When considering Utah's assets, it's easy to rattle off a series of indicators that play directly into economic performance: a favorable tax environment, a strong workforce, a diversified economy, a fleet of strong higher ed institutions and one of the most well-educated populations in the nation.
But one of Utah's most important assets is less tangible. It comes up in conversation perhaps more than any other asset, but you can't find it in federal statistics. It's a conglomeration of experiences. It's something we feel. For many Utahns, it's the main reason we came here, or came back, or stayed.
People call it "quality of life."
Because quality of life is so important to the future of our state, every few years Utah Foundation sets out to measure the performance of this seemingly unmeasurable asset. Specifically, we survey Utahns on a series of factors affecting quality of life — such as air and water quality, parks and recreation, and traffic — then compile an index and issue reports exploring the results.
Among the many intriguing findings in 2018 was that the community quality of life index has declined. Utahns feel less enthusiastic about their community quality of life than they did five years ago.
This is counterintuitive. One would expect that, as the economy improves, perceptions of community quality of life would also improve. This would seem especially so in Utah, which by several metrics has one of the most robust economies in the nation.
But certain key issue areas give a possible clue as to why quality of life ratings are not improving. We found declines specifically in the availability of quality housing that is affordable and in parks and recreation. We also heard concerns about traffic congestion. All three of these issues appear to relate to the successful economy itself. Housing affordability issues stem in large part from new demand. Traffic congestion grows with more people commuting and the wheels of commerce moving through. Even our recreational activities must contend with growth as the ski slopes and hiking trails become more crowded.
In short, as our economy thrives, we face growing pains. And with much more growth projected, we must beware of diminishing returns in our quality of life.
One key consideration is to ensure that, as we grow, we create humane places. Among the concerns we heard in our Quality of Life survey was that our streetscapes and public spaces need to be improved. Numerous cities worldwide have over time made themselves international treasures by creating noble public spaces that promote a sense of connection. Some of our own local jurisdictions are promoting the creation of town centers and pedestrian-friendly, community-centered developments for this reason.
To be sure, preserving community connections is a vital aspect of quality of life, and Utah Foundation heard concerns about the matter in our survey. In a recent discussion with Utah Foundation on our “Utah Thrives” podcast, Brigham Young University psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad discussed the findings of her research showing that social isolation is not only bad for our mental health, but also, to a striking degree, our physical health.
Looking ahead, confronting the costs of growth must remain a key concern for state and local policymakers. For its part, Utah Foundation will continue its research in this vein. After all, what will it profit Utah if we gain in wealth, yet lose our quality of life? The profit will be short-lived at best, because good quality of life is good economic development.
Peter Reichard is president of Utah Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and find Utah Foundation’s Quality of Life reports at utahfoundation.org.