Utah’s great challenge: Bringing all sectors together to plan for rapid growth

Our state and nation face a variety of immediate challenges that consume most of our attention. Some of these issues are highly controversial and partisan in nature. But as we spend time on these political issues, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the biggest and most consequential issue Utah must grapple with is rapid growth.

Utah is the nation’s fastest-growing state with many features that make rapid growth difficult – a shortage of land (some 70% of the state is owned by government agencies), a dearth of water, a population concentrated along the Wasatch Front, and topography that creates natural inversions and contributes dramatically to air pollution. Despite our wide open spaces, we are among the top 10 most-urbanized states, with much of the population crowded into the narrow Wasatch Front.  

When we think about coping with rapid growth, we usually think in terms of infrastructure – highways, bridges, water, wastewater, etc. But the consequences of rapid growth are manifest in many other sectors, including housing, energy, education, land use, parks and recreation, clean air, good-paying jobs, and overall quality of life.   

I recently participated in a thought-provoking discussion with Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), regarding the many facets of the growth challenges. WFRC, which represents dozens of local governments on the Wasatch Front, is one of the key agencies helping elected leaders prepare for a doubling of the population over the next several decades.

Gruber noted, and I agree, that one of the great assets Utah deploys in planning for the future is an attitude of collaboration and cooperation among many agencies and organizations dealing with rapid growth. This collaboration is especially manifest in transportation planning. Utah has successfully flattened many of the transportation “silos” that exist in most states. In general, city, county and state governments, along with highway agencies and transit agencies, cooperate quite well on transportation planning.

The biggest symbol or evidence of excellent transportation cooperation is the state’s Unified Transportation Plan, which integrates and updates transportation needs and plans of all transportation modes, agencies and governments out several decades.

Also, thanks to years of good work by Envision Utah and WFRC, agencies and governments are now focusing hard on integrating land use planning with transportation planning. While much more needs to be done, this effort will pay big dividends over the long term in reducing sprawl and creating livable, walkable urban centers.

But while Gruber acknowledges significant progress in planning for growth, he noted that we’re not, in general, collaborating with other sectors, or integrating them into a unified planning process. Utah faces a housing crisis, for example, and housing is directly related to land use planning and transportation. Other sectors, including energy, education, parks and recreation, air quality and jobs creation ought to be integral parts of the collaborative planning process.

Gruber isn’t sure exactly how we should take a more comprehensive approach to planning for rapid growth. But he thinks it’s definitely worth considering.

I fully agree. All sectors impacted by rapid growth are interrelated. They all affect each other. We need to view growth challenges comprehensively and encourage collaboration among all the sectors, not just transportation and land use planning. 

The good thing about Utah’s growth planning is that, for the most part, it is bottom up and coping mechanisms are voluntary. No super agency is mandating how growth rolls out or how we deal with it. But we can be decentralized and still improve collaboration among sectors.  

We also have a lot of smart people in agencies and think tanks who could work together to figure out how to better integrate all planning efforts. These organizations include WFRC, UDOT, Utah Transit Authority, other councils of governments, the Gardner Institute, Utah Foundation, Envision Utah, chambers of commerce, and agencies and organizations dealing with water, air quality, energy, recreation and housing.

There are also many private engineering, architecture and planning firms with thoughtful and experienced experts who could contribute to the process, providing case studies and best practices from around the nation and world. Solutions would need to take into account innovation, advanced technology, public policy and sociology.  

It’s a provocative and challenging question: How can we holistically plan for growth, integrating all the sectors that will be impacted by growth? Utah has a lot of intellectual firepower to focus on the problem. We ought to do it.