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Urban on the Rocks 

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There's a decision that needs to be made, quickly, by the residents of Salt Lake City. And if we don't get our acts together soon, the wrong decision will be made for us.

Elsewhere in this week's issue of City Weekly, contributor Jason Stevenson explores one of the battle lines in this fight. But to put the debate in simple terms: Salt Lakers need to decide, right now, whether we're going to be a real city or not.

Real cities have a lot of homes, obviously. More importantly, real cities have a lot of types of homes. Some homes might have a front yard and a white picket fence—other homes might share a kitchen with their neighbors. In some cases, a room above a garage might help a legacy family to pay their bills—and in other cases, a room above a garage might help a young couple attend classes at the University of Utah.

Real cities don't require their residents to own a car in order to thrive. They recognize the street as a shared public space, not a private ski slope requiring expensive gear and a taste for adrenaline to participate. And because people need a way to get around, real cities give them one—or better yet, several—in all places, at all times, through all weather.

Real cities understand that, as a collection of people, the city itself is a living, ever-changing thing, full of cheerful hellos and painful goodbyes. The flaws of a city's human builders trickle through its veins and seep from its pores, and the medicine is not always easy to swallow.

And unfortunately, many real cities find themselves micromanaged by a state government that doesn't understand what real cities are. So those cities do what they can, where they can, and they fight like hell for the rest.

The alarm bells are ringing. While Salt Lake City is growing, Salt Lake City School District is contracting, a symptom of prohibitively expensive housing that stems in large part from the simple supply-and-demand dynamics of a hypercompetitive housing stock. Outward expansion has literally and figuratively sucked the land dry, and our streets are deadlier than ever, not necessarily from violence (although there are troubling indicators there as well) but from a laudable need to transport human capital to and through our capital, made lamentable by systems that actively discourage everything but the private automobile.

Unfortunately, even the best-laid plans—built on best practices, quantifiable evidence and a pinch of hopeful gumption—have tended to go awry against a torrent of short-sighted NIMBY ("Not in my backyard") obstructionism. Plans to expand trails, modernize transit and incentivize affordable housing and economic opportunity have crashed against a wall of opposition, often based on half-truths, rumor, innuendo and, in some cases, naked prejudice.

These debates have ignored both facts and common sense. Housing in a real city cannot be both broadly affordable and universally spacious. Transit cannot be infrequent, inaccessible and stigmatized while also being expected to flourish. Small businesses can't be expected to—frankly—exist if land-use rules place them so far removed from their potential customers that it's not worth the cumbersome (and quite possibly deadly) trip to patronize them.

And even if we accept the premise that newcomers are bad—which I hope we can all agree is wrong—Salt Lake City would still need to account for its status in Utah, where not only our own children but our fellow Utahns' children aspire to reside as they pursue an education, a career or simply a vibrant and colorful life in the heart of our state's creative, political and cultural spheres.

We know what happens if the NIMBYs win, because they've been winning for so long. Their selfish pessimism would see us cling forever to our quasi-suburban, car-centric, strip-mall and big-box legacy. The housing shortage will continue, prices will soar, young families will be replaced by wealthy California lookie-loos, homelessness will proliferate and sprawl will continue to lay waste to every inch of undeveloped land, exacerbating carbon inefficiencies and furthering ecological collapse. (Sorry, journalism professors, I guess I'm exposing my pro-Earth bias here. If we had a bet, I'll pay my debt with a gallon of gasoline.)

We built our way into this mess, and we're going to have to build our way out of it. That necessitates removing some of the old, making room for the new and maintaining patience during the inevitably uncomfortable transition periods.

It also means rethinking the way we talk about cost. Public transit and housing density, when done right, lead to lower crime rates, smaller per-person carbon footprints, better quality of life and stronger, localized economies. Complacency may sometimes appear to be the cheaper option, but in truth, we can't afford not to change.

All of this is why I maintain optimism about, for example, the Utah inland port. Our city is tragically divided by a freeway and freight rail. That was an intentional choice, it was done in bad faith and it was a mistake. And it can't be undone, except in the pie-in-the-sky fever dreams of our most idealistic urbanists [raises hand].

But building a better-situated, technologically efficient shipping and manufacturing hub, one that replaces some of the industrial presence in Salt Lake's neighborhoods and city center, opening space for human-scale interventions in the built environment and generating investment for historically neglected areas? It's not a terrible idea—the question now is whether Utah can actually pull it off.

Smart money says no, it can't. After all, our state government is dominated by white, suburban men who see every street as a highway and every downtown as a parking lot. They would much prefer to terrorize transgender children than do the hard work of building a future. But even so, Salt Lakers should take a long, hard look at their Amazon Prime accounts before dismissing the port out of hand.

As long as these quality-of-life issues are seen as another example of the dirty liberal hipsters in SLC going street woke, our collective interests will continue to be ignored and our city will continue to barrel toward a brick wall.

Because this isn't a partisan issue—it's an urban issue. And it's time for everyone in the city to get on the same page about what kind of city Salt Lake will be and to start demanding the right kind of change.

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About The Author

Benjamin Wood

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