last update: January 6th, 2008
I: Smart Growth in Utah & the West


How do Utah & the West support population growth without sacrificing living standards?

The Wasatch Front and Southern Utah are seeing tremendous year-after-year growth; and to my surprise it isn't because Mormons are having more kids. Like many Western cities, the Wasatch front and Utah's Dixie are part of an migratory trend that has been happening for the past 10 years. People are moving away from larger Eastern cities (with the exception of New York and Chicago) and heading West for the promise of a stronger economy and more outdoor recreation options. Denver, Tucson, Boise, and Las Vegas, were the primary recipients of those escaping the Eastern cities. But in the past few years Salt Lake City and Saint George have joined the ranks. As a result, rather than population growth coming solely due to the fruitful nature of the majority of our population. Today, Utah is now seeing substantial growth due to the Western migration population shift. (source)







While growth is one of the major factors making Utah's economy the strongest in the nation, (source) growth has also created problems for City and State leaders. Law makers are faced with difficult decisions in how best to handle growth so that traffic congestion, polluted air and suburban sprawl don't decimate the beauty of our Western outpost. Planners ultimately want to avoid creating the same problems that eastern migrants moved away from.

Despite their eye towards preservation and land conservation, many state leaders believe that there is simply no other viable solution to congestion problems than to build wider highways, more freeway off-ramps and more traffic lights. Beef up the infrastructure and traffic will be alleviated; commuters will be happy (source). Without doubt, this is the quickest and easiest fix. However, it's clear that these are by no means long-term or sustainable solutions. Smart growth experts agree that this model only perpetuates the problems associated with suburban sprawl and increases dependency on oil, land, highway maintenance and vehicles.

As more highways are paved or widened, UDOT cannot build fast enough to stay ahead of the curve (source). Commuters always beat the projections for how long highways will be sustainable before they become congested. Asphalt hungry suburban sprawl is never satisfied. According to "Suburban Nation," there is never an attainable point when traffic and highway construction are sustainable. This is because of a simple fact: As more highways are built to accommodate traffic, the reaction of the population is always to move further away from their place of work, attracted by more affordable housing in the farther away suburbs.

view of Mount Olympus along the Wasatch front. Ten miles east of downtown Salt Lake City (photo credit)
photo credit: taken from the outskirts of Denver, Colorado by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. (source)

With all of the outdoor recreation opportunities in Utah: mountains, canyons, lakes, trails; third in the country in number of National Parks; more state parks than anywhere else. it's astonishing that ten-percent of all Utahn's are obese.

Workouts have become dreaded activities performed in gyms, suffered though while watching TV. It doesn't have to be this way, exercise can be built into lifestyle, built into our neighborhoods by building bike pathways and more walking .

This actually isn't a new idea, nearly all neighborhoods over fifty-years-old accomodate pedestirans better than new neighborhoods. In Europe, it would be unthinkable to drive a car to buy basic necesities. In most new American neighboorhoods, even short trips are impossible by foot without undergoing grave danger from busy intersections and poor sidewalks.

Transit and good pededestrian walkways/bikepaths is also not an antiquated idea. Cities in the United States and especailly Europe still design under the premise that if they put pedestrian convience first the community will use the walkways and drive less. For more on this see our next smart growth story.

Waistlines in America continue to expand. Today 17% of Americans are obese. Studies have shown that this trend is largely due to the sedentary nature of American life and lack of physical activity. According to a recent study, just thirty minutes of walking per day would result in half as many people suffering from obesity and this requires no change in diet. (source) With a little more foresight into smart urban planning more people could ditch their car and walk to do more errands.

The typical model for sprawling suburban developments are cu-de-sacs and inlet roads only leading to wider busy roads, whereby only the from the wide busy roads can people access grocery stores and restaurants. This common modern community design is absent of plans for meaningful pedestrian usage.

Under this typical model, however, home builders can maximize profits because they build cookie-cutter tract homes for miles, requiring very little planning or pedestrian infrastructure (see history above). The unrealized expense is lack of a community center and walkable destinations.

Fifty years ago mixed use development was a no brainier. However, today "walkable communities" is a buzz term, like it's something new and special. Planners must remember that our feet were not designed to only push gas pedals. People are more than commuters and when this is forgotten the result is obesity.

recent studies have linked long commuting times to many health problems including obesity.(more)

Comedian Jack Black plays
Nacho Libre.

If trends continue by 2030 a majority of Americans will be obese.

Following the Second World War, in America, the Levitt brothers, William and Alfred, built thousands of nearly identical 800 sq ft "Cape Cod-style" houses, on Long Island (New York State) and later in Pennsylvania. Levittown was the name given to both these developments. In 1952 it was estimated that these houses were being built at a cost of approximately $5000 each. The repetitive nature of the plans, and the large number of units produced, were the most significant factors in reducing the cost of these houses.

photo courtesy of SUU

Munich: A Marvel of Smart Growth and Transit >>

This trend is a result of Americans pragmatism in home buying decisions. Since the end of World War II Americans have been attracted to ever increasing home square footage. Americans now live on average in twice the amount of space the the rest of the developed world. The average American home is 1900 square feet while the average European space is just 1100 square feet. American citizens often use square footage as measurement of prosperity which has lead to the Mcmansion trend.

However, to impose European values on Americans is not a solution. I can identify with the mentality. Why buy a two bedroom rambler in the city for $300 k if we can instead buy a five bedroom, two car garage home in Roy (a distant Salt Lake City suburb)for the same amount of money? But factor in the hours each day added to commuting time and the home savings become added expense in the form of sedentary car driving, (causing health problems I will go into later). What seems to be the main force in perpetuating sprawl are the policies in place that are clearly support sprawl and roads over land conservation and higher density development. Its clear just by examining the numbers why this trend continues. Home developers are in bed with our Utah State Legislature.

Developers like Anderson Development of Salt Lake City, no doubt support highway construction and they and many other home builders have a powerful lobbying effort (The Utah Builder Association.) Their stated objective is clear, to provide more Utahns the dream of affordable housing. In this effort they donate generously to Legislators. Greg Curtis Rep. of Sandy (see source) has been one big recipient. Legislators know that if they were to put a stop to the continuous supply of asphalt that keeps their sprawling home building business going, they might not have the financial support needed to be reelected. Consequently, the sprawling Wasatch continues outward and onward. However, as nature clearly shows, efficient system growth is verticle not horizontal. The farther away people live the more inefficient. This trend requires not only more gasoline for commutes, but also, roads, power lines, sewer lines, water and maintenance costs all are increased substantially from sprawling growth. Add them up and its a heavty price tag unaccounted for in the inexpensive home price.

The Impact of Suburban Sprawl and Bad Planning

There is an obvious side effect in this post WWII method of growth. With poor planning also comes poor health. Commuting hours take away from leisure time that could otherwise be spent exercising. Also, poorly planned neighborhoods don't often provide for pedestrian convieniences like tree lined streets, safe intersections or walkable destinations, such as grocery stores. Resulting in a grim statistic: 92 percent of all trips from the home are made via car. Walking and bicycle only account for 8 percent of trips. Compare this to any other developed country, where most people still don't own cars, and our obesity epidemic begins to make more sense.

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book recommendations on cultural problems stemming from poor planning: