As a progressive Utahn, there were several things for me to be enthused about after last November’s election. Propositions 2, 3 and 4 passed, and Ben McAdams won Mia Love’s congressional seat. But something decidedly unprogressive also happened that night, which dampened my enthusiasm. Voters in Holladay rejected the proposed redevelopment of the long-vacant site of their former mall.
Readers might be asking what precisely is unprogressive about that particular result. Many of my fellow progressive Utahns have understandable animosity toward developers like Ivory Homes, and stopping their projects may be seen as an environmental victory. However, due to the direct impact urban growth has on many quality-of-life issues we care deeply about, I implore all those who identify as progressive to support projects like the (now likely dead) Cottonwood Mall redevelopment.
Yes, this means handing political victories to developers. But growth is happening whether we want it or not. Developers such as Ivory are going to be there to facilitate this growth. When we reject projects like the Cottonwood Mall redevelopment, we are not stopping growth—we are stopping intelligent growth.
The Wasatch Front’s growth has followed a model of urban sprawl for decades. This model entails low-density residential areas (single homes separated by yards), low-density commercial areas (beige and bland strip malls separated by parking lots) and divisions between them. An extensive list of negative consequences follows this model.
Residents sprawling outward and away from urban cores makes connecting citizens with mass transit a more daunting and expensive endeavor than it needs to be. Urban sprawl necessitates a car-centric way of life, wherein you must drive to shopping, entertainment and other amenities. This leads to increased vehicle emissions and exacerbates our air pollution health crisis. It additionally makes walkable and bicycle-friendly communities a challenge. Because of this challenge, research shows direct correlations between life expectancy and suburban sprawl. Finally, when we sprawl outward instead of upward, we further encroach on our state’s precious natural environments, threatening wildlife habitats, biodiversity and recreation opportunities.
In contrast, higher-density development holds the promise of smart, sustainable and forward-thinking urban growth. It allows for a mixed-use approach, making it easy for residents to walk or bike for shopping and entertainment, and making public walking trails, bicycle trails and urban green spaces highly open and accessible for exercise and outdoor recreation.
By moving our green urban spaces from personal, single-family yards to collective and public areas, we also work toward addressing one of Utah’s greatest future challenges—water usage. Personal lawn irrigation needlessly worsens water shortages.
Higher-density developments additionally allow us to integrate comprehensive mass transit, connecting large concentrations of people with adequate automobile alternatives, including buses, streetcars, light rail or commuter rail. This transit-centered approach to development is key to tackling air pollution.
Winning over the public on higher-density development will not be easy. NIMBY syndrome is rampant along the Wasatch Front. We need to shift from thinking like a resident of Holladay or Riverton, and begin thinking like a resident of an extensive and continuous stretch of urban development. The numerous quality-of-life issues that arise from urban sprawl do not begin and end at the arbitrary boundaries of cities. They affect every one of us who makes the Wasatch Front their home. None of us can afford to say “not in my backyard” any longer. We all must take collective responsibility and welcome higher-density development into all of our backyards.
Possibly posing even more of a challenge is the fact that so many of us conflate images of a house in a nice subdivision with the American dream. This mindset will also need to shift if we care about the collective good for all Wasatch Front residents. The World Bank summarized it best, “Compact urban centers represent the best chance to improve the quality of life for the greatest number of people across the globe.”
By ruling that Holladay voters had a right to place the Cottonwood Mall development on the ballot, the Utah Supreme Court set a precedent that could give voters the opportunity to block many more high-density developments in the future. This makes development a fight that could be waged at the ballot box, and winning over public sentiment may become increasingly essential.
The Cottonwood Mall redevelopment was likely defeated by neighbors talking with one another in grocery stores and as they waited to pick their kids up from school. We as progressive Utahns must be prepared to discuss proposed future projects with our neighbors. Not by continuing to perpetuate the unproductive narrative of “development is bad, let’s stop it,” but by promoting the benefits and opportunities that higher-density development holds for the issues we face along the Wasatch Front, and for the many future challenges that an additional three million people by 2060 will inevitably bring.
Billy Finlay is a legislative intern with Alliance for a Better Utah.