The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 2, 2015

Can Washington, DC, be a little more like Utah?

February 2, 2015

Back in the mid-1990s, a group of civic leaders in Salt Lake City looked out over the Wasatch Front and worried about what they saw. Even though economic growth had created many opportunities for Utahns and attracted unprecedented numbers of migrants from other states and nations, there were also costs. Traffic was becoming unbearable. Air quality was getting harder to maintain. And the sense of place that characterized many of the state’s older cities and towns was eroding.

These issues had already started to make many residents and elected officials uneasy. If the state continued with business as usual, might Utah’s most valued qualities start to erode?

In some communities, residents might answer this kind of question reflexively by working to slow growth or even stop it. But that’s not an answer that works in most of the United States, and certainly not in Utah. So these leaders responded with a conversation, engaging residents, business owners, government officials, leaders of environmental organizations, and many others in a series of exercises about the future. They called it Envision Utah.

Envision Utah didn’t start out with a plan, but with questions for residents. What do you love about your community, your region, and your state? What do you find unappealing or unacceptable? And given that Utah is likely to continue growing, how and where should that growth happen?

Envision Utah made this last question concrete by gathering people around tables with maps and building blocks and asking them to talk with each other about how and where houses, apartments, and businesses should be built and mixed.

Based on this exercise, Envision Utah tested the impact of several growth scenarios on things people care about— traffic, open space, air quality, and other outcomes—and asked the public what scenario they wanted to pursue. Thousands of people responded, most of them agreeing that the Salt Lake City region needed to deviate from the status quo pattern dominated by single-family homes in their own subdivisions to a scenario where homes and businesses would be built closer together, with more choices for transportation and with larger amounts of preserved open space and parkland.

This community conversation created new constituencies for public policy that will gradually reshape the character of Utah’s biggest cities. It also engaged people in thinking about the future in a new way. No longer would the future be unimaginable or beyond control. Instead, it could be influenced by decisions and policies.

And while every scenario presented serious challenges, the process meant people would prepare for these challenges years in advance, rather than waiting and reacting once they occurred. Envision Utah still helps foster deliberation about many aspects of the state’s future.

Like Utah, many states and local areas have their own projections about the future. Many are already having conversations much like those Envision Utah initiated about how and where they should grow and how they should prepare for the future. By comparison, we have limited opportunities to engage in such conversations at the national level.

That’s why the Urban Institute recently launched Mapping America’s Futures. In much the same spirit as Envision Utah, Mapping America’s Futures is meant to allow the public, leaders, and stakeholders to deliberate the local implications of national trends. Which states and local areas are likely to see the fastest growth in diversity? How could improvements in the social conditions that affect mortality rates affect longevity and further increase the number of older adults across the United States as early as 2030? How should we prepare for these scenarios, or even reach a scenario that appeals to us the most?

Mapping America’s Futures already allows users to explore 27 scenarios for population change at the level of states and commuting zones. Plans are underway to explore scenarios and spark conversations about many other realms affected by decisionmaking at the national level. With Mapping America’s Futures, the Urban Institute aspires to make Washington a little more like Utah, equipped with the tools that will engage us in a more robust and informed discussion about how we can reach the future we want and prepare for the futures that might be.

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