Searching for Sustainable Living in Whatcom County – The Challenge to Balance Rural and Urban Living Styles

In News by commonnw

Proper planning ensures for future success. Proper planning for growth is the important piece needed to ensure that we harmonize rural and urban living; a planning model that brings communities together. Whatcom County continues to struggle to find this balance of planning for our rural and urban centres. There are many ways to achieve popular-approval and retain our uniqueness. As we plan for urban growth it is important to sustain rural living not only because it is desired here, but because it provides a pressure relief needed to preserve affordable living. As we develop our urban cities to be family-friendly and affordable, local leaders who value a cohesive community will use all the tools available to them and plan for growth in our rural and urban centres. – CTNW


We hear the term “sustainable” used quite a bit lately, and the idea of sustainability is a good one. Sustainability is defined as a requirement of our generation to manage the resource base such that the average quality of life that we ensure ourselves can potentially be shared by all future generations. … “Development is sustainable if it involves a non-decreasing average quality of life.” [Geir B. Asheim, “Sustainability,” The World Bank, 1994]

What is interesting is that sustainability is used in many ways depending on the context in which it is being applied. In fact, Merriam-Webster, along with other sources, has a different definition of the word when applied to economics versus ecology, often leading to confusion and misalignment between groups looking to help shape responsible public policy.

Many farmers understand the principles of sustainability as evidenced through crop rotations and managed grazing, in which the long-term health of the soils is maintained and improved over time to provide for continued production. Whatcom County dairy farmers boast the highest milk-per-cow production in the state, demonstrating a commitment to making things better every day. There are a number of well researched and published articles that support this, such as those written and published by, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Joel is one of the best-known advocates for sustainable farming practices, who lives-it and educates us on rural farming sustainability. Our local leaders would be well advised to educate themselves on how this is happening all over the nation and apply it to our long term planning for sustainability.

Such land management principles extend beyond our locally owned family production farm operations to small sustenance operations in which children are involved with 4H and FFA, learning the importance of animal husbandry and land management. Farmers understand that when you depend on the animals and the ground you raise them on to take care of you, you take care of them. This is a much harder concept to grasp for those who have only experienced the food they eat after it has been packaged.

Where the divide begins to occur in the discourse of sustainability is how sustainability is defined. There are many who believe that the key to sustainability is through people-centered planning, with densely populated urban centers using transit networks and walking and biking paths, to provide transportation needs. This concept is intended to reduce the carbon pollution from vehicles and keep population growth from extending into rural areas.

One of the challenges with the people-centered planning concept is that most urban areas don’t provide a great environment for raising families. This is well studied and documented by Joel Kotkin in his research for, “The Human City.” Busy streets, crowded neighborhoods, and crime, are just a few of the deterrents to raising families in dense urban areas. Some parents appreciate the concept of their children learning self-reliance and a respect for the land they live on in a more rural setting. Parents should have that choice. Urban dwellers have numerous rules which restrict their property such as: HOA’s, condo associations, and apartment complex rules, which limit the lifestyle choices that rural residents enjoy.

Dec. 8, 2016 US Census Bureau showing differences between urban and rural populations

The greatest current challenge to the concept of denser urban areas is not simply how it measures up to human living standards, but also the cost. By not allowing growth in rural areas, demand for housing outpaces the supply of available accommodations, causing a spike in the cost of housing. An example of this is the, Rental Registration and Safety Inspection Program, in the City of Bellingham. This program was approved in 2015. It required that unit owners conduct a home inspection every three-years. How has this improved our ability to provide and maintain affordable rental accommodations? Complying with the requirements of this program increased costs of rental housing and reduced the number of landlords, leading to an increased cost for rental housing. Dense urban areas also need more built-up infrastructure (it costs more to build up than out) and mass transit. This city-life requires additional public staffing and physical assets. That funding is paid by increased taxes on those living in the urban areas.

Geekwire, Dec. 31, 2014, article “The Amazon effect on Washington State.”

With the increased challenges to industrial and agriculture jobs within our County, the question arises as to how will the rural-residents of this area afford the higher costs of living in the urban center? Add to this challenge the “Amazon effect,” in which smaller retailers are likely to decrease as on-line purchases grow and the private sector employment picture declines. An interesting comparison can be drawn to what has occurred to the communities of the Olympic Peninsula;

When the timber industry was greatly impacted through environmental regulation in the late 80’s, approximately 60% of family wage jobs went away over the course of those years. A 2012 study that was issued by Headwaters Economics touts the economic recovery of that area; however a quick look at the data will reveal that the recovery is based on largely on non-wage incomes- comprised of retirees moving to the area and those receiving money from private land sales to the government. The additional small increase in service sector jobs which support this section of the population are likely to diminish as these demographics shrink. Many of the residents have found employment outside the area, but now have longer commutes and contribute more to the carbon footprint. The data in the study also shows a decrease in overall wage earnings and an increase in teen pregnancy rates. This means there will be a segment of the population that cannot afford to take care of their families with no base economy to provide a safety net. The data would suggest that this economic “recovery” concept is built on false principles and is non-sustainable.

* It should be noted that in researching Headwater Economics, they have done similar studies to promote “sustainable community” concepts across the US and similar findings can be found.

Ultimately, the discourse between those who choose rural lifestyles and those who promote for denser urban centers continues to grow, and there is a fundamental disagreement on what sustainability means and ultimately will look like in Whatcom County. That, and the fact people like the idea of choosing how they want to live and not being told how-to-live by others…Whatcom County is at the tipping point. Do citizens direct local politicians to promote both styles of living for the health of the community, or do they allow politicians to force dense urban centers? Which will provide the dynamic and lifestyle choices you prefer?