The sustainable future of Thurston County

It’s a rainy Thursday afternoon in northeast Olympia, and local resident Tanner Milliren is bundled up in a communal woodshop where the construction of his new tiny home is well under way. Milliren had worked in construction for many years when he began to see tiny homes as a means of living a sustainable life. As an individual committed to living out his values, Milliren is finding ways to source high-quality, sustainable material to construct his home. He explained, “I want to live smaller and I want to live simpler. Progressive cities are realizing that this is a movement that isn‘t going away.”

Thurston County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state of Washington and is projected to continue on this trajectory for decades to come. The Thurston Regional Planning Council projects that by 2040 there will be more than 400,000 residents living in the county. This means that individuals and institutions coming together to work towards common goals of practical sustainability is only becoming more important.

How do you want your community to look, function, and feel in 2035? How can we improve our livelihoods while minimizing our footprint? These were the questions at the heart of a long-term plan crafted in 2001 called Sustainable Thurston. Initiated by the Thurston Regional Planning Council, the project offered a platform that allowed thousands of community members to come together to construct a regional vision of sustainable development. The Sustainable Thurston plan defines a sustainable community as a community that “…will enhance quality of life, foster economic vitality, and protect the environment while balancing our needs today with those of future residents.”

Michael Burnham, Senior Planner for the City of Olympia, played an important role in creating Sustainable Thurston. Burnham explained, “We’ve tried to reach that delta of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. You have to think about all of the different pieces at the same time and not in silos.” He added, “The question is, how do you sustain growth and still be sustainable?” The cities of Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater have all begun to integrate parts of Sustainable Thurston into their long-term plans. Keeping downtown and residential areas compact so that farmland and wilderness can be preserved is one example.

Thurston Thrives is another case of how local organizations are taking bold steps to make our region more sustainable. A grassroots organization of community members, Thurston Thrives works to build collaborations within the community to create a more healthy, happy population. They have created eight action teams that cover various aspects of health and wellness in the community. Their focuses range from Public Safety and Justice to the Environment (including Climate & Clean Energy) to Community Design. Thurston Thrives is adamant about individuals getting involved, and they emphasize the value of taking simple steps like attending school board or city council meeting. Often, the biggest impact is made when individuals take a stance on local issues.

What would our community look like in 2035 if more citizens were taking steps to embrace sustainability? In a cold woodshop, sitting next to his partially constructed tiny home, Milliren explains, “Being able to downsize enables people to direct their finances, time, and energy towards things that are more meaningful.” There are many paths to and models of sustainability. All of them involve action, creativity, and—at times—some sort of sacrifice. The involvement of both institutions and individuals is critical. Burnham says that one should “not only look at what your city or county can do to help the region become more sustainable, but think about what actions you and your neighbors can take to become more sustainable.”

Look at thurstonthrive.org, www.trpc.org, for more information and to get educated on the efforts of your community. Look for Tanner Milliren on Tiny House, Big Life, HGTV coming soon!

Gabrielle Korrow is a journalism student at Evergreen State College.