"We're basically a desert. So water has a lot to do with the concentration of people," adds Pam Perlich, senior research economist at the University of Utah. She notes that the desert states of Nevada and Arizona are also on the list of Top 10 urbanized states, and have similar development patterns.
"The big story that the Census tells us is that we are truly one region from Brigham City down to Santaquin. ... We all need to work together as one region to address our challenges" on the small strip where most Utahns live, said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
To be exact, the new Census data say 90.58 percent of Utahns live in five "urbanized areas" of 50,000 people or more Salt Lake City-West Valley City, Provo-Orem, Ogden-Layton, Logan and St. George and in another 29 "urban clusters" for cities with populations between 2,500 and 50,000.
Utah's urbanization ranks just behind Rhode Island, and just ahead of Arizona, Illinois, New York and Connecticut.
California is the most urbanized state in the nation, with 94.95 percent of its population in urban areas. Maine is the least urban, with just 38.66 percent of its residents in them.
Urban residents live on just 1.11 percent of the Utah's land mass mostly along the Wasatch Front. In urban areas, Utah has an average population density of 2,737 people per square mile, which ranks ninth highest in the nation.
Utah's concentration of so many of its people on such a small amount of its land creates both problems and advantages, officials say.
"One of the things we love about Utah is you can drive about 20 minutes and be out in the middle of nowhere. It's wonderful," Perlich said. On the other hand, "It does put the responsibility on us to be even better stewards of the land" because once the short supply of usable "available land is developed, that's it. For some things, you don't get do-overs."
That's one reason communities along the Wasatch Front have joined together in the Wasatch Choice for 2040 Consortium to plan everything from transportation to economic development, housing and air quality together.
The group has scheduled its second major meeting on Tuesday at the Salt Palace to discuss implementation of a plan it has developed over the past decade. "The timing couldn't be better with the release of the new Census data," said Gruber, who is helping lead the consortium.
The consortium envisions a different-looking Utah in 30 years as the state adds a projected 1.6 million residents. Instead of expanding suburban sprawl with single-family homes, it foresees people starting to cluster in new town centers around mass-transit stations that replace old run-down areas.
Many would live in buildings that have businesses on the first floor, offices on the second and residences above that. Town centers would be designed to allow people to live, work and play in the same area, so they would drive less and walk or bike more resulting in less commuting and cleaner air.
"If we could get just 25 percent of the people in the valley who were willing to do that, that would make a huge difference," said White, who is overseeing a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help implement such plans.
He notes that the north-south concentration of the Wasatch Front enhances possibilities for mass transit to be located near most people, and to take them to most desired locations.
Perlich said the Census data show "it's important for us to think on a metropolitan scale … rather than just what is happening in my back yard. We need to look at how land use plans, and all kinds of plans, fit in with the larger metropolitan area. Do they make sense or not?"
Most urbanized states
Percent of population that lives in urban areas:
1. California, 94.95 percent.
2. New Jersey, 94.68.
3. Nevada, 94.2.
4. Massachusetts, 91.97.
5. Hawaii, 91.93.
6. Florida, 91.16.
7. Rhode Island, 90.73.
8. Utah, 90.58.
9. Arizona, 89.81.
10. Illinois, 88.49.