Monthly Archives: November 2012

Frontrunner Media Day

The new Frontrunner commuter rail extension to Provo is about a week away from opening and today UTA invited the media to check it out.

My colleague Billy Hesterman wrote this article about the event. Among other things, Billy reports that there are some impressive sites along the route to Salt Lake:

The area around the narrows could trick someone into thinking they’ve left the urban developments of Lehi and Bluffdale as the track rides the valley floor of a small canyon that wraps around Point of the Mountain.

Inside the canyon is a mixture of canals, rivers and great views that show off some of the natural beauty contained in an area that is usually ignored by drivers as they speed around the point to get to their destination.

Among the various other coverage, KSL’s Sam Penrod tweeted a series of cool pictures. Fox 13 also has this video (that for some reason I couldn’t embed).

One thing that struck me while watching that report was how cool Provo’s station seems. I’ve always looked at from the north (looking south). From that angle it just comes across like a miserable parking lot. But looking north the historic buildings in the area are visible. So hopefully, it won’t be too many years before the area immediately south of the station gets filled in as well.

Provo's soon-to-open commuter rail station.

Provo’s soon-to-open commuter rail station.

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Filed under commuting

A Compact Core is Better

Yesterday, I wrote that density — or, as I’ll try to refer to it after a great comment, “compactness” — is one way to increase incomes. It’s a point that perhaps over simplifies reality, but it’s one touched on recently by Richard Florida:

Economists, urbanists, and place makers have found density to be associated with everything from greater energy efficiency to higher levels of skilled and talented people, higher rates of innovation, and higher income.

That quote comes from an article in which Florida discusses different types of compactness in cities. After some analysis, Florida concludes that cities with concentrated density in their cores do better:

Ever since Jane Jacobs, urban thinkers and economists have argued that clusters of talented and ambitious people increase one another’s productivity and the productivity of the broader community, spurring economic growth. So, what about economic growth: Is it higher in metros where density is more concentrated? The short answer is yes.

Economic growth and development, according to several key measures, is higher in metros that are not just dense, but where density is more concentrated.

Historic apartments in downtown Provo.

Historic apartments in downtown Provo.

Florida goes on to point out that tech, business, the arts, and diversity all thrive in cities with concentrated density in the center. It’s also worth mentioning that Florida’s point is that different types of density have different types of effects. This is good news for Provo because the central neighborhoods are already the most compact and, more importantly, because downtown perhaps has the most potential for adding density.

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Filed under Development, Downtown

Cut the Mountains Some Slack

In case you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a video of people slack lining in the mountains above Provo. It’s rather stunning.

I’ve been arguing all along that Provo’s mountains are among its greatest assets but this video makes that point strikingly clear.


Filed under mountains, Provo

How to Fill a Vacant Lot in Provo

On Thanksgiving day I went on a walk downtown with several family members. When we passed the vacant lot I mentioned in this post, we discovered that it had become the home of several large wooden spools. Then, a few days after I wrote this post about a similar lot in Salt Lake City, my friend Josh Yost sent me a couple of great pictures of the spools.

Spools in a vacant lot on Center Street.

Another view of the spools.

When my family and I happened on these spools, we weren’t sure what to make of them. Were they just discarded trash? Were they a guerrilla art installation? Could we mess with them without getting in trouble?

Apparently we could, because we did. Laura even tried to walk on one while it was rolling, sort of like a cartoon character.

More importantly, these simple additions show how easy it is to draw people into a space and make it interactive. I’m not sure if this was intended as art. And either way it’s less visually arresting than the piece in the Salt Lake lot.

But it’s also more interactive. While the Salt Lake example invites users to walk through it and maybe touch it, this is all about moving things around. It’s like a giant set of wooden blocks for adults (and kids). And ultimately, it took a relatively ugly spot and made it a place for human interaction and exploration, which is really the goal of any public space.

That’s not to say this is suddenly a beautiful spot. It’s not. And adding discarded spools is not generally going to solve the world’s placemaking challenges. But despite these shortcomings this site shows how little additions to a space can make a big difference.

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One Way to Increase Incomes

I’ve written in the past that Provo has a low median income compared to similar cities, as well as a high poverty rate. I’m not an economist, so these problems seem like the hardest, if most important, to fix.

Yesterday however, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias tackled this issue, framing it in terms of scarcity:

[…] if we’re wondering about the jobs of the future and whether the typical person in 2052 will be able to afford a visit to the doctor this turns out to be basically a question about how many doctors there will be, not what kinds of jobs people have. Insofar as doctors are scarce, lots of people won’t get to see the doctor. By contrast, if doctors are plentiful then a decent society shouldn’t have a difficult time organizing things so that people can see the doctor. […] It used to be that doctors made house calls, but they’re too scarce now for any reasonable person to pay for that.

