Issaquah’s sustainability evaluation shows some positive signs, some concerns

In order to keep tabs on the city's effort toward sustainability, in 2008 Mayor Ava Frisinger assembled a panel of 16 community leaders to develop a long-term vision of sustainability, as well as recommending metrics to track the city's progress toward specific goals.

A city’s ability to remain economically viable, retain a strong commercial core, promote its strengths while also preserving the local environment, serve the needs of all residents, and basically make the city a nice place to live can be encapsulated by the word “sustainable.”

In this context, sustainable means helping locally-owned businesses to thrive, providing employment opportunities for residents, reducing the impact of development on natural resources, and building a city with a wide range of people and self-sufficient resources, better equipped to ride the economic and environmental ups and downs of the future.

The City of Issaquah is a leader among cities of its size in exploring ways in which it can be more sustainable. Well-known examples include its 2009 ordinance requiring restaurants to use compostable packaging for takeaway foods, its promotion of affordable housing projects by providing incentives to residential developers, and the administration’s determination to secure and preserve green spaces in and around the city.

In order to keep tabs on the city’s effort toward sustainability, in 2008 Mayor Ava Frisinger assembled a panel of 16 community leaders to develop a long-term vision of sustainability, as well as recommending metrics to track the city’s progress toward specific goals.

A little more than a year down the track and a picture is emerging, of how Issaquah has shaped itself as one of the Northwest’s most sustainable cities, but also of the unsustainable practices which continue to thrive here.

Of the former, far more residents now travel to work by bus, bike, rail, vanpool, or on foot, than in years past, as the city moves toward its goal of a 10 percent reduction in single-occupancy car trips by 2011 from 2006 levels.

Though still short of its goal, sustainability planners have been encouraged by statistics which show that although telecommuting and vanpools accounted for less than 1 percent of work travel in 1993, they now account for over 10 percent, reducing the number of people on the roads in a.m. and p.m. peak hours.

This was led by the efforts of large employers like Costco, where 32 percent of employees commute to the Issaquah headquarters by bus, bike, carpool or vanpool.

For employees of large businesses, single-occupancy car travel has decreased by 7 percent since 1993. At the same time, carpooling has also decreased, by 4 percent, indicating commuters are eager to get out of their cars to get to work, no doubt inspired by rising fuel prices in that period.

On a related topic, the sustainability report card found that Issaquah remained largely automobile dependent, with only 6 percent of residents living within a walkable distance, defined as a quarter of a mile, of a grocery store, and 4 percent within walking distance of health services. More pleasing, 36 percent of residents can walk to a bus stop, and 94 percent of residents live within a walkable distance of parks and open space.

This is a particular point of pride to the city administration, which in the past decade has worked hard to add 850 acres of protected open spaces within the city boundaries, representing nearly 20 percent of total acres in the city.

Some other key indicators include:

• The number of people served annually by the Issaquah Food Bank has increased by 3,900 since 1999.

• The gap between the amount a typical household can afford for housing and the median price of housing in Issaquah has increased from $77,900 in 2000 to $186,200 in 2007. The real estate boom in 2005-2007 moved home prices on the Eastside out of reach of many working families.

• Although Issaquah households now recycle 8 percent more than they did in 1998, total waste generation has increased to 18.4 pounds per person per week, up from 15.3 pounds in 1998.

• For households making less than 80% of King County median income the percentage of affordable rental units has decreased from 85 percent of all rental units in 2005 to 73 percent in 2007. The King County median income for a family of four is $85,600.

• 60 percent of Issaquah businesses are owned by people who live outside the city, a similar percentage to recent years.

• Residential energy use per household has decreased from 15,225 kWh in 2000 to 9,631 kWh in 2009.

• Energy use in the commercial and industrial sectors has increased, as has the number of businesses in Issaquah.

“The report shows us many positive signs – including an increase in Issaquah’s natural open spaces,” Frisinger wrote in a press release last week. “Commuters are also making fewer drive-alone trips, volunteerism is strong and participation in the arts is increasing.”

However, Frisinger noted, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The report shows a growing need for basic needs at the local food bank, and housing affordability remains an issue.

For more information on Issaquah sustainability report card, visit