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Population Projections: One of the Most Important Tools for Growth Management

When it comes to determining and predicting the needs of a community, population projections are one of the most important tools to guide an area's growth and development.

These projections are critical for mitigating risks and developing economically sustainable communities. They help planners and elected officials anticipate land supply needs such as housing lands, commercial and industrial lands, roadways, schools, parks, and hospitals, as well as services such as water and sewer facilities, police and fire protection, and social support services.

Population projection is defined in this article by Sociology Discussion as “calculations of future birth rate, death rate and migration of population based on their past and present conditions”.

While it’s impossible to predict the future, it’s critical we prepare ourselves as best we can for what future populations may require of our communities. This sort of preparation is especially important for cities like Bellingham, Washington that are seeing a surge in growth.

Population projections associated with the comprehensive plan process in Washington state forecast a twenty-year growth period. Jurisdictions may choose to adopt a forecast that exceeds the twenty-year horizon, but Urban Growth Area (UGA) sizing decisions are limited to a twenty-year period of growth. Annexing UGAs is one of the steps that communities can take to ensure sufficient housing for an expanding population, while reducing sprawl.

According to The Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC), a nonprofit that helps local governments in Washington, “selecting a population forecast is a critical step for communities beginning the review and update of their comprehensive plan.”

Their website continues to say, “selecting a population forecast will impact you whether you are a county, city, or other stakeholder in the comprehensive planning process. The forecast is a fundamental step in the periodic update process as it informs Urban Growth Area (UGA) sizing decisions and impacts budget decisions related to capital facilities and transportation infrastructure.”

From a statewide perspective, it appears that Washington may exceed a population of eight million by 2024 based on current estimates. An article in The Urbanist reports on the current growth rate of Washington’s cities, pointing out that in the past year Bellingham saw a 4.5% increase in population– the highest population increase in the state. While part of this growth is attributed to students returning to Western Washington University, the article also mentions, “a new population high that shows the strong demand for housing in the scenic city sandwiched between the Salish Sea and the Chuckanut Mountains.”

As the City of Bellingham wades through a homelessness crisis, housing shortages, and sky-high market housing prices, we explore the impact of population projections and what they mean for the Bellingham area.

Population Projections Should Be a Key Consideration for Community Planning

The Washington State Growth Management Act (GMA) requires cities and counties to create a comprehensive plan to support future growth. Because Whatcom County is fully planning under the GMA, a Housing Needs Assessment (HNA) is expected to be completed as part of the comprehensive plan update process. Population projections play a key part in a Housing Needs Assessment because the city is expected to provide a variety of housing options which reflect the unique demographic characteristics of the community.

People are the main driver of housing needs. And while populations tend to change fairly slowly, the housing decisions made today — from the amount built to the diversity of homes — will dictate what is available to people in the future. For example, today’s current housing shortage is the result of decades of policy decisions and a lack of emphasis on building entry-level homes.

Population Projections Guide the Development of a Comprehensive Plan

City and county councils factor the estimated increase in population into their comprehensive planning, which guides the future development of their communities. A comprehensive plan is integral in determining housing choices, land use, water use, parks, transportation, community design and character, economic development, and more.

In 2003, Bellingham City Council reviewed the findings and recommendations of the City and County Planning Commissions and adopted a 20-year population projection growth forecast for the year 2022 stating the following:

“Population and employment growth are fundamental considerations in making long-range planning decisions, All key planning decisions — including those involving public facilities and services, allowable residential densities, land for commercial and industrial development, park and roadway designs — are based on the number of people that must be accommodated during the planning period;” (Resolution 2003-39)

Population growth and demographic shifts can impact many aspects of a community, particularly investments in infrastructure and housing. In order to avoid inefficient reactionary measures, city and county council members need to agree on proactive versus reactive plans based on data-driven population projections. After all, a stable economy needs clarity, consistency, and certainty. Proper planning helps to foster all three of these factors.

It’s critical for planners to apply data-driven population projections in their comprehensive plans to ensure communities have the necessary resources for sustainable growth.


Housing for Bellingham is a community resource that works to explain the fundamental processes and terminology associated with housing related decisions in effort to inform the public. When the people understand land use planning processes and terminology, everyone can make more informed decisions about housing and land use policies in their communities. Learn more at


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Contact your Bellingham City Council representative and tell them you support a proactive plan for sustainable growth.

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