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Opinion: Growth has been Utah’s pioneer legacy for 176 years

If we want to honor the pioneers, we should be involved in guiding Utah’s growth

SHARE Opinion: Growth has been Utah’s pioneer legacy for 176 years
Several buildings under construction are pictured in downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

Several buildings under construction are pictured in downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox has invited all Utahns to take the Guiding Our Growth survey and, well, help guide our state’s growth.

But as we celebrate Pioneer Day this month, we should keep in mind that guiding Utah’s growth — and guiding it well — has been our state’s legacy for the past 176 years. 

Concerns about growth seem to have reached a fever pitch. In fact, a 2021 Envision Utah study found, for the first time in a quarter century of this kind of research, that the number of Utahns who thought growth was going to make life worse was greater than the number who thought growth would make things better. 

Those concerns don’t seem to have disappeared in the 18 months since the study was published.

Certainly these concerns have merit. Growth handled poorly can make a mess of our communities, clog up our commutes and give us the feeling of being crowded out of the great outdoors. Water is scarce. Mountains act as natural growth boundaries. Our valleys trap pollution. It’s hard to grow well. 

Still, Utah grew faster than any state in the country from 2010 to 2020 — a rate of 18.4%. But 2010–2020 was not our fastest growing decade. In fact, between 1950 and 1960, we saw a growth rate of 29.3%. It was 29.6% in the 1990s and a whopping 37.9% in the 1970s. 

But even those rates pale in comparison to how we grew in the 1870s when we experienced 114.4% growth. Sure, the absolute numbers are small, but can you imagine more than doubling the number of people, farms, homes and businesses in just a decade? 

Not everyone was thrilled by the growth at the time. But a century and a half later, people still choose to stay here, move here, raise their families here and start businesses here. Which can only mean that we must be doing something right.

Last month, the Deseret News ran a story about a project in the late 1990s that dealt with growth in Utah. The initiative was a first-of-its-kind effort involving the public, state and local officials, and business and community leaders. Their goal was to develop an effective and intentional strategy for accommodating growth — to make sure we had a plan for how to grow without giving up the things that make Utah great. 

This framework for long-range regional visioning eventually became the organization Envision Utah, but, maybe more importantly, it became Utah’s framework for dealing with growth over the last two decades. 

And that strategy has largely worked. Our air is cleaner today than it was in the ’90s. Households use less water. We drive less. We have developed public transportation faster than anywhere else in the country. And Utah has become the national, even global, case study for how to deal with growth.

Our rate of growth is slow compared to most of our history. Utah has grown only by an estimated 3.3% over the last three years. But we still feel the pressure. And it will still take an effective and deliberate strategy to make sure Utah is a great place to live, despite the challenges of growth.

Last fall, Envision Utah, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget, and other partners traveled the state to hear about local growing pains. Some of the biggest challenges we heard were in the areas of housing, water, transportation and open space. We heard about those same issues in the late ’90s, and I imagine people brought up those similar issues in the 1890s. 

And today, like then, it will take some careful thought and collaboration to address the challenges in these areas. The Guiding Our Growth survey is a venue for that careful thought, and the results are meant to foster that collaboration.

Guiding Our Growth is the latest chapter in our legacy of planning and preparing for growth in Utah. If we want to honor the pioneers, we should be engaged — like they were — in an ongoing conversation about Utah’s growth.

Ari Bruening is the president and CEO of Envision Utah.