Mountain urbanism, mountain modernism — and optimism — were the subjects of the 4th annual Mayor’s Symposium Feb. 13 at The Leonardo. It was an informative, inspiring and well-organized event focused on the Wasatch Front’s future growth and development.
Building on the introductory lead-off talk by the U.’s Noon Nan Ellin, chair of the Department of City and Metropolitan Planning, both mayors — Salt Lake City’s Ralph Becker and the county’s Ben McAdams — noted the doubling in the area’s population in the next 25-30 years. The purpose of the meeting was to identify, embrace and utilize our unique resources to plan and implement that future doubling.
It was all so positive, so optimistic, so inspiring because it chose to ignore the area’s hard realities. Only one speaker even mentioned climate change, and that was in the context of water resources for the region. Only several of the nearly two dozen speakers made any brief reference to air quality. And — most importantly — no one ventured to even question "future growth and development."
I love optimism, creativity, out-of-the-box approaches, public transit, high-density housing, walkable cities, persistence, optimism. But in my nearly 73 years I have learned to distrust ideology, overly wishful thinking, fantasy, fiction and the inability to think critically.
No amount of high density housing, public transit, "repurposing" or recycling will allow us to double the population in this or other Wasatch Front valleys in the next 25 years without asphyxiating. That’s not pessimism — that’s realism.
In order to live like New Yorkers or Parisians or even Londoners we need to address the local culture’s — and its politicians’ — emphasis on large families, large homes, private automobiles, 80 mph speed limits, golf courses, asphalt, energy waste, excess water use and other activities and even ideologies based on the now excessive use of material and natural resources.
Our economy and lifestyle is based on 19th century economic, political and even religious assumptions: land and air are infinite and water is abundant. Grow, multiply, expand. There’s always more — there’s no end in sight.
We now live in a 21st century world where we have already dramatically altered the air, the land and the oceans. Our growth and consumption-based economy has now altered the climate itself. The mild climate wherein civilization evolved — the last 10,000 years called the Holocene — is now gone, replaced by an unknown and, until now, unexperienced new "climate" — resulting in chaotic, extreme and unpredictable weather.
We continue to deny, to ignore, to fantasize — to be optimistic and to "plan" — without confronting the very basis of the challenges upon us.
Mountain urbanism was a very good conference. I applaud the organizers, speakers and participants. Everything they said and are doing is important, useful and effective — and needs to continue. But it will not be enough.
We must confront the very hard realities upon us. Growth must greatly slow. We must move towards full sustainability — in energy, in material resources, in population. And that means a rethinking and major revision of very fundamental and ingrained religious and cultural ideologies and doctrines.
We, the living, have only one planet. There are no others.
Joe Andrade is a retired professor of engineering, University of Utah. He has worked as a scientist, engineer and educator. He ran for Congress in 2012 as an independent. He was involved in the planning and development of The Leonardo museum.