Salt Lake City native and former Tribune staffer Tim Sullivan is an urban planner who loves a good story, not to mention a good paradox.
His newly released book, No Communication with the Sea: Searching for an Urban Future in the Great Basin, is chock full of them. The Great Basin is largely uninhabitable, yet booming in population. Its emptiness magnifies human impact, yet we consume large amounts of water and drive almost everywhere. It's largely urban, but we cling to rural traditions.
Sullivan's book focuses on the two largest metropolitan areas at opposite ends of the Basin, Reno and Salt Lake City. The story chronicles how each has coped, is coping and might cope with the challenges of growth, limited resources and a unique lifestyle mixing urban and rural elements.
His interest in urban planning grew out of a subsequent reporting job he landed at The Oregonian, where he covered the development of neighborhoods in Portland. A 2007 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a master's degree in urban planning, the 33-year-old now lives in Oakland with his wife and child, working for the urban design firm Community Design and Architecture.
"My reason for writing the book was as much about the landscape of the West as it was about the city," he said. "I care about both of them equally, and about making both of them work for the other."
Your book concerns the schizophrenic nature of cities in the Great Basin, mainly Salt Lake City and Reno. We live in cities that are urban, yet we deny it. How can we reconcile that?
A lot of sprawl takes place because of too much regulation. Because of our transportation policy, along with the National Housing Act of 1934, we lend to predominantly suburban locations and fund freeways to places that aren't already constructed. A lot of regulation separates commercial and residential zoning. To me, the most important space is public space, or the places where everyone's welcome, and that really build the life of the city. Cities in the Great Basin are basically surrounded by public space owned by the federal government. Integrating public lands outside the city into the city is really important; make them accessible by other ways, instead of just driving out there. It's making a better edge to urban areas. Too much of the city is just big houses in the hinterlands, then the city just ends.
What could Salt Lake City learn from Reno? What could Reno learn from Salt Lake City?
Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front are increasingly seen as a model for urban planning. The voluntary coalition for planning formed by Envision Utah is often seen as a model for others nationwide. Reno, on the other hand, probably embraces the environment of the Great Basin a little more than Salt Lake City, which likes to pretend everyone lives in the mountains. The people in Reno seem less focused on grass and lawns, so tend to use less water. People in Utah love grass, almost more than people anywhere else.
Your book describes the lifestyle of those in Reno and Salt Lake City as almost restless, in the sense that we're always headed somewhere to hike, ski or bike. How should this lifestyle inform urban design decisions?
Absolutely. That's what I mean when talking about bringing public land closer to private land. There's this duality between open space and urban setting that really drives the energy of these cities.
One of the most depressing points you make is how the "cognitive dissonance" of scale and distance in our region makes aesthetic urban design and architecture difficult. Are we doomed to strip malls and other types of ugliness?
I hope not. Optimism is part of my line of work. The Daybreak development in South Jordan on Kennecott land holds promise. The challenge for Daybreak is how it will fit into the rest of South Jordan and the rest of the region. The challenge facing the West is tying development into transportation hubs, and tying developments like Daybreak into the larger plan so that good development is not just an island in the sea.
You describe an interesting paradox of how Tooele County planners and residents want to hold onto isn't that "rural" at all.
We really need to think in a more urban way by contemplating more public space. You don't preserve space by building on 5-acre lots. These spaces aren't used for anything. They're not used for farming, and no one has horses on them anymore. We're just going to have this sea of houses, and we're not leaving future generations much in the way of options.
Tim Sullivan reading
Tim Sullivan, a former Salt Lake Tribune reporter, is an urban planner and author of No Communication with the Sea: Searching for an Urban Future in the Great Basinoffers.
When • Thursday, March 31, 7 p.m.
Where • The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Info • Free; for information, call 801-484-9011 or visit http://www.kingsenglish.com.