Amy Choate-Nielsen: Megalopolis: Urban sprawl slowly blurs Wasatch Front towns, cities

Published: Sunday, May 18 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Leonard McKay, a Planning Commission member, has seen huge changes since he moved to Provo in 1935.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

It wasn't so long ago that Donald Frame used to ride a horse to get around his remote neighborhood in Taylorsville.

Leonard McKay lived in a tiny, distant Provo, and Michelle Knight's home in Clinton was surrounded by farmland, not strip malls and subdivisions.

But over the past few decades, Frame, McKay and Knight have been pulled ever closer — without moving an inch — into a booming metropolis or megalopolis, that spans the Wasatch Front. As their counties and communities collide, tiny towns are becoming more of a distant memory where new needs for establishing an identity, transportation routes and areas for growth have become paramount for survival.

"This is a whole different world we're living in," said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, who is studying the Wasatch Front as one of the Intermountain West's five emerging "megapolitan" areas, where expanding commuting patterns make trends toward denser developments necessary and inevitable.

"The challenge for the Wasatch Front is using up its space inefficiently, using it for large subdivisions instead of being smart about how this shelf is being used. It's building a big transit structure and ... creating a strategy for where it will grow denser and where you would have neighborhoods of single-family homes."

The Wasatch Front, spanning from Logan to Provo, is ranked fourth in terms of size out of the five areas Lang is studying — Phoenix, Denver and Las Vegas are bigger; Albuquerque is smaller — but it is comparatively ahead of the region when it comes to light rail and mass transportation, Lang says.

Still, there are other areas where the Wasatch Front will need to adjust to keep up with its impending growth over the next 30 years, and not all of those changes are welcomed by long-term residents.

'All you see is houses'

As Provo — and all of Utah County — have grown up, and Salt Lake County has spread out, the sea of houses in commuter-heavy communities — half-suburb, half-country — now tumbles across the Wasatch Front into a constant flow of development.

But when McKay moved to Provo in 1935, the county seat was small, to say the least.

"It was like being in a don't-wink-blink-or-sneeze town or you'd miss the whole thing," said 77-year-old McKay, who serves on Provo's Planning Commission.

Now Provo is the fastest-growing area of the Wasatch Front, with population numbers that increase at a rate that's twice as fast as Salt Lake City and the rest of the country. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, Provo's population in 2006 was about 116,000, compared to Salt Lake City's population of about 179,000. But from 2000 to 2006, Provo's population increased by about 26 percent, while Salt Lake City increased by about 10 percent.

That growth is one factor that is transforming Provo into less of a stopping point for people on their way to the capital city and more of a destination for commuters who daily cross the divide of the Point of the Mountain.

"If you see what we have today, it's almost beyond belief how it's changed from a good old farming community to nothing but houses," McKay said. "It's really a change. It's hard to imagine. ... Now you look at the Point of the Mountain from either side and all you see is houses."

Provo, which has a pioneer heritage and a walkable downtown, doesn't have as much of a challenge claiming an identity like a number of other cities, says Gary McGinn, the city's community development director. But for other towns, it's a struggle. It takes effort.

Taylorsville, for example, only became a city in 1996. It's already built out to 96 percent of its growth, and because of its close boundaries to its neighbors, you might think you're in Kearns, Murray or West Jordan when driving through the city.

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