How much open space is missing from Utah?

It’s Earth Day, a day to celebrate our world and support environmental protection. But how much of Earth’s green embrace is actually left?

Utah, it turns out, lost about 713 square miles of natural and agricultural open space between 1982 and 2017, consumed by urban development and expansion driven by record rates of population growth. It was an expanse of green equivalent to roughly seven times the footprint of the capital city of Utah or slightly more than the entire dry land of Salt Lake County.

Nationwide, a new study quantified a total of 68,000 square miles of open space lost during the same time, with losses heaviest in faster-growing Sun Belt states such as California, Texas and Florida.

The Honeycomb State — where the population swelled by 18.4% from 2010 to 2020, the fastest rate in the nation — continues to push city boundaries out quickly as its economy swells, encompassing vast swaths of greenery, natural areas, and land. traditional agriculture. , especially along the Wasatch Front.

The research, based in part on county-level data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows Utah’s open space loss from 1982 and 2017 was concentrated in a five-county corridor from Cache County to Utah County, at 427 square miles. Salt Lake County alone saw 146 square miles of green space disappear.

“In terms of prosperity, in the interim, there may be some gain in terms of economic activity,” said scientist and environmental planner Leon Kolankiewicz, co-author of the study entitled “From Sea to Sprawling Sea.”

“But there is still a lot of price to pay,” said Kolankiewicz, “in terms of quality of life, more traffic, less viewing of mountains, and the loss of sustainable agricultural land and high-quality wildlife habitat. And that is an unavoidable cost. You can reduce it, but you can’t eliminate it.”

Applying the principles of “smart growth” — denser housing growth with an emphasis on walkability and transit near homes and work centers — may delay when open space at the edges of urban areas is devoured, according to Kolankiewicz. But if humans continued to multiply, even at a relatively small annual rate, “it would still be eaten.”

“Sustainable growth,” the scientist argues, “is an oxymoron.”

Looking back to zero population growth

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Jordan along Highway 111, facing south from West Valley City, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Utah has lost more than 700 square miles of open space between 1982 and 2017.

In this way, Kolankiewicz and like-minded colleagues represent a return to more priority at the heart of environmental thinking when Earth Day was born, on April 22, 1970. The idea of ​​zero population growth — where the number of births and births migrating equals deaths and out-migration — since then dropped drastically out of fashion.

Today, population trends slowing or stagnating in pockets of the US and around the world are, at least for some, a source of serious warning. And the idea never proved popular in Utah, where the prevailing cultural values ​​of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encourage members to welcome offspring and start families.

“The first commandment that God gave Adam and Eve had to do with their potential to become parents as husband and wife,” the family of faith said. “We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and populate the earth remains in effect.”

“From the start,” says Ari Bruening, CEO of regional planning agency Envision Utah, “when Utahs tell us what they worry about and care about, it’s always at the top of the list that we’re a family-oriented kind of place. .”

Public surveys and focus groups since the early 1990s, Bruening added, have shown “the idea of ​​wanting to be told not to have children and beyond has always been a curse for Utah.”

The state’s birth rate and household size have outpaced the rest of the state for decades, though both are declining. Now at 3.3 million, Utah’s population is projected to mushroom to just 5 million by 2050, with smaller households and an older population than today.

The conversation about population limits “is not even off the table,” said Ted Knowlton, deputy director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, another regional planning agency. “Most of the public and politicians don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole.”

So, pragmatically, Knowlton says, it shifts the debate about saving dwindling open space to strategies for refining how Utah grows. And when talking about strong policies on wiser land development, ease of conservation and the like, he says, “we’re almost out of that way even.”

Smarter growth helps

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oquirrh Mesa Drive in the Wood Hollow subdivision west of Highway 111 in West Valley City, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Utah has lost more than 700 square miles of open space between 1982 and 2017.

Kolankiewicz’s research solves the loss of open space due to pure population as well as the loss of existing residents using more land per capita, in everything from larger backyards to roads, shopping malls, offices, schools, government buildings, utilities, parking lots. , church and entertainment.

For the country as a whole, two-thirds of the loss of open space since 2002 was due to the addition of 37 million people. Another third — 5,850 square miles — is due to expansion and more land use per person, though that trend has slowed since 2002 compared to several decades in the late 20th century.

On average, the study says, Americans “are still spreading out, though not as much as in the past.”

In Utah, the ratio is much more skewed. Research shows that 82% of the loss of open space is attributed to the population and 18% to additional land consumption per person. That’s a strong indication that geography—namely, the combined western barrier of the Great Salt Lake, Oquirrh Mountains and Lake Utah in its central metropolitan area—might be forcing developers to make more acreage available.

There are undeniable signs that Utah has also slowed its consumption of open land by adopting better development strategies. Separate studies have shown that two decades of Utahns building more dense and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, increasing housing density per hectare with more apartments and town houses, enabling mixed land use and installing new transit lines through Wasatch Front have all helped.

One analysis shows that the approach has saved the country up to 140 square miles of agriculture and green space since the late 1990s, while reducing travel time, saving up to $4.5 billion in spending on utility lines, roads and sewers, and lowering water consumption. daily per person.

In the past 20 years, the state has also transformed its housing mix from predominantly single-family homes to thousands of new apartment complexes, townhouses, duplexes, and other forms of what it calls the “lost midsection.”

However, the not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment remains widespread in Utah, and most urban planning experts agree that the list of new development projects that are fully and successfully implementing smart growth principles remains short.

“It’s crazy to me that we think that almost everyone is like a birthright of owning a single-family home,” said Alessandro Rigolon, assistant professor of urban and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah, whose work focuses on urban green spaces and health equity.

“But if you’re proposing more infill and denser housing, you need to provide some of the same things single-family homes provide,” Rigolon says, “so at least there’s a shared yard or pocket garden you have. access to.”

Why is open space important?

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Early mornings in Springdale, just outside the entrance to Zion National Park, are a buzz of activity as hikers rush on shuttles to get them to the park in 2021. The national park remains even more valuable because it is open spaced. disappear.

Utah, as a whole, is still, of course, submerged in open land, including its national and state parks and wilderness areas. However, according to some estimates, as many as 1 in 4 households in the state’s main city corridor are not within a 10-minute walk of the park.

Open countryside, meadows, forests, marshes, farms, and other natural areas are not just natural landscapes of interest or sources of personal solace and therapy. They also provide a critical component to tackling climate change and replenishing air and water supplies.

“Greenland land is a public good, but a public good is undervalued,” said Reid Ewing, author and professor of urban and metropolitan planning at U.

In his book “Best Development Practices,” Ewing calls for approximately doubling the density of houses per acre across the country and greater incentives for infill construction in urban areas and along transit corridors. He points to Salt Lake City neighborhoods such as Sugar House and along 400 South and developments at Herriman and Vineyard as examples where density saves a lot of open space in the suburbs.

Ewing said, “It’s a simple math problem.”

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