Salt Lake: an unexpected leader of smart growth and sustainability.

Salt Lake is usually not brought up during topics such as sustainability or smart growth, but perhaps that will soon change. In the past few decades Salt Lake has made large strides to control sprawl problems like traffic and urban planning. It has created innovative programs to help reduce carbon emissions. Salt Lake city is now ranked number 8 on Bill Moyers Top 12 cities leading the way in sustainability. One of Salt Lakes most impressive projects that has taken place is the Legacy Parkway Project. This combined highway, bike path and nature preserve has reduced traffic on I-15 by 20%. The parkway has provided residents of adjacent suburbs such as Bountiful multiple transportation options such as biking and provides quicker access to downtown Salt Lake. The parkway has been described as the “future of highway construction in the country.”

Salt Lake has also made substantial efforts to provide mass transit options to residents who live in the suburbs, thus cutting down on greenhouse gas emissions as well as traffic. It also provides opportunities for residents in affordable housing better opportunities by giving them a cheaper and easier way to get to work or other activities. It has recently received the HUD sustainable communities grant which will be used to coordinate housing throughout the city with transportation.

On the political side, one of Salt Lakes largest signs it is committed to sustainable planning and smart growth is that they keep electing mayors who make it part of their platform. Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake city from 2000 2008, created a green program. This programs made of goal of reducing carbon emission by 21 percent in a 10 year period. By the time Mayor Anderson left office the program had already exceeded its goal. The mayor following him has pushed for alternative fuel vehicles and has installed electric charging stations with the assumption that there will be a shift to electric cars.

Salt Lake recently released a “Sustainable Salt Lake City-Plan 2015.” This plan expands on sustainable methods already discussed and introduces others such as sustainable food programs. These programs are providing opportunities for food to be grown in a urban setting and helps to provide healthier options to people who may not have the access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The Mormon church, an owner of a large amount of downtown Salt Lake, has even started a mixed use and sustainability project. This project will mix office space, retail areas, and condominiums. This area will have an open air feel and is situated for easy access by mass transit systems such as the light rail. Other cities such as Portland and Dallas are looking at emulating some of the mixed use design principles.

City Creek Retail Area

These accomplishments have not come without challenges. Salt Lake is smack dab in the middle of one of the reddest states in America. This political atmosphere means there are a lot of people with ideologies that conflict with ideas such as environmental regulation and zoning laws. To even convince some decision makers that smart growth or reducing carbon emissions is a conversation worth having can be difficult. Sustainability would not have even been politically feasible a few decades ago, and even in todays climate may be an uphill battle.

Its large 10 acre mega blocks also provide challenges in making it easy to walk around downtown Salt Lake. These large blocks were made in pioneer days to provide to citizens room to live, do business, and grow crops. These massive blocks have now made things such as parking lots difficult to install without alienating large portions of the city from other areas.

These challenges provide a unique atmosphere in Salt Lake. However other western cities such as Boise, Portland, or Phoenix can learn a thing or two. If Salt Lake can achieve sustainability and smart growth goals given its culture, political climate, history, and geography, then maybe it’s possible elsewhere.

One thought on “Salt Lake: an unexpected leader of smart growth and sustainability.

  1. Alex, good article! I spent a few days in Salt Lake this past June and was pleasantly surprised at its cosmopolitan feel (I hadn’t spent any significant time there since 1995). The conference I was attending (Congress for the New Urbanism) had a number of sessions on Salt Lake City and its sustainability efforts and mass transit system. An oft-repeated refrain coming from SLC citizens was the strong correlation between these latter-day efforts and the early Mormon Church stance on conservation — so this particular mix of conservatism and conservationism didn’t seem that farfetched (they saw the land as a gift that they were responsible to maintain). One of the largest “problems” (if it can be described as such) is the inordinately large city block lengths — often called the Zion Block:

    These make walking through the city a bit more difficult — especially since the 132-foot-wide street rights-of-way are now almost completely paved (with a number of one-ways). One of the conference participants (an urban design student from Miami) was even issued a jaywalking ticket — which I urged her to not pay, instead framing it and hanging it in her office 😉

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