Nothing Says Sprawl Like Eagle Mountain

The following is the essay I wrote on affordable housing for my Green Communities class:

I have a cousin who’s married with five kids. Last year her husband’s employer relocated him from Idaho Falls, Idaho, to Salt Lake City, which obviously required that the other six family members follow along. But finding housing for a family of seven living on a limited income turned out to be difficult. Well, they “drove ‘til they qualified” and ended up in Eagle Mountain!

I honestly don’t know why anyone would want to live in Eagle Mountain. The nearest convenience store is three miles away, and the nearest grocery store six miles away. The nearest bus stop is over a mile away, and service is limited to three inbound trips in the morning and three outbound trips in the evening. The nearest FrontRunner station is twelve miles away. Life in Eagle Mountain is neigh impossible without a car. In Utah nothing says sprawl like Eagle Mountain.

In learning about the factors guiding their housing decision, I discovered that they would have preferred to find a place to live somewhere closer to … well … anything. They needed to live somewhere with at least four bedrooms—preferably five bedrooms. Due to false notions about crime, they were unwilling to even consider living in Salt Lake City or nearby in West Valley City, Taylorsville, Midvale, or even Murray. They focused their search in places like Sandy, Herriman, and Lehi, but just couldn’t find anything in their price range.

A sprawling suburb like Eagle Mountain, so far from everything, certainly does not meet human needs. It does not fulfill the desperate need for compact, sustainable communities. I am puzzled as to why we are unable to provide housing and communities that actually meet the needs of a family of seven. Honestly, it makes me feel sad and frustrated that my cousin and her family have to live in Eagle Mountain. I wish they could have the experience of living in my neighborhood and of being so close to downtown. My cousin’s oldest is fourteen, and it scares me to imagine being a teenager in Eagle Mountain and to think of the deep boredom and depression that must result from having no entertainment opportunities nearby and having to rely on an adult to drive you to everything worthwhile.

My townhome is across the street from a convenience store and three blocks from a grocery store. It’s a fifteen minute walk to TRAX and then a ten minute ride on TRAX to arrive downtown. I usually take time almost every day to enjoy downtown and soak in the atmosphere and culture. I wish my cousin and her family could have the same experience. I wonder if they even have any comprehension of what they’re missing out on!

In reviewing the Affordable Housing Design Advisor, I see many great examples of communities that are being built the right way. The communities fulfill the necessity of compactness and walkability and are even attractive and aesthetically pleasing. They support transit and provide opportunities for people to meet their neighbors. When compared with sprawl, they are a giant leap forward toward sustainability. However, I do see a general lack of housing for larger families. Given Utah’s propensity for producing large families, I feel that there is a need for apartments, condos, and townhomes with four, five, maybe six bedrooms. I’m also concerned about keeping affordable, sustainable, walkable housing affordable given the huge latent demand. The popularity of Daybreak has already shown the demand for communities that try to build according to the principles of New Urbanism.

I worry whether society can break free of the habits of consumerism and resistance to change that we’re stuck in. While watching Taken for a Ride, I was struck by the collective stupidity of it all. Shortly after embarking on the sprawl experiment, many people realized that we were literally headed down the wrong road, but yet we’ve persisted in the same policies and practices for a half century.

I had the opportunity to work for the Utah Legislature during the 2012 General Session, which gave me an inside view of the political ecology of Utah. And it left me somewhat disturbed. In many respects, the Utah Legislature is stuck in the 1950s in their way of thinking about issues that face our state. Applying the immortal words of Winston Churchill to Utah, I can say that the Utah Legislature “can always be counted on to do the right thing … after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” When I think of the desperate need for state leadership in issues such as air quality and sustainability, I worry how long it will take the legislature to exhaust those other possibilities and wake up to the reality that it’s not the 1950s.

I realize that this assignment was intended to focus more on exploring the possibilities of good design in affordable housing. Unfortunately, I often get hung up on seeing the legislative hurdles that keep us from implementing the changes that are so obvious to those of us, who have a clear vision of what could be possible.