Utah Envisions a Sustainable Future

The public-private partnership, Envision Utah, is a national model for cities grappling with how to ease congestion, stop sprawl and clean the air.

Here are some interesting facts about cities: They cover 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, accommodate half the world’s population, eat up 75 percent of the world’s energy and give off 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. And they are growing -- just as traffic congestion, sprawl, air pollution and so many other urban ills are growing.

Back in the mid-1990s, officials in Utah were handed some rather interesting facts of their own. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget projected that the population of the Greater Wasatch Area, a narrow 120-mile strip where about 80 percent of Utah’s population lives, would triple to 5 million by 2050. If left unchecked, the consequences of this growth meant that most of the open space in Salt Lake City would be consumed, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) would double and the state’s greenhouse gas emissions would grow by more than 70 percent.

As a result, a group of concerned civic leaders formed Envision Utah 15 years ago this month. The public-private partnership assembled a plan called the Quality Growth Strategy, which offers cities and counties a dozen policy recommendations designed to help Utahns improve air quality, increase transportation choices, preserve critical land and conserve water, among other goals.

Today, Envision Utah is a national model for cities grappling with how to ease congestion, stop sprawl and clean the air, according to Christopher Leinberger, a Metropolitan Policy Program fellow at The Brookings Institution. “The best model for strategic planning is Envision Utah,” said Leinberger at The Atlantic’s Green Intelligence Forum in November. “They looked at the future and planned for a more sustainable one.”

That plan started in 1999 with the completion of Salt Lake County’s first light rail system. Envision Utah brought the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and numerous cities together to plan and develop UTA TRAX, which is made up of three lines and will launch two more by 2015. In addition to light rail, the plan called for bus rapid transit and streetcars. The idea was to design a comprehensive transit system to enable the region to build communities along these various transit routes, reducing traffic congestion, sprawl and air pollution. Already, Salt Lake City has reduced VMT by 1.3 million.

What makes Envision Utah a pioneer, according to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) case study, is that it establishes “broad buy-in and significant public engagement.” Envision does this by conducting significant research into what the region will look like in 40 or 50 years, presenting that data to citizens, surveying their satisfaction with that data and using what has typically been dissatisfaction with future scenarios to get stakeholders to put aside politics and focus on real solutions.

Envision Utah’s latest endeavor is the Wasatch Choice for 2040 plan, which the group helped develop with elected officials, planners, business leaders and developers over the past decade. To avoid the loss of nearly 300 square miles of open space, the plan calls for new higher-density developments around mass-transit stops. To reduce traffic congestion and pollution, these new developments would be places where citizens can live, work and play -- places where they can abandon their cars to walk, bike or take mass transit to work, the grocery store or school instead.

Surveys show that 75 percent of Utahns want to live in such communities, Andrew Gruber, executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, told The Salt Lake Tribune. That may be because projections of the Wasatch Choice for 2040 plan are so promising, according to the HUD case study. If 11 percent of housing and 20 percent of jobs are within walking distance of mass transit by 2040, the Greater Wasatch Area will “conserve 23 square miles of open space, reduce traffic congestion by 18 percent, and increase transit use by 12 percent,” the HUD study found. “Over the next 20 years, the expected savings in infrastructure, housing and transportation costs will total $4.5 billion.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.