Why the Point of the Mountain Project is So Important

lavarr policy insightsThe Wall Street Journal recently published an entire newspaper section about the importance of cities and how to keep them vibrant.

It noted that cities really are the future of the world. Some 3.9 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, live in urban areas. The United Nations forecasts that by 2050, nearly two-thirds of the world’s projected 9.7 billion people will be urban. 

Cities will continue to grow across the world because people are leaving rural areas for better opportunities in urban areas. Or, in Utah’s case, metro areas are expanding into what was once rural.

The great challenge is to maintain a high quality of life as the world urbanizes. Leaders and urban planners are working to make cities sustainable, avoid transportation gridlock, improve air quality, maintain open space, and keep housing affordable.

Big changes are coming to cities as a result of advanced technology and lifestyle trends. Urban areas will have to incorporate smart city capabilities with self-driving cars and intelligent transportation systems. They will deal with the decline of the retail sector as more shopping moves on-line. A real need will exist for active transportation (bikes and walking) systems. Clean energy will be a big factor. Even things like the local food movement will be important as we create the cities of the future.

We might think Utah, with its vast, wide open spaces, is different. Actually, we’re not. Utah is already the ninth most urbanized state in the country, and most of Utah’s rapid growth is squeezing into the Wasatch Front urban area. We’re going to double our population in the next several decades; we’ll essentially drop a city with the population of Ogden on the Wasatch Front every year. How will we preserve a great quality of life for our children and grandchildren?

And this is not just about Salt Lake City.  We obviously must have a flourishing capital city with a vibrant downtown. But the Wasatch Front is growing into one dense, interconnected metropolitan area that demands vision, leadership, and futuristic planning. 

All of this is why the relocation of the Utah State Prison and the development of Utah’s high-tech corridor on both sides of the Point of the Mountain are so important. This area, which includes not just the 700-acre prison property but another 20,000 acres of developable space, provides Utah’s greatest opportunity to do development right, to incorporate the world’s best urban planning practices, to demonstrate best practices that can be used as the rest of the Wasatch Front grows. 

It won’t be easy, and it will require a massive collaborative effort by cities and counties, state government, the private sector, and specifically the Wasatch Front Regional Council, Utah Department of Transportation and Utah Transit Authority. A preliminary project description developed by Envision Utah, led by Robert Grow, provides a visionary way forward. Envision Utah has been leading visioning projects, leading to planning and good development, all across Utah for more than 20 years.

We only have one chance at this. We have to do it right. If we are successful, we can avoid typical auto-focused urban sprawl whose dominant features are asphalt and concrete.

And there’s no time to lose. The cities of Lehi, Draper, Bluffdale, and others are exploding in growth. New buildings are sprouting up in business parks. Residential and business growth is remarkable. The U. of U.’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute notes that the area from Midvale to Pleasant Grove is 25 miles, includes 17 cities, and is home to 235,497 jobs. Since 2010, the region has added 57,755 new jobs, or 40 percent of the statewide job increase during that period. Utah County job growth is currently three times the national average and nearly twice the state average.

The area incorporates all of the challenges and opportunities of rapid growth, especially given the transportation bottleneck at the Point of the Mountain, and the need for east-west transportation corridors.

It is an opportunity to follow the principles touted for years by Envision Utah and the Wasatch Front Regional Council – walkable mixed-use economic clusters where one can work, play, shop and live, and use a variety of transportation modes, including public transit and walking and biking in attractive neighborhoods. 

The Legislature and its leaders understand the importance of this opportunity and have assembled a 15-member Point of the Mountain Development Commission to facilitate a collaborative process with cities, the counties, business leaders, and local decision-makers to plan for the future of this important area.

Urban areas don’t just take care of themselves. They don’t naturally evolve into great cities. Great urban areas require leadership, vision, collaboration, innovation, compromise and hard work. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity that will bolster Utah’s economy with a mix of futuristic job clusters and housing choices, while protecting our quality of life. Let’s do it right.