Officials look to navigate future regional growth

An overview of the 2040 Wasatch Choice vision. The map indicates the location and type of various nodes identified by the WFRC as key centers.  The same urban nodes are highlighted in the WFRC Choice 2050 plan.

The Wasatch Front is growing and based on projections, will continue to do so at a rapid pace.  Officials at the Kem C. Garnder Policy Institute, a University of Utah think tank, estimate that the Wasatch Front will be home to nearly 4.5 million people by 2065, an increase of nearly 2 million people in the next 47 years.

“We are growing and changing (but) we have the power to shape our future,” said Natalie Gochnour, the director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Gochnour was one of several presenters at the Wasatch Front Regional Council’s (WFRC) Wasatch Choice 2050 Mayor’s Metro Solutions Summit.  The focus of the summit was on the Wasatch Choice 2050 (WC2050) draft plan and how local leaders can plan for a future that is healthier and more equitable.

“We can not take our quality of life for granted,” said Andrew Gruber, executive director for the WFRC.

Gruber argued that because of the Wasatch Front’s unique geography, planning how we develop the land that we have will be critical to the region’s success.  According to Gruber, the Wasatch Choice 2050 plan lays out priorities for local leaders and focuses on four goals: improving transportation options, expanding housing choices, preserving open space and liking future development to transportation decisions.

WFRC officials estimate that the average regional commuter spends 59 minutes travel each day, which is not only time wasted but also adds to the region’s air quality issues, especially during winter and summer inversions.  Gruber argues that by improving access to transit and getting people to live closer to where they work, the region will be able to grow without increasing commutes and simultaneously reducing dangerous air particulates, potentially cutting both in half by 2050.

Based on WFRC data, 21 percent of Wasatch Front residents are within a quarter mile from reliable public transit and 40 percent live within a quarter mile of a bikeway.  Under the current draft of the WC2050 plan, those numbers would increase to 37 percent and 73 percent respectively by 2050.

Not only will transit options need to be expanded, but the region will need more housing options to accommodate future growth.  Currently, 75 percent of the region’s residents live in single-family housing.  Gruber argued that number will need to drop to 60 percent by 2050 as the region continues to lose developable land.

“This is not the government telling people how to live, it is responding to the market,” said Gruber.

The challenge will be balancing new growth while also preserving open space.  Gruber noted that in many cities there are infill and under-use parcels that would be cheaper to develop and would increase density without increasing sprawl.

Additionally, increasing housing density and access to transit and job centers will help the region become more equitable as it continues to become more diverse.  As sprawl has been shown to not only be costly but an impediment to upward mobility.

Tuesday’s summit came a day after the Point of the Mountain Development Commission released its Prefered Vision plan for the area surrounding the current home of the Utah State Prison.  The plan’s goals are similar to the WC2050 and encourage transit expansion, growth in urban centers, expansion of trails and open space, increasing housing options, and getting homes closer to where people work.

Officials hope both plans come to fruition as Salt Lake and Utah Counties will house most of the growing population.  Current data suggest that Salt Lake and Utah Counties are beginning to merge into one metropolitan area as most of both counties’ recent residential and job growth has been focused in and around the Point of the Mountain, where both counties meet.

The Point of the Mountain Preferred Vision plan will go before the State Legislature for feedback this legislative session.  WFRC officials are still collecting input from residents on the WC2050 plan and have created an interactive map to allow residents to explore and comment on the different proposals in the draft plan.

“The choices we make today will have a big impact on our future,” said Gruber.

Point of the Mountain Preferred Vision. Image courtesy Point of the Mountain Development Commission.

Posted by Isaac Riddle

Isaac Riddle grew up just outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. He has a BA in English literature from the University of Utah and a Masters of Journalism from Temple University. Isaac has written for Next City, The Philadelphia Public School Notebook and Salt Lake City Weekly. Before embarking on a career in journalism, Isaac taught High School English in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Isaac is the founder of Building Salt Lake and can be reached at isaac@buildingsaltlake.com.