Once upon a time, Utah was one of those Western states with more wide-open spaces than city streets. But that was a time long, long ago.
Despite the anachronistic belief of a large number of Utah legislators that we are not an urban state, Utah has one of the most concentrated population masses in the country along the Wasatch Front. About 90 percent of Utahns live on just 1 percent of the land.
Salt Lake County alone has more people than eight states, including Wyoming, Vermont, both Dakotas, Alaska, Delaware, Montana and Rhode Island. And the population of the Wasatch Front — Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties — is expected to grow by 67 percent in the coming 30 years.
Clearly, it’s time to start planning for that growth.
In fact, it’s way past time. Not to say that there haven’t been initiatives started, planning done and much work accomplished — for one thing, Utah has one of the best light-rail systems in the country, although it’s still too expensive — but more local leaders need to get on board.
A growing body of research, including a new study reported by Smart Growth America and the National Institutes of Health, indicate that urban sprawl — the accepted style of growth in Utah for decades — is bad for people in many ways.
Building ever more highways to ever more distant communities creates polluted air, which the Wasatch Front has in abundance; unhealthy residents who drive everywhere instead of walking because shopping, entertainment and jobs are many miles away; and ugly, congested living conditions.
Nearly all the open spaces on the west side of Salt Lake County once devoted to farming or wildlife habitat now lie beneath concrete and asphalt or are half-acre residential lots covered in water-wasting turf.
But, finally, some Utah leaders are accepting what visionary planners have been saying for years: that high-density, walkable enclaves, often built around transit stops, should be the neighborhoods of the future.
Still, the old ideas die hard. For example, the Utah Department of Transportation seems determined to build yet another multilane highway through west Davis County, despite protests from residents who see the futility of it and would rather see more transit and better access to existing freeways.
Groups and initiatives such as Wasatch Choice for 2040 and Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide "Your Utah, Your Future," can design such concepts, but it will be up to UDOT and every city and county council to implement them.
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