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May 27, 2021

Regional growth: Towns, small cities should choose to lead or be led

  • Investments in infrastructure such as high-speed rail are critical for successful regional growth and prosperity.
    B+H Architects



    The Cascadia Region has always enjoyed a high status as a desirable place to live. Seattle is currently ranked No. 13 in U.S. News’ 25 best places to live in the U.S. in 2020-2021. As the U.S. population becomes increasingly mobile, it is no surprise that estimates predict an additional 3.6 million new residents by 2050.

    In addition to the predicted influx of residents from outside the region, the accelerated adoption of remote work practices has caused a mini in-state migration as workers liberated from the downtown office tower follow their lifestyle dreams. Realtors in the Methow Valley and San Juan County are reporting record years.

    The trend is likely here to stay. Research conducted in 2019 by leading international flex workspace provider, IWG, forecast that over the next 10 years local economies would benefit from nearly $17 billion as a result in hybrid work patterns.

    As exciting as the opportunity is for those moving to their dream location, the reality for existing residents is not always so rosy.

    Image from B+H [enlarge]
    Cascadia Vision 2050 proposes creating three new hub cities to accommodate an additional 1.3 million anticipated population growth.


    The potential for positive outcomes from such growth is immense, both regionally and locally. They are however, not guaranteed. An influx of development spurred by demand for housing, infrastructure improvements (such as high-speed rail) and 5G connectivity, can overwhelm local residents to the point that they are priced out of their own community. Especially if the salaries fueling the growth are paid by large companies or organizations headquartered in other states or countries. Simply put, the risk of development is displacement, which ironically exacerbates the problem that investment was intending to solve.


    Investments in infrastructure such as high-speed rail are critical for successful regional growth and prosperity, but if they are to solve, not exacerbate, the problem, they must be guided by strong local leadership and a vision of success informed by real community needs and desires. This requires a holistic understanding of the interconnected relationships between affordable housing, the environment, economic development, health, food systems, culture institutional assets, land use and infrastructure in the local context.

    Placemaking excels when these factors converge harmoniously, not only by leveraging and building upon relevant community assets, but by making investments tangibly impactful to the local community who will benefit from them.


    Communities that invest time in creating a compelling vision for equitable, sustainable growth can command their destiny, channeling global and regional investment into initiatives that fuel a uniquely local solution that benefits all residents.

    By examining the benefits of shared priorities, the community has the opportunity to maintain its unique identity and access regional and global markets and cultures, balancing local needs and desires with macro impacts. When local, regional and global interests are examined in isolation from each other the risk is that neighboring communities compete for fragmented, limited resources and impact is siloed and diminished, creating “winners” and “losers.”

    We took a high-level look at some of the unique characteristics that define the region’s smaller towns along the Cascadia Corridor and imagined how they might consider doubling down on their core identity and attributes to support sustainable growth with regional and global impact for locals and new residents alike.


    The region’s prized natural resource, and cornerstone of its historic growth, is timber. Technological innovation and the urgency of carbon mitigation has created a growing interest in cross-laminated timber — a wood product that is adaptable, versatile and naturally fire resistant that also sequesters carbon over its lifetime. For the region’s former lumber and mill towns, the opportunity is huge to build a vibrant economy based on education, technology, fabrication, forest management and production of this sustainable resource with global appeal.

    • Market Garden City. Showcasing the bounty of the Skagit Valley, a farm-to-table destination with markets, tours, local food and drink, innovation center for farming technology and unique local products sought after by an international market.

    • Aerospace + Science Hub. An innovation cluster fueling the next generation of aviation and space exploration. Collaborations between education, industry and government, a regional airport hub that integrates local and international connections, the future of freight logistics and tech.

    • Outdoor Recreation Paradise. A destination for world class adventure. Specialist guides and tours, a wilderness training center, unique lodging offerings inspired by local materials and surroundings, retreat centers, bike and equipment repair shops, outfitters, local food and drink.

    Each of these examples builds on the existing DNA of a community to create well-paid jobs, connectivity to the world beyond and, most importantly, a sense of identity and belonging for every resident.

    Armed with a compelling vision and a sense of purpose, every community stakeholder — mayors, city councils, community groups, local businesses, educational institutions and residents — has the power to direct and attract investment in projects and initiatives that will create equitable, sustainable social and economic growth for all.

    Doug Demers is a managing principal at B+H Architects. Alexander Thompson is a strategist and placemaker at the firm.

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