “It’s a place where you can find affordable housing, quality schools and good medical and retail services. For me, it’s also the beauty of the place.”
Dyer says the South Sound has evolved to offer more of those amenities. Just look at the number of museums, including some of national and international caliber.
“We also have wonderful parks, bar none. Many of our cities and towns are unique. We have fabulous assets in this community,” she says. “And there’s been a huge commitment and private investment into creating places that are special, like Point Ruston and Thea Foss Waterway.”
Many challenges, however, remain — including transportation, homelessness and sustainable development — especially as the population grows.
The South Sound Alliance is in its early stage but Modarres hopes the Alliance could serve as a mechanism for exploring and solving some of those challenges.
“We know certain things that are important,” he says. “We just need a more comprehensive and regional discussion on how we can all work together to attain our collective goals for a more livable South Sound. This includes all jurisdictions and communities, large and small.”