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.
'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.
Taylorsville Mayor Russ Wall says the city tries to set itself apart and establish its own positive identity. It's important for residents' morale, but it's also a marketing tool, Wall said.
"I would like for people in Taylorsville to know where they are," Wall said. "We take pride in our community. We like to think we're a unique and different and nice place to live. ... Cities will develop a reputation or a sense of identity, and if you don't choose to do it, it will get done for you."
Farther north, where Salt Lake County meets Davis County, the growth has started to reach little towns like West Point, where the population has doubled in less than a decade.
There, Mayor John Petroff can see the wave of growth threatening to wash over his town of 12,000 residents, but the city is already planning its personality choosing street lights and developing a Main Street atmosphere that's distinct.
No longer any space left
Michelle Knight didn't used to have to worry about rush hour in Clinton, where she lived next to farm fields and open land. But these days, the number of cars in Clinton the result of the masses of people who moved there to be close enough to commute to Salt Lake City but still be far enough away to enjoy the countryside is giving her a headache.
"There are a lot more homes and a lot more traffic," says Knight, a 21-year resident of Clinton. "It's not just a little farming community anymore. When we moved here, it was a small-town atmosphere. Now we have Wal-Mart, food establishments. There isn't any space in between us and the next city. ... There are either homes or businesses on pretty much everything, or there will be."
Transportation is an issue for a growing area like the Wasatch Front, Lang says, but how transportation is planned in this part of Utah is also a key element to shaping development and economic stability.
Megapolitan areas are defined in part by the amount of residents who commute from smaller regions to larger anchor cities, and vice versa, Lang says. Megapolitan regions are also projected to have astronomical growth rates in population, which could potentially push urban sprawl farther into deserts and farmland, resulting in more people commuting from longer distances. Planning mass transportation options around travel corridors is a way to preserve rural areas from becoming more dense, Lang says.
"Some of the famous cases of cities that develop rail, like Arlington, Va., did so to preserve single-family homes," Lang said. "Higher-density pressures were spilling out and were flowing into places like neighborhoods, so they said, 'Forget all of that. We'll give you one zone to develop in, but everything else will be preserved."'
Some cities might not readily want to build mass transportation systems, like FrontRunner and TRAX, through town, but Lang says those systems can be a gateway to promising economic opportunities.
'Whole different world'
For years, Donald Frame's neighborhood was reminiscent of the real wild, wild West. Everyone had a garden, and sheep frequently wandered up and down the road at night to keep the weeds down.
"It was mostly rural then, there was nothing urban about it," Frame said. "When we'd go to 3200 West, I thought we were going to fall off the end of the world, and you know how many people are there now. That far west, back then, it seemed like you were out on the frontier."
Now, 77 years later, Taylorsville has almost run out of space to build on previously undeveloped land. The city is looking at redeveloping areas that have already started to become rundown and facing the uncomfortable specter of deciding when and where to approve higher-density developments like condos and apartment complexes.
"It's one of the largest areas of public outcry that we have, when it becomes necessary to increase density," Wall said. "People fight that. It's a problem in suburbs throughout the country because people move to the suburbs to get away from the city and the city catches up with you."
Lang shows pictures of housing developments cropping up in mall parking lots as examples of what happens when cities run out of room for their residents. Planning areas where condos and mixed-use apartment complex developments can go is essential, Lang says, and natural locations for those areas lie around rail systems.
"Not everything has to switch to this (high-density housing), it's just that the share of the region that could switch to this is larger than is currently there, and it's an opportunity," Lang said. "It's underserved, relative to the demand."
More and more, large corporations are building their headquarters in places where people want to live, Lang says, rather than expecting their employees to move just because jobs are available. Cities that don't establish an identity, plan transportation solutions and allow varieties of housing will miss out on larger economic opportunities, Lang says.
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