30 Changes in 30 Years
Metropolitan Seattle Since 1990
Since its founding in 1851, the Seattle area has been among the fastest growing and most dramatically changing metropolitan areas in the U.S. It has been a timber town, a port and shipbuilding town, a center of aircraft manufacturing and a technology hub. As each new layer is added to the region, the old layers remain, giving Seattle a rich and diverse economy with a foot in the past and in the future.
Each new era of Seattle’s evolution has been marked by an inflection point that sends the region in a new direction. One of those inflection points centered on 1990. These data explorations illustrate how the Seattle metropolitan area has changed since then, and what can happen, for good and bad, in 30 dynamic years*. (Download a PDF of the complete document here.)
Seattle in 1990
Few knew it at the time, of course, but in 1990 the Seattle region was on the cusp of some major demographic changes, driven by some even larger economic shifts.
The 1980s were a turbulent period for the region. The decade began with a double-dip recession that was the deepest since the Great Depression. Efforts to fight inflation hit the housing industry hard. Not only did this stall what had been a vigorous construction industry in the Seattle area, but it also crippled the region’s still-important wood products industry. In the early 1980s, unemployment peaked at over 10 percent nationally, and over 12 percent in the Seattle area.
Things gradually improved during the 1980s. Boeing had debuted two new aircraft—the 757 and 767—in 1981 and was increasingly busy filling orders. It began a major redesign of the 747 in 1985 and launched the 777 in 1990.
In 1990, Seattle was still very much a Boeing town. Regional employment at the company itself was well over 100,000 in 1990. With an employment multiplier of 3.9, over 400,000 people—one quarter of the three-county workforce—owed their jobs to Boeing. No other private employer came even close to that impact.
This time period also saw a much reduced role for natural resource
industries in the Seattle area. Environmental and resource conservation efforts
led to downsizing in wood products and fisheries industries, and productivity
improvements further reduced employment. Diminishing natural resource activity in
the Northwest rippled through the commercial centers of Seattle.
About 2.5 million people lived in the three-county metro area in 1990. King County had about 1.5 million people, split evenly between Seattle, suburban cities and unincorporated areas. Residential growth during the 1970s and 1980s had been entirely suburban. Between 1970 and 1990, Seattle’s population dropped by 3 percent while the balance of King County grew by nearly 60 percent. In 1970, Seattle contained 46 percent of the county population, and this had fallen to 34 percent by 1990.
Outside of Seattle, Post-War homebuilding and population growth had mostly taken place in unincorporated areas. In 1980, about 22 percent of the county’s population lived in 28 suburban cities, while 40 percent lived in unincorporated areas. Annexations and incorporations began to change that ratio in the 1980s, and by 1990, 32 percent of the county population lived in suburban cities, with 34 percent in unincorporated areas. The Washington State Growth Management Act was finalized in 1990, and this would drive large scale incorporations and annexations, significantly increasing the suburban city share of the population.
In 1990, about one percent of the U.S. population lived in the Seattle metro area, and this rose to 1.2 percent in 2019. Seattle was the 15th largest metro area in the country in 1990, and it retains that position in 2019.
How Seattle has Changed. . .or Not.
The 30 data points in this series show ways that the region has grown and changed, and how it compares with other metro areas in the country. In some cases, there is extensive change, and in other cases, not much change at all. Overall, the region is:
Much larger. Total population has grown by over 50 percent since 1990.
Much more affluent. After adjusting for inflation, the total amount of personal income circulating in the Puget Sound area is 2.5 times larger in 2019 than in 1990.
More diverse. The population identifying as something other than white has doubled from 13 percent to 27 percent, and several cities are majority-minority.
Less unequal than you might think. Inequality in the Seattle area remains lower than the national average, and has increased only modestly since 1990.
More breathable. Air quality has steadily improved since 1990, with few unhealthy days most years.
More dense. The state Growth Management Act has succeeded in its goal of increasing residential densities throughout the urbanized parts of the region.
Still living in detached
houses and driving cars. Higher densities have not changed the region’s
tastes for living in single family homes and driving to work.
Some things to think about
Geographies. Urbanized areas are complex and fluid, with people, employers and institutions spread among many jurisdictions. The data presentations in 30/30 will use different geographies, depending on the information. The Census Bureau defines the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metropolitan area as King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Data will often be presented for the three counties. A few data sets combine just King and Snohomish Counties. Other data will be presented for King County alone and may include a subset of the 39 cities contained in it. Indexer also uses school district boundaries and the 16 Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs), defined by the Census Bureau, which provide convenient subareas of King County.
Dates and ranges. We try to use the most recent data available, and note the years of the data. When the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) is used, the dates may be a single year, usually 2018. When the sample size is small, we use the ACS 5-year averages, and these are indicated by a range, usually 2014-2018.
Data limitations. The Indexer uses both survey and administrative data, and no data source captures perfectly that which it is trying to measure. Some data is quite accurate, such as the number of births, which are recorded meticulously. Other data is much less accurate. Generally, the smaller the geographic unit, the greater the challenge of accuracy. Please refer to the Indexer’s page on data sources and limitations
* Well, not quite 30 years in most cases. The base year for most data is 1990, and the most recent year will vary. Public data always has some time lags, so the newest available figures may be several years old. Some data series started after 1990.