Clark County’s population is growing. That is no surprise, but U.S. Census data released Thursday adds some context.
The county has passed the half-million mark, with population from last year’s count officially set at 503,311. That is about 78,000 more residents than in 2010 — an increase of 18.3 percent. Over the past decade, Clark has been the fastest-growing county in the metro area and the second-fastest in Washington behind Franklin County (home to Pasco).
Each of the cities in the region has experienced substantial growth, and Ridgefield’s population has more than doubled in the past 10 years.
As mentioned, this is not a surprise. The question now: What are we going to do about it?
We don’t mean that in a provincial or misanthropic way, suggesting that such growth should be prevented. No, we mean it as recognition that growth is inevitable and desirable; but if it is not well managed, it can be deleterious. As The Columbian wrote editorially in June: “Clearly the people are coming. Here they find a good community on the verge of greatness.”
Greatness in a community undoubtedly means different things to different people. And the desire to balance the needs of Clark County’s urban areas with those of its rural settings is an ongoing effort. But as a starting point, LivableCity.org identifies five aspects of livable cities: Robust and complete neighborhoods; accessibility and sustainable mobility; a diverse and resilient local economy; vibrant public spaces; and affordability.
That creates a dichotomy, one that Clark County has seen up close. If an area is livable and desirable, affordability is difficult to maintain; demand causes prices to increase. Real estate website Zillow says the typical home price in the county is $478,000 — a 20 percent increase in the past year.
In the other aspects, local leaders have done an admirable job of promoting livability. The Waterfront Vancouver development and plans for a Heights District development in central Vancouver demonstrate attention to creating robust neighborhoods, accessibility and a diverse economy.
In the meantime, Vancouver’s system of strong neighborhood associations has boosted efforts to manage growth in existing neighborhoods while largely protecting the local character.
Other cities in the county have had intermittent success with managing growth. It can difficult to retain the zeitgeist of a small town during times of rapid growth. Camas, Battle Ground and Ridgefield don’t want to be suburbs of Vancouver or, by extension, Portland — but to some extent that is unavoidable.
Interestingly, adults comprised most of Clark County’s growth over the past decade. While the population of residents 18 and older grew by 23.4 percent, the number of residents under 18 increased by only 4.4 percent. That can be seen as a reflection of increasing housing costs, which often price families out of the market.
Indeed, Clark County has its issues. The homeless population is increasingly visible, echoing the issues seen in large cities along the West Coast. And, as The Columbian has written editorially: “There are too few affordable housing options for lower-wage workers and retirees. We need to help people with mental health and substance abuse disorders. We need to do more to promote equity and social justice in our community.”
But as indicated by the rapid growth, we live in a desirable and attractive community. Because of that, people will continue to come. Effectively managing that growth can lead us to greatness.