Myron Willson and Turner Bitton: Pitch for ‘smart sprawl’ ignores several facts

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ongoing development takes shape around Oquirrh Lake at Daybreak on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Daybreak, the 4,100-acre master planned community in South Jordan, illustrates the idea of blending higher density housing and walkable community design with ample amounts of open space. That "smart growth" land use approach is being required by Salt Lake County for a proposed development called Olympia Hills, a 933-acre residential and commercial project proposed west of Herriman.

A recent presentation at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute by Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox and reported on by The Salt Lake Tribune suggested that increasing sprawl and low-density development was preferable to smart growth within urban areas to help prevent spread of disease and to support economic opportunity.

There were many unsupported assumptions scattered throughout the presentation that require much more research to verify before we adopt them as facts. A quick highlight includes:

• They asserted that demand for housing to support home offices or newly created families can only be met with single-family homes in new suburbs. More housing options in all neighborhoods are needed.

• It was suggested that high rates of COVID-19 seen in Tokyo and other cities of extreme density are applicable to downtown Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden, and that we may soon be losing residents for fear of health and safety. The research they showed does not support this assertion.

• Time and again, they presented that downtown housing options are limited to one-bedroom apartments and have no opportunities for fresh air and nature. This conveniently omits that many cities like Minneapolis have efficient networks for biking and walking designed to connect residents to every part of the city and create opportunities for getting outside, regardless of the type of housing or neighborhood.

Leaving aside that much of the research presented actually supported increased migration to mid-density cities and urban regions like Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front, the whole case for additional low-density development is flawed.

The Wasatch Front’s air quality will be harmed by more automobile traffic. The presenters conveniently omit that additional freight and service vehicles will be required when housing is pushed farther and farther beyond existing urban boundaries. Even if people work from home, emissions will increase if development continues to expand because folks will have no option but to drive.

Second, people not only love walkable communities, but they also want a range of housing options that are close to jobs, services and amenities (not just single-family homes). Planning for walkable and mixed-use communities requires resolve by city leaders, developers and builders. We should continue to promote increased density not just in the urban cores, but also in existing suburbs and in failing commercial areas when needed.

Third, traditional suburban development does not pay its way and requires tremendous amounts of transfer payments (in the form of government subsidies and loans, mostly) to maintain services and infrastructure, either from the federal government or from more urban parts of the state. Indeed, Utah’s own general fund subsidizes roads to the tune of $600 million annually in 2018, according to legislators.

As Charles Marohn from Strong Towns recently stated, “The underlying financing mechanisms of the … post-World War II pattern of development operates like a classic Ponzi scheme, with ever-increasing rates of growth necessary to sustain long-term liabilities.”

Lastly, the Wasatch Front and Back areas are already under intense development pressure and there are very few remaining open spaces for development within existing urban infrastructure. Creating more low-density development will impact the quality of life here in Utah by pushing urbanization even farther into open space.

Do we want to have a community that becomes another greater Atlanta, Phoenix or Los Angeles, or do we aspire to something better?

The argument for sprawl implies an untruth itself: that developers are somehow being coerced into building dense housing. The reality is that much of the private land in this valley is zoned either open space — to prevent development entirely — or single-family housing, which prevents multifamily housing development. Overregulation makes it easier to build sprawl than dense neighborhoods, and still this is the type of housing developers have chosen to fight to build.

The introduction to Envision Utah’s Your Utah, Your Future states it best, “As our population increases, the choices we make will determine if we have clean air to breathe, quality jobs for everyone, an educated populace, enough water, convenient transportation, an affordable cost of living, good housing options, locally grown food, access to uncrowded outdoor recreation, and affordable and reliable energy.”

We need smart growth to provide viable options for housing that are consistent with our geography and climate. We do not need suburban mono-culture that isn’t affordable, harms air quality and requires even more dependence on the automobile.

Myron Willson

Myron Willson is co-founder of Sweet Streets, Salt Lake City, an education and advocacy group for people-first planning, budgeting, implementation and operation of our streets and public spaces.

Turner C. Bitton

Turner Bitton is the development director at HEAL Utah, where he works on sustainable development policy.