Officials planning for Utah’s growing population

The second of three potential growth scenarios presented by the WFRC. The second scenario focuses on large regional centers connected by transit. Image courtesy the WFRC.

The U.S. Census Bureau released their 2016 population estimates for the nation’s counties and metropolitan and micropolitan areas on Thursday.  The new estimates show that Utah continues to lead nationally in population growth.

Three out of the state’s five metropolitan areas were among of the fastest growing in the country, with St. George placing 6th, Provo 7th and Logan ranking 20th.  Utah is also home to the fastest growing county in 2016, San Juan county in the southeastern corner of the state.

The Ogden and Salt Lake Metropolitan areas might not be the state’s fastest-growing metro areas, but both are growing at over twice the national rate.  Yet, the Wasatch Front where most of the state’s population is concentrated has geographic barriers that will force state and municipal leaders to look at how the region’s growth is managed.

“We are running out of space,” said Ted Knowlton, the deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.   “We can’t widen a number of our key transportation corridors.”

Knowlton presented updates to the WFRC’s regional plan for Salt Lake, Davis and Weber Counties Thursday during a lunch gathering for the Utah Chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

The WFRC is in the process of drafting its newest plan for regional growth, the Wasatch Choice 2050 and the Regional Transportation Plan.  According to Knowlton the plan is still in the community outreach phase and will be more ambitious than past plans.

Under the current draft plan, residents can choose between three growth scenarios that vary in their approach to growth.

The first scenario incorporates current municipal and county plans with a priority of roads and road expansion over transit.

The second scenario would focus on large regional centers, with higher density and mixed uses connected by an expanding rail and fixed-bus transit network.  Road improvements would be geared toward connectivity to the regional centers.

The third scenario would encourage a dispersed network of village and town centers connected by improved bus service and increased road capacity.

The first of three potential growth scenarios presented by the WFRC. The first scenario focuses road expansion. Image courtesy the WFRC.

The purpose of the Wasatch Choice 2050 plan is to encourage collaboration between cities and counties to create more livable and walkable communities, increase access to economic opportunities, housing choices and housing affordability, quality transportation and pedestrian friendly streets while encouraging sustainability and improved air quality.

Knowlton suggested that there is an increasing urgency in planning for future population growth in Salt Lake County as there are fewer large swaths of land available for development.  As the county runs out of large parcels for development, growth will shift to infill development, making planning for new land uses central to managing future population growth, argued Knowlton.

“The building blocks of a great region are great places,” said Knowlton.

Utah’s population growth has traditionally been driven by the state’s high birth rate.  While most of the state’s growth is still from natural increase (more births than deaths), the share of domestic migration, people moving to Utah from other regions, is growing.

Salt Lake County gained an estimated 16,732 residents in 2016 bringing the total estimated population to 1,121,354.  Of that growth, about a third was a result of migration.  In comparison, Utah County gained 17,503 people last year, around 40 percent of which were from domestic migration.

Utah’s booming economy, especially in technology, is driving a lot of the population growth in northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in January the Salt Lake metro had the lowest unemployment rate of all metro areas with over 1 million people.

The third of three potential growth scenarios presented by the WFRC. The third scenario small village and town centers with an expanded bus network. Image courtesy the WFRC.

Local officials will need to prepare for not only more people, but shifts in how we live.  Knowlton cited changes in housing preferences, including an increasing demand for middle-density housing.  Housing preferences will also change as the population ages and people downsize.

Technological advances like the automation of cars and ridesharing will also change how people commute and could significantly reduce the parking demand in multifamily projects.

Based on initial community feedback to the Wasatch Choice 2050 plan, resident’s tastes are already evolving.  Respondents prefer mixed-land uses and transit orientated developments that reduce commute times and allow people to live closer to where they work.  Salt Lake, Davis and Weber County residents also overwhelmingly prefer prioritizing transit over road expansion, with most residents ranking expanding roads as the least favorite alternative to population growth. Respondents instead wanted to see more bus routes with extended hours and higher frequency of service.

The WFRC will continue to collect feedback from officials and residents before adopting the preferred scenario at a later date.

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