How an economic bust can spark a civic-planning buzz

Smart communities, including some in the Salt Lake City area, are using the economic doldrums as a chance to lay groundwork for future initiatives such as light rail.
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Salt Lake City, Utah

Smart communities, including some in the Salt Lake City area, are using the economic doldrums as a chance to lay groundwork for future initiatives such as light rail.

SALT LAKE CITY — In the current economic climate it is not unusual to find local governments "tightening the belt" by curtailing activities not considered essential services. All too often this can mean the slashing of planning projects and departmental staff.

There is a certain amount of logic to cuts: After all, if a community isn'ꀙt growing, if there are no new developments to be reviewed, what is the point?

However, what we are seeing is that smart communities, like smart businesses, are using the laggard pace of the present economy to lay the foundation for a high-functioning and successful future. By engaging in highly participatory and increasingly regional-scale planning initiatives, these communities are developing the civic infrastructure necessary to succeed in the 21st century.

A prime example is the Greater Wasatch Area of Utah. It includes 10 counties and over 90 cities and towns, sandwiched between the Wasatch Mountain Range and the Great Salt Lake — a 100-plus-mile linear oasis bordered by rugged mountain terrain and desert, home to over 80 percent of Utah's residents. It was settled in the early 1840s by Mormons led by Joseph Smith, who conceived a plan for the area composed of one-mile-square blocks with wide streets and interconnected villages limited to no more than 20,000 residents. These ideas were later implemented by Brigham Young, creating the pattern of development that today dominates Salt Lake City and its environs.

In the late 1980s, a group of concerned civic leaders coalesced around the issues of environmental protection, economic development, and maintenance of quality of life. This group, the Coalition for Utah's Future, would later forge the foundation for the organization known today as Envision Utah. Created in 1997, it brought together key public and private stakeholders to help overcome the jurisdictional fragmentation and "bunker mentality" held among units of local government. A key element: giving local residents, by the power of scenarios and choice, the ability to shape planning and growth management issues within the region.

Envision Utah's first chairman was Robert Grow, a local business leader with strong collaborative leader skills. In his words: "The Envision Utah Approach has become a way of life in Utah, with its special blend of discovering and seeking to satisfy community values in all our planning and visioning, using scenarios of the future to show the public and officials the consequences of our collective choices, and leading change with diverse and trusted stakeholders and champions. This approach to problem solving and focusing precious civic and financial resources on highly leveraged strategies to preserve and enhance Utah'ꀙs quality of life is finding great acceptance as the best way to meet the challenges of tomorrow."

Indeed, with regional population projected to grow from 1.7 million to roughly 2.7 million by 2020 and to 5 million by 2050, there will be plenty of challenges in the years ahead.

Today, Envision Utah continues its work to forge regional agreement over projects such as Blueprint Jordan River, a corridor plan spanning three counties and 15 cities. It has been instrumental in working with the Utah Transit Authority, the region's two metropolitan planning organizations, and numerous cities to plan and develop an extensive system of light rail and bus rapid transit including incentives for transit-oriented development efforts along the routes.

Most critically, the now tried-and-true Envision Utah "model" of fostering stakeholder involvement around scenario development and evaluation has helped to build a capacity for civic engagement that enables further community planning initiatives. "Envision Utah struck a chord when they recognized that many people cared about what they were leaving behind for their children," says Brenda Scheer, dean of the College of Architecture & Planning at the University of Utah. "The magic of Envision Utah is that everybody collaborates for common good, even though we may disagree on methods."

But having a 13-year history with a unique organization such as Envision Utah is just part of the story. Today in the region, there is a palpable buzz in the air when it comes to planning.

For example, the University of Utah has recently attracted two of the planning profession's "rock stars," Reid Ewing and Arthur "Chris" Nelson, who are helping to build the reputation and influence of the university's Department of City & Metropolitan Planning. As noted authors, researchers, and advisers to numerous governmental agencies, Ewing and Nelson present formidable intellectual and academic horsepower. "The university has a strong capacity for interdisciplinary work — energy, environmental, water — and we are building this in an environment of holistic thinking," says Michael K. Young, president of the university. "We'ꀙre really knee deep into it now," he adds.

Planning has also become part of Salt Lake City's way of life. Ralph Becker, elected mayor in 2007, is a trained city planner. He and his staff have taken an aggressive approach to aligning public policy with sustainability. As evidence Becker cites a multi-modal transportation system, mixed and denser land-use policies, and a recognition that changing times require strong government-business-neighborhood partnerships. The city has taken on such issues as zoning codes that accommodate solar and wind energy devices, and creating incentives for compact and mixed-use development.

The net result: a vibrancy that is lacking in so many other regions of our nation today. As a practicing professional planner, I'ꀙve found it refreshing to visit a region that is so intently focused on moving forward with high value placed on the quality of civic engagement, and with leaders so committed to the value of place — and of collaborative decision-making. In the words of Alan Matheson, executive director of Envision Utah: "There is a growing willingness to collaborate — among agencies, jurisdictions, organizations. Broad participation and collaboration are now the default mode for making significant regional decisions."

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