Robert Gehrke: Utah’s growth doesn’t show any signs of letting up and will factor into every decision we make

The challenge is maintaining quality of life when there are a lot more lives.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Considering it was basically just numbering things, or in this case people, the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of Utah’s new population figures made a lot of noise.

The Count from Sesame Street would have approved.

The news stories focused on Utah being No. 1, the fastest growing state in the nation — by percentage, at least — over the past decade. Our population grew by 507,761 people, an 18.4% increase from the last Census 10 years ago.

Finishing first is cool, I suppose, but the growth we saw shouldn’t come as a surprise. We should be used to it by now because we’ve been seeing it for three decades at this point.

Between 2000 and 2010, Utah’s population swelled by 530,686 people, an increase of 24%, and from 1990 to 2000, the state added 510,319 residents, a bump of 30%.

“We’ve always been a state that grows, if you look all the way back to our first census numbers up to now,” said Mallory Bateman, state data center coordinator at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “We were slower when we were a more rural and mining-dependent economy, but we’ve always grown.”

Blame the babies.

In the 1990s, nearly 70% of the population growth was driven by births, and while that has tapered off to just under two-thirds, Bateman said, it remains the major driver of growth in the state.

There’s really no reason to think that will suddenly stop. And if the economy remains strong, Bateman said, people will continue to migrate to the state.

That’s why the Gardner Institute’s population projections forecast Utah growing by another half million people in the next decade and the population surpassing 4 million by 2034.

That growth — and how we respond to it — will shape the future of our state.

It will also put intense pressures on our quality of life: Clean air, water availability, educational quality, transportation congestion, housing prices, on and on.

We need to be strategic about it, and fortunately there are a handful of organizations — EnvisionUtah, the Wasatch Front Regional Council, the Mountainland Metropolitan Planning Organization, and others — dedicated to making sure we get it right.

“All signs point to us continuing to grow,” said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, ”so we’ve got to think differently about the way we’re growing.”

Through four years of meetings with community leaders and local governments, WFRC developed a vision for how to accommodate more than 2 million new residents expected by 2050 and, at its core, it involves giving people lots of options.

As land becomes more and more limited, communities will have to focus on redeveloping existing areas, in many cases increasing density with mixed-use development (a phrase that will make many of my Salt Lake friends cringe) with townhouses, condos and multi-family housing.

That doesn’t mean that’s all that should be built, Gruber said. If people want a suburban single-family home with a yard and drive to an office, that should remain an option, if they can afford it. But the way to preserve that option is to make higher-density, multi-family options available.

The state currently has a housing shortage of about 50,000 units, and there is more demand for multi-family or mixed-use housing than there is supply.

Right now, about 75% of housing is single-family, he told me. Looking to 2050, that mix will likely need to be closer to 60% single-family and 40% various kinds of mixed use.

Those developments can be built closer to workplaces or transit stops, making bus and rail a more attractive option, taking cars off roads and reducing Utah’s notorious air pollution. These denser housing options also don’t have lawns that need to be watered, an important conservation measure as we are, as I recently wrote, mired in a 20-year-long drought with temperatures continuing to rise.

There will also need to be a concerted effort to preserve open spaces, said Gruber. That means protecting trails and recreation areas, but also making sure communities have easy access to parks and bike and pedestrian trails.

It all comes back to letting people choose the situation that suits them best.

“We’re not saying that there’s one right or correct way to develop or live,” he said. “It’s really important to me and our region that nobody feels like anybody — the government or anybody — is dictating where they should live or a right way to live and get around.”

None of this is set in stone. It will likely have to evolve to accommodate conditions and changes in the years ahead. But it’s important work. Because there is no indication that the growth we’ve seen is going to let up, and the sooner we confront the challenges that kind of growth presents, the likelier it will be that we can accommodate those hundreds of thousands without sacrificing our quality of life.