Not long ago I was involved in a discussion about rail service linking Provo to Salt Lake City. I’m excited for it, but during the discussion a couple of people mentioned how they had discussed the issue with economics professors who believe that it is an economically unjustified project. Their reasoning was essentially that population density is too low in Provo (and Utah County) for the rail service to be worth the cost. Basically, they think not enough people will ride it, because there simply aren’t enough people. (They contrasted Utah with the East Coast and Europe.)
Economics isn’t the only lens through which to view the world, of course, and there are other reasons to build rail lines. Also, I’m no economist and I was hearing all this in a debate (while arguing against it, actually).
But I find it persuasive and, more importantly, a useful way to think about many of the problems plaguing downtown Provo. Think about it: if population density in Provo was comparable to, say, Boston, there would be more potential consumers in a very small area. If it was comparable to Paris, all the better.
Obviously higher population density comes with its own challenges, but it seems like one of the primary reasons downtown Provo struggles is that there simply aren’t enough people to sustain a lot of consumer-oriented businesses. To make matters (economically) worse, the conservative, LDS culture of Provo hardly encourages residents to living in downtown to lead extravagant, spendy lifestyles.
As a result, the population is flung out in a way that divides consumers. Some people go to the Riverwoods. Some to the malls. Some to American Fork. And none of these areas truly become community gather places, and none really thrive.
This problem is compounded in downtown Provo because it is not, in fact, centrally located. Even commuting consumers are only marginally likely to visit it. Though it is the biggest urban center in Utah Valley, it is actually several miles south of the more affluent communities — Highland, Alpine, Cedar Hills, etc. — that could actually patronize downtown business. I have no love of these communities, but they generally have more disposable income than communities in south Utah County. And unfortunately it’s often easier for north county residents to go to American Fork, Thanksgiving Point, etc.
All this is to say one thing: among all the solutions to solve downtown Provo’s problems, gradually increasing population density around the area is the most obvious to me. The logistics of doing that are beyond the scope of this post, but as I discuss Provo, the need for higher density population will be a major underlying assumption. Some posts will try to justify that assumption. Others will simply take it for granted that Provo cannot have a vibrant, urban center smack in the middle of a sleepy, suburban-style community.