Demographers haven't been too successful through the years predicting growth patterns in Utah.
For many years, Salt Lake City seemed boundless, growing at a steady rate. That ended in the 1950s with the rise of the suburbs. In the 1970s, master plans predicted growth would be mainly along the east bench, but they completely missed the meteoric rise of population in cities such as West Jordan, South Jordan and Herriman.
Predicting future growth isn't any easier now. Utahns love large houses and large yards, and they continue to push suburban boundaries for cheaper land and quieter surroundings. Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs, two rapidly growing new cities in Utah County, are evidence of this. And yet economic conditions and an aging population may change a lot of these trends over the next few decades.
Demographic predictions are important. They help cities zone and plan for growth. They help transit planners design systems. But they can frustrate urban planners who try to change market-driven behavior patterns. People will do what they want.
The U.S. Census Bureau just released state population figures that include estimates through July 1, 2007. These show Utah's suburbs booming, as well as continued growth in St. George. Since then, of course, the economy has taken a turn for the worse, led by declines in the housing market and increases in gasoline prices. People may be tempted to buy smaller houses on smaller lots, and they may decide to move closer to the urban core or to transit in order to cut down on driving.
But economies don't stay down for long, and gasoline costs are only one factor in determining where to live. And an aging population (Utah continues to have the youngest population in the nation) may lead the flight from suburbs back to Salt Lake City, but it's a safe bet that a generous supply of new young families will keep the suburbs growing, as well.
Some things, however, seem certain. The Wasatch Front is unique among metropolitan areas because it has been allowed to develop as a collection of suburbs with a core city that itself is not large. As those suburbs meld into one continuous urban landscape, the emphasis needs to be on regional planning. Emergency services ought to merge to provide seamless protection. No city should consider itself an island. Regardless of where it happens, history teaches that growth, in Utah, is inevitable.