How Mormon Principles and Grassroots Politics Helped Utah Take Control of its Explosive Population Growth

Politico Magazine takes a lengthy, in-depth look at the history and ongoing influence of Envision Utah, “the most ambitious and successful long-term land-use planning effort in American history.” Despite Utah’s conservative ethos and aversion to big government solutions, the Beehive State is imbued with a strong culture of urbanism and civic collaboration—a legacy, perhaps, of the communitarian spirit that animates Mormonism, a religion founded by city builders.

Colin Woodward:

Imagine getting 90 municipalities in 10 counties in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions to get on board for a 20-year land use planning effort intended to conserve water use, promote clean air and avoid the destruction of open spaces by slashing housing lot sizes, encouraging higher-density development and imposing new taxes to build a light rail network and commuter rail system from scratch. Imagine that it worked so well the effort expanded statewide.

You might assume it must have started in a liberal bastion like Portland, Oregon or Burlington, Vermont, where people are proud to be tree huggers and planning isn’t a dirty word. But the most ambitious and successful long-term land-use planning effort in American history is happening in ultra-conservative Utah, a state with powerful ranching, mining and energy interests and a reflexive distrust of top-down government solutions. And it was led not by state officials, but by a bipartisan alliance of business, industrial, religious, political and civic leaders, working from plans crowd-sourced from tens of thousands of Utah citizens and executed on a completely voluntary basis by their local governments.

“Our purpose is not to lead somewhere, our purpose is to let the public see their choices and let them lead,” Robert Grow, president, CEO and a co-founder of Envision Utah, the public-private partnership that put the planning questions on Utahns’ agenda 20 years ago and helped keep them there ever since. “They are going to chose the future, so we’re empowering them by letting them see what their choices are and helping them implement those choices.”

The results have been impressive: Per capita water use has been cut by more than a quarter and air emissions slashed by nearly half, while 300 square miles of rural and open land have been spared from development. Automobile use has actually dropped slightly in terms of vehicle miles travelled, even as the region’s population has increased by a third, thanks to what is one of the largest transit transit rail systems per capita in the country. Taxpayers have saved billions in avoided infrastructure spending and maintenance and Envision Utah has been feted by city planners across the country as a model for how to do things right. Envision staff have traveled across the country, providing advice to groups in Detroit and Omaha, North Carolina’s Piedmont Triangle and North Dakota’s Oil Sands, Yellowstone and Eastern Oregon.

“They’ve made a remarkable and important and indelible contribution to who we have become and how we will become,” says Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, who has observed the effort since its inception. “It’s energized people to understand that they can and must be part of how the future is shaped.”

This approach—voluntary, bottom-up, large-scale and long-term—has clicked with the people of a conservative state and bridged historic divisions between Mormons and non-Mormons, environmentalists and mining interests, farmers and city-dwellers.