Utah cities added hundreds of thousands of people in a decade

Nearly 3 million Utahns — around 90% of the state’s population — lived in about 940 square miles within 25 urban areas defined by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New development construction on the western edge of Magna on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. Utah's urban centers continue to far outpace population growth in rural areas of the state, according to the U.S. Census.

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Utah’s urban areas continue to drive growth even though there are technically fewer of them than a decade ago.

Nearly 3 million Utahns — around 90% of the state’s population — lived in 25 urban areas defined by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2020.

That’s a smaller portion than in 2010 when 91% of the state’s population lived in 36 urban areas and clusters, but it’s more people.

Urban areas, with their education and economic opportunities, generally have been the “heart of the state’s largest growth,” said Mallory Bateman, the director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Demographers at Gardner don’t expect that to change, she said.

Urban areas added 434,000 people in a decade

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) New home construction in Saratoga Springs on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. About 90% of Utahns live along the Wasatch Front and a few other urban areas.

Urban areas are one of a few ways to look at a state’s urban population, Bateman said. They generally have a bigger footprint than the city boundaries and than a metropolitan or micropolitan area, she added.

From Logan to the Wasatch Front to St. George, the federally defined urban areas comprised more than 940 square miles in 2020. That’s about 1% of the land area in the state.

It’s also about 3% more square miles than urban areas covered in 2010, even though the U.S. Census Bureau reclassified Beaver, Gunnison, Kanab and nine other areas as rural.

Those cities might still feel like the urban center of their region, Bateman said, but they were small communities.

They didn’t meet the new threshold of 5,000 people or 2,000 housing units, but a new area — Brigham City — did.

In 2020, Utah’s 25 urban areas were home to 2.94 million people, contained 1 million housing units and averaged a population density of about 2,340 people per square mile.

That’s 434,000 more people than in 2010, as well as thousands more housing units and denser population centers. In comparison, about 74,000 more people lived in rural areas in 2020 than in 2010.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Housing in St. George on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. The city's population grew by 36.3% between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census data.

Urban areas varied widely in population, size and density, from:

  • 1,048 people in the West Wendover area (spanning the Utah and Nevada border) to 1.18 million people in the urban area around Salt Lake City.

  • 3.14 square miles in Stansbury Park (in Tooele County) to 300.42 square miles in Salt Lake City.

  • 186.3 people per square mile in West Wendover to 5,081.2 in Eagle Mountain in Utah County.

All but three — Ephraim, Price and West Wendover — grew between 2010 and 2020.

Ephraim also shrunk in size based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition, but Price and West Wendover lost people despite gaining size.

Overall, urban areas in Utah had a 17.3% population increase between 2010 and 2020. That’s higher than every state but North Dakota, where the urban population increased 17.9%.

Most cities, towns continued growing in 2022

Two other ways of looking at urban population also show cities and towns driving Utah’s growth since 2020.

Utah has nine metropolitan and micropolitan areas, most of which sit along Interstate 15.

All of them grew between 2021 and 2022, adding an estimated 40,179 residents. Growth ranged from 210 people in Price to 17,003 people in Provo-Orem.

There also are 253 cities, towns and metropolitan townships across the state.

About 180 of those added a total of 57,732 people between 2021 and 2022. Another 70 cities and towns lost a total of 18,918 people, and four had an unchanged population.

That’s a net growth of 38,815, with much of the increase concentrated on the Wasatch Front and around Logan and St. George.

More urban growth expected

No matter how you look at the numbers, urban growth is driving Utah’s population increase.

That’s been true for decades, Bateman said.

She’s currently working on a report looking at the urban population and said the majority of the state’s growth each decade since 1950 has been in urban areas.

Those areas also have grown in size, she said, with an expanding footprint.

“When I was younger in Utah, you’d get to Spanish Fork, and that’s when you’d hit open freeway,” Bateman said.

It makes sense that people move to established population centers, she said, because there are more education and economic opportunities.

And the constraints of lakes and mountains mean growth has to push north or south from the population center of the Wasatch Front, she said.

Bateman and other demographers expect growth to continue in urban areas based on projections.

“We don’t think the economic driver of Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County is going to change,” she said.

Utah and Washington counties also can expect a similar level of growth, she said.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.