It’s Earth Day, a day for celebrating our world and supporting environmental protection — but how much of Earth’s green embrace is actually left?
Utah, it turns out, lost an estimated 713 square miles of natural and agricultural open spaces between 1982 and 2017, consumed by development and urban sprawl driven by record levels of population growth. That’s a verdant expanse equivalent to roughly seven times the footprint of Utah’s capital or slightly more than the entire dry landmass of Salt Lake County.
Nationally, a new study tallies a total of at 68,000 square miles of vanished open spaces over that same time, with the heaviest losses in faster-growing Sun Belt states such as California, Texas and Florida.
The Beehive State — where the population ballooned by 18.4% from 2010 to 2020, the fastest rate in the country — continues to push urban boundaries outward at a rapid pace as its economy swells, subsuming large swaths of green fields, natural areas and traditional farmlands, especially along the Wasatch Front.
The research, based partly on county-level data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, indicates Utah’s open space losses from 1982 and 2017 were concentrated in the five-county corridor from Cache County to Utah County, at 427 square miles. Salt Lake County alone saw 146 square miles of green spaces disappear.
“In terms of prosperity, for a while, there may be some advantages to that in terms of economic activity,” said environmental scientist and planner Leon Kolankiewicz, a co-author of the study, titled “From Sea to Sprawling Sea.”
“But there is still very much a price to pay,” Kolankiewicz said, “in terms of quality of life, more traffic, getting to see the mountains much less often and loss of high-quality sustainable farmland and wildlife habitat. And those are inevitable costs. You can mitigate, but you can’t eliminate them.”
Deploying principles of “smart growth” — denser residential growth with an emphasis on walkability and transit near homes and job centers — might postpone when open spaces on the edges of urban areas get gobbled up, according to Kolankiewicz. But if humans keep multiplying, even at relatively small annual rates, “it’s still going to get devoured.”
“Sustainable growth,” the scientist contends, “is an oxymoron.”
Harking back to zero population growth
In this way, Kolankiewicz and like-minded colleagues represent a return to priorities more at the core of environmental thinking when Earth Day was born, on April 22, 1970. The notion of zero population growth — in which the number of births and in-migration is equal to deaths and out-migration — has since fallen sharply out of fashion.
These days, slowing or stagnating population trends in pockets of the U.S. and around the world are, at least for some, a source of grave alarm. And the idea has never proved popular in Utah, where the prevailing cultural values of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourage members to welcome offspring and build families.
“The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife,” the faith’s family proclamation states. “We declare that God’s commandment for his children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.”
“From the beginning,” said Ari Bruening, CEO of the regional planning agency Envision Utah, “when Utahns have told us what they worry and care about, always at the top of the list is that we are a family-oriented kind of place.”
Public surveys and focus groups since the early 1990s, Bruening added, have shown “the idea of wanting to be told not to have kids and so on has always been anathema to Utahns.”
The state’s birthrate and household sizes have outpaced the rest of the country for decades, though both are declining. Now at 3.3 million, Utah’s population is projected to mushroom to just shy of 5 million by 2050, with smaller households and older residents than today.
Conversations about population limits “are not even remotely on the table,” said Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, another regional planning agency. “The vast majority of the public and politicians does not want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.”
So, pragmatically, Knowlton said, that shifts the debate on saving dwindling open spaces to strategies for refining how Utah grows. And when it comes to robust policies on wiser land development, conservation easements and the like, he said, “we’re not even remotely close to exhausting those avenues.”
Smarter growth is helping
Kolankiewicz’s research breaks out the loss of open space due purely to population as well as losses from existing residents using more land per capita, on everything from larger backyards to streets, shopping malls, offices, schools, government buildings, utilities, parking lots, churches and entertainment.
For the country as a whole, two-thirds of open space losses since 2002 have been due to adding 37 million more people. The other third — 5,850 square miles — has been due to sprawl and more land use per person, though that trend has slowed since 2002 compared to decades in the late 20th century.
On average, the study says, Americans are “still spreading out, although not as much as in the past.”
In Utah, that ratio is far more skewed. Research indicates that 82% of its open space loss is pinned to population and 18% due to additional land consumption per person. That is a strong indication that geography — namely, the combined western barrier of the Great Salt Lake, the Oquirrh Mountains and Utah Lake on its central metropolitan areas — may be forcing developers to make more of existing available acreages.
There are undeniable signs that Utah has also slowed its consumption of open land by applying better development strategies. Separate studies have shown that two decades of Utahns building more compact and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, raising residential density per acre with more apartments and town homes, allowing mixed land uses and threading new transit lines through the Wasatch Front all have helped.
One analysis suggests those approaches have saved the state up to 140 square miles of farms and green spaces since the late 1990s, while reducing commute times, saving up to $4.5 billion in spending on utility lines, roads and sewers, and lowering daily water consumption per person.
In 20 years, the state has also transposed its mix of housing firmly away from being predominantly single-family homes toward thousands of new apartment complexes, town homes, duplexes and other forms of what is called “the missing middle.”
Still, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiments remain widespread in Utah, and most experts in urban planning agree the list of new development projects that fully and successfully apply smart growth principles remains short.
“It’s crazy to me that we think that everybody has almost like a birthright of having a single-family home,” said Alessandro Rigolon, an assistant professor in city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, whose work focuses on urban green space and health equity.
“But if you propose more infill and housing that is more dense, you need to provide some of the same things that a single-family home gives you,” Rigolon said, “so at least there’s a shared courtyard or a pocket park you have access to.”
Why open spaces matter
Utah, as a whole, is still, of course, awash in open lands, including its national and state parks and wilderness areas. By some estimates, though, as many as 1 in 4 households in the state’s primary urban corridor are not within 10-minutes’ walking distance of a park.
Open countryside, rangelands, forests, marshes, farms and other natural areas are not just appealing landscapes or sources of solace and personal therapy. They also provide a vital component to address climate change and replenish air and water supplies.
“Green field land is a public good, but public goods are undervalued,” said Reid Ewing, author and professor of city and metropolitan planning at the U.
In his book “Best Development Practices,” Ewing called for roughly doubling the density of homes per acre across the country and greater incentives for infill development in urban areas and along transit corridors. He points to Salt Lake City neighborhoods such as Sugar House and along 400 South and developments in Herriman and Vineyard as examples where density is saving scads of open acres in the suburbs.
Ewing said, “It’s a simple matter of mathematics.”
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