The Urban Villages of Bellingham

The Urban Villages of Bellingham

Since 2008, Bellingham has designated and planned for six urban villages to help revitalize and renovate historical and significant areas of the city. For years these areas have seen a lack of development, and the vision of an “urban village” has been unclear for most residents. However, many of these designated areas have seen significant changes to their environment over the last two years and the question remains – what are urban villages, and how will they benefit Bellingham?

Urban villages respond to the urban decay caused by the modernist views of city planners at the local and federal government levels of the post-WW2 economic boom. Advocates of the urban village believe it provides a viable alternative to the social ills that characterize modernism in cities, such as expansive and intrusive highways, large single zoning areas, and urban sprawl.

During the 1950s and 60s, the predominately white middle class of most cities migrated out of the inner city as the area began to grow and diversify. In response, suburbs and Levittown’s housing development ideas dominated the unused land outside cities. Following this were the major one-stop shopping areas consisting of name-brand companies and wide roadways or highways that helped connect the working, shopping, and residential areas. In turn, this increased the need for American families to own at least one automobile for transportation.

Following the large departure of people from the inner cities, these areas now lacked the once available resources from taxes, populations to support local businesses, and the demolition of unused buildings to make room for roads to help connect the suburbs to the cities. Communities within the cities diminished because of corruption, crime, and poverty, while communities outside the cities struggled due to the single zoning use that dominated the suburbs.

In response, urban villages began to take form in the frequently dilapidated and unused areas of the inner cities. Inspired by the ideals of new urbanism, urban villages seek to create self-contained communities that reduce the need to travel large distances and reduce the subsequent reliance on the automobile. Urban villages are seen as a convenient solution that provides the alternatives to modernistic ideals while solving the problems associated with urban sprawl—utilizing the “social and physical morphology of a traditional rural village as an inspiration for creating better functioning communities” (Fainstein). With the decline of noxious industry and the emergence of the service economy, there are more liberties to allow the mixing of employment and residential activities without detriment to the residents within the community.

The design incorporates public space and pedestrianization to help facilitate development within the community by encouraging human interaction. According to the top proponents of urban villages, “urban diversity contributes to the sustainable growth, whereas undifferentiated urban settings depend upon unsustainable exploitation…” (Fainstein). By prioritizing smart growth to help create self-contained communities, people can live, work, relax, and shop in the same area. Reducing reliance on cars for transportation in a community helps encourage cycling, walking, and public transport while simultaneously incorporating parks and recreational sites to foster communal bonds and pride.

Over the years, specific goals have been added and resituated within the hierarchy of importance. For example, the protection of the environment has always been a staple of the urban village. However, a more natural response to solving and planning for economic development has become a top priority. To ensure the urban villages can be self-contained, various businesses need to be adopted into the community to help facilitate the communal ideals at the core of new urbanism and the urban village. This idea is confirmed by the fact that three of the urban villages (Samish, Fountain, Fairhaven) within Bellingham contain a Haggen’s; the Downtown district has a Food Co-op and a Grocery Outlet. The final two are marketing space and development projects for stable, reliable businesses to help fulfill the self-contained ideals.

The Vision for Bellingham

The City of Bellingham sees urban villages as “…activity centers that provide pleasant living, shopping, and working environments; strong pedestrian accessibility… and a balance of retail, office, and residential uses.” (Status Report, 4) As of 2016, the comprehensive plan outlines its 14 goals to “[Guide] urban growth to areas where urban services can be adequately provided” and “reduce urban sprawl.” The city’s plan for growth and development within Bellingham is to help solidify and support these designated areas to see them prosper.

The City of Bellingham has gone as far as providing six different incentives for businesses, investors, or developers to help provide ease of access and affordability to new ideas within the villages. The city is wary of gentrification and losing sight of a core staple of urban villages and mixed-income levels. Currently, 18.4% of all housing units within the villages are affordable to low-income residents. Most new housing units being created must designate a percentage of their units for low-income housing. This designation keeps the core mindset of living, working, and shopping all in one area to allow those without the accessibility of vehicles to survive without extreme measures.

Currently, urban villages only make up 9% of the housing units within the city. However, since 2006, 38% of all new housing units reside within one of the city’s villages. The city’s plan to help provide and encourage growth within the urban villages should benefit all “people by increasing economic development and access to jobs…” (Status Report, 7). Bellingham is also meeting the goal of providing over a third of the city’s new housing growth, with continued plans to keep that new growth until 2036.

After analyzing the current layout of Bellingham, it is evident that the city has suffered from the urban sprawl of modern design plans and the inefficiency that comes from relying on single-zone areas. With clear lines drawn around neighborhoods and heavy reliance on vehicle travel to connect working environments, shopping, and living environments, it is understandable why the city is trying to circumvent the problems of urban sprawl by prioritizing these urban villages.




Bartholomew, K., & Cowles, D. (2018). City of Bellingham, WA Department of Planning & Community Development Urban Village Status Report.

Comprehensive Plan Photo by Tore Ofteness. (2016).

Fainstein, S., 2022. urban planning | Definition, History, Examples, Importance, & Facts. [online]       Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: <> [Accessed 9 February 2022].

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, February 3). Urban village. Wikipedia. Retrieved February 7, 2022, from,British%20national%20planning%20policy%20between%201997%20and%201999.

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