Growth is coming to the Wasatch Front.
That was the refrain at Planners’ Day, part of the Utah League of Cities and Towns annual three-day convention in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday.
A collection of city leaders and elected officials known as the Wasatch Front Regional Council unveiled their plan for the future of the region, which they call the Wasatch Choice 2050 Vision. They say it could help tackle some of the region’s most pressing issues, including increased traffic, unaffordable housing, and poor air quality.
The primary idea behind the plan is to create dense, urban hubs that can absorb growth along the Front. That would involve clustering apartment developments and businesses around key public transportation routes. The group says that will then allow cities to better preserve their historic character and open space.
That is not necessarily a new idea in city planning circles. It’s become known as transit-oriented development, and it’s gaining steam in major metropolises across the country as they also struggle to accommodate swelling populations.
The idea, however, is new to Utah, according to the plan’s developers.
In his keynote address, Andrew Gruber, the executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, noted that Utah’s population hovered around 1 million in 1970. Today, it’s roughly 3 million and, by 2050, projections are that it will jump to 5 million.
Jeff Silvestrini, the mayor of Millcreek and vice chairman of the regional council, noted that most of that growth, despite some perceptions, is not coming from outside the state — it’s homegrown. Even though Utah’s fertility rate has fallen in recent years, it has historically been among, if not the, highest in the country.
“The majority of [this growth] is our own kids,” Silvestrini said. “It’s inevitable because of the choices that we’ve already made about the size of families we choose to have. So we do need to plan for this or it's going to be a giant mess.”
A plan, though, is only the beginning. The real challenge will be actually putting it in place. Gruber notes there is no formal city-by-city adoption of the plan and local governments still maintain authority over their own land. How many of the proposals get implemented will depend largely on what cities are willing to commit to and available funds.
Organizers say local input has been key throughout the process. The group took four years to create the plan, with much of that time dedicated to discussions with communities and local leaders across the Front.
South Jordan Mayor Dawn Ramsey, who is also part of the regional council, agrees that local control is important, even if growth is not something people want to deal with.
“A lot of people aren’t excited about the growth,” she admitted. “That being said, we can’t stop it from happening.”
She said some of the biggest fears in her city are that families from the area wouldn’t have an affordable place to live or adequate roads and public transportation to get them around in a reasonable amount of time. She said the plan is a good step forward.
“I think there is a lot of merit to what they’ve come up with,” she said. “And the thing that I love the most is that it really is individual, I think that’s the most critical thing to remember. What’s right for my city is not gonna be right for somebody else’s city.”
While growth was framed largely as an obstacle to overcome, particularly for Utah’s capital city, where challenges have already begun pushing people south into Utah County, population increases could also mean economic development for smaller areas.
Paul Larsen, the economic development director of Brigham City, noted that his city is unique because of its rural and urban characteristics and could see major upsides if growth is managed in the right ways.
“Whether it’s recruiting new businesses to the area or helping existing businesses to grow, that’s very important,” he said, ”because that revenue is the engine that makes things happen.”
The interactive map above details the strategies of the Wasatch Choice 2050 Vision For Our Future. Source: Wasatch Front Regional Council website.
Update 5:37 p.m. MDT 9/16/19. Due to a technical error, an incomplete version of this story was originally published. The story has been updated to include the missing paragraph.