In other words, if there are a lot of doctors they become cheaper. And if something is cheaper, wages don’t need to be as high to afford it.

Income in a city goes up when people earn more, as well as when things begin to cost less.

Yglesias goes on to mention that technological advances — a computer that can do the work of a doctor, for example — could make medical care less scarce and cause a de facto raise for everyone.

So what does this mean for cities with comparatively low median incomes?

Most obviously it provides a way to “increase” salaries without directly tackling wages. But Yglesias also connects this idea to housing:

By the same token relaxing anti-density regulations would not only increase numerator wages by improving productivity and agglomeration, it would increase wages on the denominator side by reducing the cost of housing in desirable locations.

Yglesias is saying in that quote that increasing housing density would do two things: increase actual wages (the “numerator”), and allow people to save money on housing by making it more common and affordable (the “denominator”).

Fixing anti-density issues is a recurring theme on this blog, but Yglesias’ post is great because it directly connects that agenda with the biggest problem in a city like Provo. It just remains to be seen if city governments — in Provo and elsewhere — will force themselves to buck the trend and do what is obviously most beneficial.


Filed under Development, economics

Provo: City of Startups

According to CNN, Provo is a great place for startups, even beating out Salt Lake City:

The Provo-Orem area is often overshadowed by its northern neighbor, Salt Lake City. It’s a third of the size and doesn’t have its own NBA team. But Provo actually raises more venture capital money for startups.

Entrepreneurs have found that Provo, like Boulder, provides top-notch resources paired with reasonable living expenses. Startups can also turn to research facilities at the Mormon Church-run Brigham Young University, which is gaining recognition for its support of student business ventures.

Building a culture of startups is important but not necessarily easy, so it’s laudable that Provo is succeeding.

Provo is a great place for startups.

But could it succeed even more? I think so. Note, for example, the Boulder comparison in the quote above. The Colorado city actually shows up in the number one spot on CNN’s list, once again illustrating how it economically outshines Provo. The reasons for that are complex, but as I’ve been arguing lately Provo should be trying to understand and address the differences between between it and other cities. In other words, the city needs models along with a critical understanding of their applicability.

In any case, Provo deserves some back patting for landing on CNN’s list. But it’s vastly more important that lists like this serve as the impetus for more improvement. Or said another way, there are five other cities that have been singled out here and each of them offers important lessons that Provo should internalize.

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Filed under Development, economics

The Killer Commute

CNN recently reported what many more specialized publications have been saying for a long time: commuting translates to health problems. Those problems include increased stress, emotional strain and these issues:

2012 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the farther people commute by vehicle, the higher their blood pressure and body mass index is likely to be. Also, the farther the commute, the less physical activity the person was likely to get.

In Provo, the mean travel time to work is 16.6 minutes, which is lower than the state average of 21.2 minutes. Provo is also a good place to walk to work. These characteristics should help create a healthier community.

Commuting has detrimental effects on health. Provo has relatively low commute times, though recent projects could change that.

And yet Provo and other Wasatch Front cities have just added massive freeway infrastructure which encourages more driving. In fact, after the I15 expansion project I expect to see an increase in the total number of commuting hours because more people will have incentives to drive. And eventually, the marginal time savings from less congestion — which supposedly results from a widened freeway — will even be cancelled out by induced demand for more road space.

In other words, despite a mountain of evidence that long commutes are bad we’re pursuing projects that will put more people on the road and eventually keep them there longer. Clearly, that’s a recipe for disaster.

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Filed under commuting, driving

Could Better Design Have Saved A Teacher?

This morning, a middle school P.E. teacher was killed while jogging to work in South Jordan. Apparently he was wearing dark clothing and a truck driver didn’t see him in the intersection at 9800 South and 4000 West. Here’s what that spot looks like:

A school teacher was struck and killed by a car in this intersection Wednesday morning.

The same intersection from a different angle.

To me this looks like a pretty unpleasant place to walk. The streets are relatively wide, there are blank walls everywhere, and it generally seems kind of boring.

But it’s actually better than the streets mentioned in previous posts on auto-pedestrian accidents. For example, the intersection has clear crosswalks on each corner. Though wide, the streets have comparatively few lanes of traffic. And there aren’t huge parking lots everywhere.

