The group is using a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to help local communities work together to implement a regional vision for the future that was developed by them through Envision Utah over the past decade.
"We are a state that is 90 percent urban that is living on 1.1 percent of the land. … What a responsibility to plan carefully," University of Utah research economist Pam Perlich told the group. That population density, plus an expected 67 percent growth in 30 years, has the group envisioning a different-looking Utah by 2040.
Instead of expanding suburban sprawl with single-family homes, the consortium hopes that maybe a third of the population would start to cluster in new town centers built around mass-transit stations that replace old, rundown 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. Transit options would expand so that most of the population would live close to major transit centers.
"If we grow in this way … we'll save billions of dollars in infrastructure, transportation, water, sewer and utilities that wouldn't have to be built. We'll reduce traffic congestion and improve air quality. We'll use less water and energy," said Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
In breakout sessions, the group received updates on changes in zoning laws and financing to foster vertical development and software that cities could use to share land use and other planning with each other to ensure their local plans fit in well regionally.
They heard an update on an ongoing regional housing study that shows problems and opportunities.
One big problem, Perlich said, is that 30 percent of Wasatch Front mortgage holders now owe more on their homes than they are worth.
But that means housing for sale now is more affordable than it has been in decades, said Jim Wood, director of the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "But people still can't qualify for loans."
He said the rental cost for most new apartments for families is roughly the same that they would pay on a mortgage for a home if they could qualify. High foreclosure rates have also created high demand for rental housing.
Perlich said population trends show that before too long, Utah will have more senior citizens than schoolchildren. Wood said cities need to consider that as they allow new housing; and some with older populations may want, for example, to encourage more single-floor homes than multistory housing.
Perlich also encouraged officials to remember that Utah is becoming more multicultural. She said that among children, minorities are already the majority, and Utah schoolchildren report speaking 129 different languages at home, showing they may face educational challenges previous generations did not.
"The thing we can do to impact in a positive way the possibilities of the next generation is to leave investments behind … in transportation, parks, libraries, universities," she said. "Utah is forever changed ... We are part of it. We're not on the sidelines."