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Creating Compact and Complete Communities: Seven Propositions For Success

Contemporary planning practice often finds planners seeking to increase the density and balance of land uses in their communities in order to create a more compact and complete urban form. However, little is known about how to go about this process. This case study of Kirkland, Washington, examines a suburban city that was transformed into one of the most compact and complete communities in the Pacific Northwest. The case study generates seven propositions that may help other communities achieve a similar outcome. They include having a vision of a place where people want to be, embracing professional management, maintaining a collaborative city council, investing in access and amenities, adopting regulations that are both permissive and protective, protecting most areas from change while compensating those that are affected, and providing developers the resources they need to succeed.


Compact and complete community development are central tenets of smart growth and New Urbanism. For example, the first two Ahwahnee Principles, which were developed in 1991 under the sponsorship of the California Local Government Commission as a means of synthesizing new planning ideas, are: (1) "all planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities including housing, shops, workplaces, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents" and (2) "community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs, and other activities are within easy walking distance of each another."

The objective is to use less land and reduce the separation of land uses in order to achieve a variety of values including open space protection, community vitality, affordable housing, air quality, transit use, and more walkable places. But how might a community achieve such a vision? That is the subject of this case study.

Prior studies have provided few clues for planners. Hardwick (1994) found that an interactive consultative process contributed to the successful implementation of two pedestrian oriented neighborhoods in Vancouver, B.C. Atash (1993) observed that pedestrian and transit-oriented land use depends on metro-scale land-use and transportation plans. And Pivo (1993) found that transit-oriented suburban centers flourish in certain types of locations. But in general, there is little known about what it takes for a place to make the transition to being a more compact and complete community.

Fortunately some cities have gone through the process and case studies of those areas could provide useful answers. In another study, Pivo (1996) identified the most compact and complete communities in "Cascadia," which includes Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. All the cities and census designated places in the region were measured according to a compact and complete community index built from four criteria: job density, housing density, jobs-housing balance, and retail-housing balance. The most compact and complete communities were then evaluated using another set of criteria. For example, as planners might expect, the 25 most compact and complete communities had a higher percentage of residents who rode the bus to work, a smaller percentage who drove alone to work and a much higher percentage of residents who worked in the city where they lived.

Once it was discovered that some communities are more compact and complete and do indeed perform as desired, the next logical question is: How did they get that way? Is there something in their planning history that others could use to move their communities in a similar direction? That is the question that motivated this study.

Kirkland, Washington, was selected for this case study because it was both the most compact and complete suburb in Washington State and because it has made considerable progress toward this status since the 1960s. Kirkland places in the highest decile among Washington's cities and census designated places for housing density, jobs density, jobs-housing balance, and retail-housing balance. It also posted impressive gains along each of these parameters (Pivo 1995). It is the best example in the state, and probably one of the best examples in the country, of a place that's been transformed from an auto-dependent bedroom suburb to a less auto-oriented compact and complete community.

Kirkland is located on the eastern shore of Lake Washington, immediately east of Seattle (see Figure 1). It was founded in 1886 by Peter Kirk as the home for his short-lived Moss Bay Iron and Steel Works. Instead of steel, the town became a wool milling and ship building center. Kirkland was incorporated in 1905. Its ferry terminal made it a transportation center for goods and commuters heading from the "east side" to central Seattle. That role came to an end after 1940 when the first bridge was built across the lake.

Detailed study of the Kirkland case uncovered a series of strategies and events that appear to have been critical to its transformation. They are reported below as Seven Propositions for Success. If these propositions were to hold in other cases, they could constitute a set of planning principles for the implementation of more compact and complete urban form. The reader should be cautioned, however. Case studies can be used to generalize to a theory, but until the theory is proven to be applicable in most situations, it cannot be assumed to work in other settings. With case studies, the responsibility for generalizing to other cases falls on the reader. Like courtroom judges, readers must decide for themselves whether a prior case is an appropriate precedent for their particular situation.

The case study process consisted of intensive interviewing and analysis of historical secondary sources including newspaper articles, planning documents, and statistical reports from the U.S. Census, the city, and the regional council of governments. Individuals to be interviewed were selected for their relevance during the time period studied and included current or former elected officials, city staff, citizen activists, journalists, business leaders, and developers. The interviews were semi-structured and guided by a list of interview questions prepared in advance for each individual. However, many of the questions were open-ended, which allowed the conversation to follow a natural path. Tape recordings were made and transcribed. All of the collected data, including research notes, published articles, documents and interview transcripts were coded and analyzed using qualitative data analysis software.

In 1990, the state of Washington adopted the Growth Management Act (GMA), which mandated regional and local comprehensive planning. Although it is not an explicit statutory goal, many plans adopted under the GMA promote a more compact and complete urban form because it furthers several of the 13 goals in the GMA including multimodal transportation, less sprawl, efficient public facilities and services, a variety of residential densities, and the retention of open space. Notwithstanding this statewide mandate, Kirkland was making progress toward these goals long before growth management became state policy. What explains its dramatic success? That is the subject of this story.

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