People are still moving here, but we're having fewer children - The slowing growth might allow for improved planning, an environmental group says.

Christopher Dunagan
Bremerton Sun Staff

July 30, 2003

A recent slowdown in population growth throughout the Northwest can be considered a welcome reprieve for the environment, according to Alan Durning of Northwest Environment Watch.
"I wouldn't say we're celebrating a recession that has slowed down the pace of migration into the region," Durning said, "but it is encouraging that the natural birth rate has dropped."

The birth rate for the Northwest overall -- and specifically for Washington, Oregon and British Columbia -- hit a record low in 2002, according to a new report by Northwest Environment Watch, an environmental think tank based in Seattle.

The report, titled "Population Reprieve: Births and Migration in the Pacific Northwest," comes at a time when Kitsap County officials are deciding how much new land to allocate for future growth.

The cause of the population slowdown can be attributed in part to couples postponing having children and related factors, the report states.

"This is generally welcome news," said Durning, executive director of Northwest Environment Watch. "It gives us a chance to catch up from the rapid population growth of the 1990s and the impact it had on our schools, roads and environment.

"Also, many of the causes of the declining birth rates -- such as teens having fewer babies -- are good for the region," he added.

According to Durning, population is a many-faceted issue. As the per capita consumption of energy and natural resources levels off, population growth becomes the biggest livability factor.

Growth means more traffic, more air pollution, more damaged forests and rivers and less clean drinking water, Durning said.

"People move here for the quality of life," he noted. "We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, but people are still moving here."

During times when the regional economy is humming, migration into the region is "astonishing," Durning said.

In 2002, the Northwest added 16 people per hour, a 1 percent annual increase and the lowest pace of growth since 1986. In 1992 -- the year of highest growth -- 37 more people arrived each hour.

Kitsap, Mason and Jefferson counties all lagged behind the state average growth for the past three years, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

Darryl Piercy of Kitsap County Department of Community Development said state and county experts assume the rate will pick up for Kitsap County. For planning, new population projections call for a 2 percent annual growth rate.

"The important thing to remember is that growth (planning) needs to reflect a longer period of time than the last couple of years -- a minimum of 10 years and more like 20 out to 50," Piercy said.

Tom Donnelly of Kitsap Citizens for Responsible Planning said he expects the growth rate to stay low.

"There's nothing on the economic horizon that indicates a rapid recovery for this state or the county," Donnelly said.

Until there is some hint of higher growth, he added, the county has no need to expand its urban growth areas or add more unused industrial lands, as is planned.

Art Castle of the Homebuilders Association of Kitsap County said more housing will be needed -- not just to serve population growth but to serve smaller family units.

One study indicated that with no population growth from 1970 to 1990, about half the housing still would have been built, Castle said. Although the population remained the same, it was made up of more smaller families.

Average households dropped from 2.8 people in 1990 to 2.5 recently "and planners are looking at 2.3 now," he said.

Having more people does not have to mean a lower quality of life if development is well planned, Castle said.

Kitsap County planners are about to embark on a study to determine how much new land will be needed in urban areas.

According to Durning, more people mean more environmental impacts to the region. While Northwest residents have little control over migration, the Canadian province of British Columbia serves as an example of what can be done to hold down growth.

B.C. has a lower birth rate than any Northwest state, with 9.7 births per 1,000 residents -- compared to 13 for Washington and Oregon and 14 for the U.S. average.

British Columbia has reduced its number of children per family to 1.4, compared to 1.9 in Washington and Oregon and 2.3 in Idaho. The teen birth rate for British Columbia is 12 births per 1,000, compared to 36 in Washington and Oregon and 40 in Idaho.

The report mentions four major differences between Canada and the United States:

Canadian women are more likely to use birth control pills because of insurance rules and the availability of family-planning clinics.

The child poverty rate is about a third lower than U.S. states in the Northwest, which tends to reduce the number of young women having babies.

Immigrants to British Columbia tend to come from places where small families are the norm, such as China and Hong Kong, whereas immigrants to U.S. states tend to be from Mexico and Latin American countries with large families.

Because of the poor economy in British Columbia, couples tend to postpone their families, albeit grudgingly.

Ideas for the United States, the report says, include reducing child poverty, preventing sexual abuse, expanding insurance coverage for family planning and broadening access to emergency contraceptives.

 

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