It's a fascinating question: How should the Wasatch Front where 90 percent of Utah's population lives on 1 percent of its land handle expected 67 percent growth over the next 30 years, and manage to conserve water, reduce pollution and cut traffic congestion?
A consortium of elected officials, planners, business leaders and academics released a partial answer Tuesday: Put much of the growth in high-density town centers around mass-transit stations. The group also released a high-tech tool kit to help communities figure how to implement that formula, and figure and achieve other visions for the future.
At the same time, Gov. Gary Herbert announced plans to begin a similar statewide initiative to figure out the future for all of Utah not just the Wasatch Front which he calls "Your Utah, Your Future."
"In Utah, we don't believe in sitting back and seeing where growth will take us," Herbert said. "Together we will develop a voluntary, locally implemented, market-driven vision to help keep Utah beautiful, prosperous, healthy and neighborly for current residents and future generations."
The new statewide effort will ask Utahns what they want in the future on such topics as air quality, water, housing, economic development, education, transportation, protecting natural lands and energy. Herbert wants to develop a vision and strategy to achieve consensus goals by 2015. More information, and a beginning survey, is available online at envisionutah.org.
"It will be a bottom-up effort" where Utahns and not just leaders shape the future, Herbert said.
It is an update of a similar effort that began in 1997 by Envision Utah. Robert Grow, president and CEO of Envision Utah, said those early efforts reduced the impact of growth that was expected to consume 300 square miles of open land by 2020 to just 100 square miles instead.
Herbert's announcement came as Wasatch Front leaders finished a three-year effort to start developing a vision for that region's future for the next 30 years. It was funded by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Instead of simply expanding suburban sprawl with single-family homes, The Wasatch Choice for 2040 Consortium envisions that about a third of the people in the coming growth will choose to live in new high-density town centers built around mass-transit stations that replace old run-down areas.
Such centers would allow people to live, work and play in the same area, and drive less and walk or bike more. It would save billions in roads that would not need to be built, conserve water, reduce air pollution, preserve open space and cut traffic congestion.
Leaders say younger generations already prefer to live in such mixed-use, walkable communities. Utah Transit Authority General Manager Michael Allegra has said new rail lines have helped attract $7 billion to $10 billion in development, including several new "transit-oriented developments" from housing along the new Sugar House streetcar line to the City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City.
The consortium also released a "tool box" to help cities plan and implement such a future or other visions they may develop.
"It's like a time machine" that will let communities see what they will look like based on different choices they make, said Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council.
"These high-tech tools help communities lay out a computer model with zoning changes, transportation options, housing needs, economic data, poverty concentrations, open-space requirements, health-care facilities and other pieces of a desirable living for tomorrow," said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams.
The tools also include work on a new type of zoning law. After communities develop their future vision, the "form-based zoning" would detail what types of buildings are allowed based on their form and appearance, instead of their use as residential or commercial. It could remove obstacles to town centers which could mix retail, office and residential uses in the same buildings.
Other tools include aids to help cities do their own quick market surveys on what sorts of developments might be attracted to their areas, and tools to help communities work together to design their futures.
"We're thinking in the long term, and acting in the short term," McAdams said. More information about the tools is available at wasatchchoice2040.com.