The poet E. E. Cummings wrote, “More, and more, and still more … are we all morticians?”
This quote reminds me of the seemingly limitless growth occurring in Utah right now. We have more people, more jobs and more opportunity. We also have more congestion, more pollution and more need for water. For growth to be good, it must be guided by great leaders who represent our shared values. We must turn the “more of anything” into “more of the right thing.” Quality growth should be our north star.
I worked in the state planning office during the most challenging decade of growth in recent state history — 1991 to 2000. Three times during this decade annual population growth reached or exceeded 3 percent, compared to 1.9 percent in 2017. The state added 571,240 people during this 10-year period. That’s approximately half the size of the population in Salt Lake County today. More than 218,000 more people moved into the state than moved out. Growth was Utah’s middle name!
I find it instructive to consider what state leaders did during these high-growth years to preserve the life quality we enjoy today. State and local government took several important steps. They hosted a growth summit, simulcast by the major television stations, that triggered a statewide dialogue. They joined with Envision Utah and created an extraordinary quality growth partnership. They created a Quality Growth Commission that provided planning grants to local government. They made plans for and purchased rights of way for light rail transit, commuter rail and the Legacy Parkway. And they preserved critical lands and viewsheds.
I learned a great deal from state leaders during this growth period. When asked for advice about planning for growth, Gov. Norm Bangerter said, “Don’t leave anybody out.” He encouraged state decisionmakers to create a bigger and rounder table where everyone is invited and nobody is excused.
Elected leaders exerted political courage. There is a saying in politics, “If you want the hen to lay, you have to tolerate the cackle.” Imagine if state and local government had not pressed forward with the Legacy Parkway, TRAX light rail, FrontRunner commuter rail and critical land conservation because of vocal minorities who opposed these actions. Think of the large and iconic white barn as you enter Park City. Local leaders used tax dollars to preserve this gateway entrance as a public good for future generations. That’s what leadership and quality growth look like.
I learned that in land use, planning density is an outcome, not a goal. The goal is walkability, efficient water use, more transportation choices, affordable housing and vibrant neighborhoods. When you design communities with these attributes, density is the natural result. We don’t need compact development everywhere, but there are pockets where well-designed density is the absolute right thing to do.
The most important lesson I learned is that collaboration is messy, difficult, time-consuming and … indispensable. If you take on the posture of a saboteur rather than a collaborator, you are part of the problem. Every significant step of progress is a product of collaboration, not sabotage. It goes with another saying, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, it takes a good carpenter to build one.”
Here in Utah, we are not morticians and we are not jackasses. Growth isn’t about more of anything, it’s about more of the right thing. If we are explicit about our values and preferences, we can invent the future we want to live in. We don’t have to feel a sense of loss, but rather a sense of opportunity.
Everyone should have a seat at the table, leaders must act (even in the face of vocal minorities), well-designed density meets a need and, most importantly, if you aren’t collaborating to find solutions, you are part of the problem. The only way we will ever meet the needs of Utah’s growing population is if we somehow reach a new and higher level of cooperation. Let’s start today.