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‘Slow streets’ and dense housing: How Salt Lake might become more green

Leaders from Portland and Vancouver share their strategies for building environmentally friendly cities

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City closes portions of Main Street to car traffic on Saturday, May 29, 2021, to welcome shoppers, diners and pedestrians in a revival of last year’s Downtown SLC Open Street program which shares similarities to Vancouver's "slow street" approach.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Travel through Vancouver, Canada and you might come across a “slow street.”

You won’t be allowed to drive your car down it — only locals can do that. But you’d be welcome to enjoy a stroll among its trees, fountains and public art.

Doug Smith, director of sustainability for Vancouver, said communities initially don’t want slow streets, for reasons ranging from visitors being unable to reach them to emergency vehicles potentially being blocked off.

“But as soon as it gets built, two things happen,” he said. “People just realize, ‘Wow, it’s like living in a park.’ And the second thing that happens is everybody around that neighborhood wants the same thing.”

Vancouver isn’t the only Canadian city that’s taken a unique approach to its environmental friendliness. The city of Victoria has “quiet streets” where people can drive, but Smith said these streets are so full of people that no one driving down them can expect to go faster than three miles an hour.

“Salt Lake City, I think ideally, should look at what areas can they close or make quiet,” Smith said.

Salt Lake has experimented with temporary closure of streets before, but permanently adopting slow or quiet streets could be a step toward improving Salt Lake’s notoriously bad air quality, visible every winter when the inversion traps pollutants in a hazy smog.

Ozone is the main ingredient in that smog, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it has a detrimental impact on everything from vegetation and ecosystems to your health.

Salt Lake City has never met federal attainment levels for ozone, according to Swiss air quality company IQair.

And in the 2021 State of the Air report, created by the American Lung Association, Salt Lake County ranked 12th on a list of the 25 U.S. counties most polluted by ozone.

Salt Lake even had the worst air quality in the world on Aug. 6, 2021, when smoke from West Coast wildfires blew over the state.

Smith said for cities to fix environmental issues like air pollution, they have to go beyond basics like recycling and renewable energy. Those things are important, he said, but if a community supports environmentally friendly initiatives but still relies on a system that burns a lot of energy — like driving cars everywhere or living in large private homes — then nothing has really changed.

“If you want to go deeper, you need to really move how we function as a society,” Smith said.

Those necessary societal changes fall into three main categories, he said: Transportation, compact communities and consumption.

Transportation and compact communities

Transportation and compact communities go hand-in-hand; Smith said people need to build cities in a way that they can walk and bike to most places.

Andrea Durbin, director of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said her city “has really championed what we call a ‘20-minute neighborhood’” — everything from grocery stores to libraries to coffee shops are within easy walking and biking distance.

It’s worth noting, however, that nine Portland blocks can fit into a single Salt Lake City block, meaning Portland is inherently more walkable.

But Durbin said even cities with big blocks can rethink a few things.

For instance, when considering zoning codes and land-use policies, she said it’s helpful to allow for more densification and affordability in housing.

Portland did this several years ago with the Residential Infill Project, which she said allows up to four duplexes or triplexes in what used to be single-family zones.

Salt Lake City also has made forays into denser, more affordable housing. Over the past two years, the Utah Housing Preservation fund has bought and preserved 390 units throughout Salt Lake County, some of which are close to public transportation.

Still, Durbin acknowledged that it’s impossible for many people to get away from relying on their cars due to work commutes and other factors. Even Portland, like Salt Lake City, struggles with its air — according to IQAir, the city’s air quality is good, but pollution has been rising since 2016.

That’s why Durbin said she supports investments in electric vehicles and for infrastructure that allows people to drive any zero-emissions car.

She also said it’s important for people to be personally committed and civically engaged. Individuals can make daily decisions about how they get around and what they reuse; they can also engage with elected officials and hold them accountable for their actions.

“Everybody has, I think, their different entry points,” Durbin said. “We all can do what we can do, and there are options for many people to be green and reduce their impact.”

Consumption

The third category, consumption, is “by far” the hardest, Smith said, because everything from what people eat to what they wear has a “massive” environmental footprint.

He said individuals can do simple things to lower their consumption, such as cutting back on their beef and lamb intake (“they use a lot of water, a ton of carbon”) and eating more fish, chicken or vegetarian proteins.

“Every time you make a choice, you have to be intentional,” Smith said.

The most important environmental action anyone can take, he added, is electing officials who will make necessary adjustments.

“We need massive, sweeping changes across our whole system,” Smith said. “And the only way we’re going to do that is by voting in the right people.”

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