But just because it’s not the worst street in the world doesn’t mean it couldn’t be better and safer. For starters, look at how many people are visible in these pictures. Some, sure, but not many. Why aren’t there more? After all, more pedestrians make drivers more aware and increase safety, all while producing a better return on the investment in sidewalks.

The general banality of streets is a big problem. Most of these houses, walls and lawns look very similar. Alone they may be interesting (or not), but repeated over and over they get monotonous. And if a space is boring most people don’t use it, therefore making it more dangerous for those who do venture out, like the school teacher.

Here’s a page from that argues as much, saying that great streets should be “lined with a variety of interesting activities and uses that create a varied streetscape.” Great streets also should have good architecture, facilitate human interaction, etc. Clearly, this street does none of those things.

As usual for Utah, the street is also too wide. As the second picture shows, it’s wide enough to accommodate three cars in either direction. So is what amounts to a six-lane road a good thing in the middle of a residential neighborhood? I don’t think so. In fact, I think that’s the main problem here: this is apparently a quiet residential neighborhood with a minor highway running through it. I even know people who remember when I15 was actually not as wide as this street.

In other words, this street is a stroad. It may be less of one than others in Utah, but it’s still pretty large for something surrounded by a bunch of quiet, single family homes.

Ultimately, accidents are unavoidable. But as this incident shows, even apparently okay streets have serious design flaws. In this case, the flaws mentioned above are just a few of the problems but if we want to stop killing people, we’re really going to have to do better.


Filed under driving

Art in a Vacant Lot

While wandering around Salt Lake City last week, I saw the art installation in the pictures below. It’s made up of rows of black PVC pipe and is interactive; visitors can walk through the pipes, touch them, and pretty much do anything they want.

A PVC art installation in an undeveloped Salt Lake City lot.

The same installation, looking in a different direction.

Provo has similar vacant lots, which I’ve written about previously. I suggested installing a zen garden in downtown Provo, but this example from Salt Lake shows how a little creativity (and an artist) can create an interesting space that calls out for attention, rather than repelling visitors. And truthfully, I like this idea better than the one I proposed for Provo.

It’s also worth mentioning that the lot is slated for development as a dance academy. Still, someone invested in the installation and created a memorable place in the city.

Someday this installation will be replaced with the building on the left of this rendering.

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So What If Provo Grows Quickly?

Imagine a typical mall. Inside that mall many stores, perhaps even a majority, probably sell clothes. And while some of those stores are great successes, others probably are not.

The lesson is that the supply of clothing and clothing retailers at a typical mall — or at a cluster of malls and other retailers, as Salt Lake City has — probably exceeds demand by at least a little bit. If the opposite were true, after all, stores could jack up their prices with impunity. As it is, however, stores actually offer sales, specialization and varying levels of service. They’re vying for money and some won’t survive.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Yesterday my colleague Genelle Pugmire reported that the Provo-Orem metro area is the fastest growing in the nation and will stay that way for the next five years. That’s good news because it means greater investment, diversity and many other things.

City Creek in Salt Lake. Much like a collection of stores, a collection of cities has to create an environment that draws people. In many cases, cities may be competing for the same people.

But just like a mall is a collection of stores, the Provo-Orem metro area is a collection of cities offering slightly different “products.” And much like stores competing for consumer dollars, cities in a fast-growing metro area are tasked with creating enticing environments that will lure new people.

In other words, the mall is an analogy for the way that cities in Utah County simultaneously feed off of one another and compete with one another. The big difference is that instead of dollars spent on clothing, cities are trying to get dollars spent on housing, transportation, etc.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but it should emphasize the idea that cities hoping for success need to actively court “buyers.” After all, imagine a store that spent no resources on market research, advertising, display and presentation, or improving inventory. That store would quickly go out of business.

A city won’t exactly “go out of business,” but if it doesn’t respond to a dynamic market it can lose new workers, young families, and investment generally. Or said another way, a city that does nothing in the face of demographic changes is choosing to fail.

When it comes to Provo, I’m encouraged by what I see. For example, I’ve written several times lately about the need to add affordable housing. And according to Genelle’s article, that’s what the city is doing:

“With the two recently announced developments, we anticipate a lot of growth in the downtown area,” Provo Mayor John Curtis said. “The demographic is changing. It’s not about home ownership anymore.”

Curtis added, “This complements precisely our efforts in the downtown area. We’re ready to welcome them home. For most of my three years not one residential planner has called. Now things are picking up and developers are calling.”

That suggests Provo is actively trying to capture the investment that will come with the high projected growth. Of course success requires a holistic approach, but the figures reported by Genelle should drive home the point that Utah County cities have tremendous potential right now but success for everyone is not guaranteed.


Filed under building, Development