Defining Our Destiny at the 6th Annual Urban Studies Forum

Main page content

The 2015 UW Tacoma Urban Studies Forum addressed questions of jobs and housing in the South Sound.

Watch complete 2015 Urban Studies Forum on YouTubeThe 2015 Urban Studies Forum, hosted by UW Tacoma’s Urban Studies Program, attracted a sell-out crowd to the campus’s William W. Philip Hall on February 19, which wrestled with questions of jobs and housing in the South Sound.

Ali Modarres, director of the Urban Studies Program, began the event by reminding participants of the topic of last year’s forum, Beyond Urban Branding: “Last year’s forum was about the importance of leadership and an inclusively created vision for a region, and economic development within the context of that vision.” Modarres posed the fundamental question for this year’s forum: what kind of jobs for what kind of housing and what kind of housing for what kind of jobs?

The writers and editors at Tacoma’s Exit133 news site attended the forum and published a summary for their readers, reprinted here (thanks to Exit133, an ongoing, committed supporter of UW Tacoma):

At the UWT Urban Studies forum on jobs and housing last month we got deeper insights from panels of smart people about finding the right mix of jobs and housing for strong economic development. While the discussion looked more broadly at questions of jobs and housing trends around the country, we also got to hear the ideas applied to Tacoma and the Puget Sound Region.

Watch complete 2014 Urban Studies Forum on YouTubeThe speakers were more eloquent than we can possibly be on the topic, but we'll try to point out a few themes that emerged when it came to the Puget Sound Region, and Tacoma's place in it.

There's no getting around the fact that Seattle dominates the economy in the region, and possibly in the state. If you had any doubt about that, a look at Modarres' maps and charts is pretty convincing - Seattle has more jobs, more companies, higher incomes, higher educational attainment, and higher wages - even within some of the same categories of jobs. Homes are worth more in Seattle, and the percentage of workers commuting to jobs outside King County is tiny, compared to the much larger numbers of Pierce County residents commuting outside our county (see above map).

So Seattle has all that. What do Tacoma and Pierce County have? Well, we have affordability, and we have the smaller towns and less dense conditions that may actually be what people are looking for.

We frequently hear that millenials find dense urban centers more attractive than previous generations, and will seek them out. Some of the statistics we saw at the forum suggest that while more of that generation may be open to living in the more dense big city, they also like the suburbs. Lunchtime keynote speaker Kotkin noted that across the country people are heading for smaller towns and cities, leaving urban cores, looking for affordability. Kotkin cited statistics suggesting that Americans, even Millenials, want single-family homes in suburban environments - particularly earlier suburban areas.

Context for Development: Demography, Economy and Regional Dynamics, Ali Modarres, Ph.D., February 2015Tacoma and Pierce County can offer that.

But they also want access to good jobs, good schools, and good amenities. That's an area of... opportunity for Tacoma, if the city is to attract growth.

Tacoma's universities are another asset for Pierce County. Universities, Modarres noted, are a strong source of growth, people, and jobs. They bring and train the "creative class," and act as economic engines. But if the people who come to a city for reasons related to a university don't have attractive housing options - supported by the schools, neighborhoods, and other amenities they want - they will leave, Modarres warned. As we see with the outflow of workers from Pierce County to King County.

If regions don’t figure out how to work with their universities, their universities will become an engine for exporting their skilled workforce.   

To keep people who are already here, and to attract others, then, Tacoma and Pierce County need a unified vision for growth. We heard several themes throughout the forum in terms of key elements of a strong and sustainable economic development strategy for the region.

  • Focus on our strengths - we heard from several speakers that the region needs to focus on its existing strengths, rather than trying to ape other cities' successes.
  • Focus on growing and diversifying higher wage industries - the region has long focused on middle class needs, but there is an area of opportunity for attracting higher wage workers who don't want to be in urban cores
  • Prepare for and actively seek out populations expected to see significant growth in the coming decades: the "young old," or active retired baby boomers; millenials and young families; and immigrant populations
  • Market the region as a great place for people seeking affordable quality of life.

In response to an audience question following up on his presentation, keynote speaker Kotkin responded that the "sweet spot" for cities is to provide attractive housing near jobs, amenities, and good schools. The trick, Kotkin said, is to provide that situation, but make it affordable. Tacoma and Pierce County could hit this sweet spot, but it will take a concerted effort.


Written by: 
John Burkhardt / March 18, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or