Utah’s economy and population are growing — and that’s a good thing. Our state’s low rate of unemployment attracts new businesses and individuals to live and work in Utah. And with a rate of population growth that is above the national average, Utah expects to move from its current population of 2.9 million to 5.4 million by 2050.
This growth can and is being managed smartly. Since the late 1990s, many of Utah’s leading minds have been planning and preparing for this future through the Envision Utah process. The coalition and its task forces have been working to ensure that the state’s air, water, transportation and land-use policies are sufficient to manage the state’s growing needs.
With regard to containing “sprawl,” the key urban areas in Utah are in fact doing better than the national average. That reality has been clouded by the apparently divergent result of two studies on suburban sprawl released this month. One, by a population-reduction group known as NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation, said that Utah was experiencing the second-highest rate of sprawl in the country, after Nevada. The report, “Vanishing Open Spaces,” said that 203 square miles had been developed from 2002 to 2010, versus 646 from 1982 to 2010 — or roughly the same pace of development as in the 1980s and 1990s.
But Smart Growth America, a national organization dedicated to encouraging economic development around transportation hubs, came to a very different conclusion. It found that the Provo-Orem and Salt Lake metropolitan areas both had less sprawl than the national average. The Ogden-Clearfield area was just at the average. This study analyzed 221 metropolitan areas across four dimensions: instead of simply measuring density, it factored in land-use mix, whether construction was centered around transportation hubs and whether urban development was automobile-driven.
Praising the Smart Growth America effort, Envision Utah CEO Robert Grow said that by contrast, the NumbersUSA “methodology is lacking in providing useful information or reasonably clear comparison between places.”
Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, elaborated in critiquing NumberUSA: “States don’t sprawl — that unit of geography is much too large to measure.” One should instead measure cities or counties. Ewing, whose Metropolitan Research Center provided baseline information for the Smart Growth America report, “Measuring Sprawl 2014,” said that today, urban planners look beyond density to “integrated land uses,” “centricity” around new urban destinations, and creating livable and walkable city blocks.
Gateway and City Creek in downtown Salt Lake City are two examples of this kind of urban development. Ewing also sees potential urban hubs in Sandy, Draper, 9th and 9th streets in southeast Salt Lake City, the Sugar House neighborhood, Daybreak in South Jordan, and in West Valley City. “The model for metropolitan planning regions almost all involve strengthening existing centers and linking them with transit,” he said.
“We are getting less sprawl than we had in the past,” Grow said. The Envision Utah process has been successful in reducing development, with 29 percent fewer square miles by 2020 than were projected back in 1998, he said. Market forces have led the size of the average single-family lot to drop from one-third acre in 1998 to about one-quarter acre today. That, in turn, has led per capita water consumption to drop by 25 percent.
“People are living in more compact communities than we have had in the past as we better orient our urban development,” he said. “As we grow, we need to continue to offer people choices — some would like to live in the downtown, while others want more single-family homes but close enough to walk to some destinations.”
Utah’s Wasatch Front needs continued progress in managing natural resources. This is particularly true in improving air quality.
The efforts of Envision Utah, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and the new Mountain Accord planning process are successfully bringing a collaborative spirit to economic development, environmental preservation, transportation planning and tapping the recreational potential of the mountains. We need to “build at the base of the canyons and to keep development out of the canyons,” said Laynee Jones, program manager for Mountain Accord.
It can be easy to take aim at “sprawl.” As our cities, counties and state continue to work together to manage resources amidst growth and development, we should recognize past progress and acknowledge the need for continued diversity in housing and transportation choices for Utah’s economic development.