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Ralph Becker: The path to healthy communities and families

FILE - I'm excited about a future with clean water and air, access to public transit and affordable housing, and local, affordable energy. We can get there through cooperative efforts among local, state, federal and private sectors.
FILE - I'm excited about a future with clean water and air, access to public transit and affordable housing, and local, affordable energy. We can get there through cooperative efforts among local, state, federal and private sectors.
Mike Terry, Deseret News

The path to healthy communities and families in Salt Lake and around the world is becoming clearer every day. We can improve air quality, protect our families’ health, have great communities, save money and have clean, affordable energy. Community, national and world conditions are changing. Hopeful opportunities exist.

Consider our air quality: dirty air has forced friends and family suffering from respiratory conditions to leave the Wasatch Front. Economic development professionals tell us the No. 1 economic detractor is our bad air quality. Several of the University of Utah’s most distinguished faculty members have gone elsewhere, citing health concerns.

It’s clear we cannot wait for Congress to take action to help. The Environmental Protection Agency and Utah DEQ do their best through regulation of pollution sources. Locally and in some states we see increasing action.

We know the primary contributors to bad air along the Wasatch Front are vehicles, buildings and industry. The proportionate amount of pollution varies by pollutant and season, but the causes of bad air are well established.

And we know how to improve air quality. As Pogo famously said, “we have met the enemy and he is us.” A recent New York Times article on worsening Mexico City air quality reveals that lessening industrial emissions is not enough. Community development patterns that provide jobs near affordable housing and transit and alternative transportation options are key to reducing air pollution and improving quality of life.

For buildings, we can shift to local, clean energy sources. In Utah, costs have dropped dramatically for our greatest clean energy resource, solar energy. In my last year as Salt Lake City mayor, we were negotiating a net zero energy agreement with Rocky Mountain Power that would give our entire city clean, affordable energy from power projects already developed, under construction, or planned without fossil fuel pollution. And a primary goal was to ensure lower-income residents would not see an increase in their power bills. When we explored our options with Rocky Mountain Power, we found that with minimal additional cost (depending on how quickly we wanted to reach our net zero goal), we could provide all Salt Lake City government, businesses and residents with clean energy.

Other communities are pursuing the same objective; sharing information and joining forces to leverage opportunities.

In the transportation arena, imagine a future that never requires paying at the pump, and with plentiful public transit, paths for walking and bicycling accessible to everyone. These options are within sight with minor shifts in our transportation investments.

Other issues are equally important for a healthy, prosperous future. Among them is our snowpack and water supply. Thirty-five years ago, I could regularly leave my Memory Grove home and head up City Creek Canyon for a midwinter ski tour. Conditions have changed; now, it sometimes rains in January — at 10,000 feet. Our water suppliers can no longer rely on low- and mid-level mountain snowpack to help with our water storage needs. The ski resorts are adapting to a future with less natural mountain snow.

Local food supply is another component of a quality Salt Lake future. Utah has a wonderful heritage of self-sufficiency. Before the United States had a transcontinental railroad, we grew our own food and produced our own water diversions and irrigation systems. We innovated through businesses and a shared economy. Today, agriculture is re-emerging in Salt Lake City through fewer impediments in our ordinances (for beekeeping, chickens, and vegetable growing), and by supporting groups like Wasatch Community Gardens. This has led to a reduction in unnecessary transportation and supply chain costs, and their impacts on our environment.

Also contributing to healthy communities are our local businesses, the engines of creativity and character. Local businesses support greater self-sufficiency through larger local reinvestment and smaller supply chain impacts.

I am excited about a future with clean water and air, access to public transit and affordable housing, and local, affordable energy. We can get there by removing government obstacles or leveling the playing field through cooperative efforts by local, state, federal and private sectors. It starts at home with simple, personal actions we can take every day that add up to a better future for everyone.

Ralph Becker was mayor of Salt Lake City from 2008-2015 and 2015 president of the National League of Cities.