The University of Utah’s Department of City & Metropolitan Planning and the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Office hosted the fifth annual Mayor’s Symposium on April 1, 2015, at Memorial House in Memory Grove, near the mouth of City Creek Canyon. Free and open to the public, it was a bustling and energetic event, attended by over 100 students and faculty, professional planners, engineers and landscape architects, public servants from federal, state and local levels of government, representatives from non-profit organizations, and interested individuals. Fox 13 and KUER both provided news coverage.
The theme for the symposium was “The Green-Blue City: Visions of Green-Blue Infrastructure in the Salt Lake Valley.” Speakers were prompted to think about green-blue infrastructure as “the natural systems of land and water that support and enhance the economy, ecology, and quality of life in our city” and to interpret and envision the green-blue infrastructure concept from their own perspective. The sounds of City Creek flowing by outside the windows helped to underline and exemplify this definition. Cumulatively, the speakers presented a mixture of current and imminent initiatives related to green-blue infrastructure, and visions, ideas and principles for future directions.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker opened the symposium, speaking about the city’s sustainability and bicycling initiatives, its growing tourism, recreation, and technology industries, and its need to craft an agreement around planning and usage priorities in the Wasatch Mountains via the Mountain Accord process. He spoke of the power of citizens and students to build our green infrastructure system and pointed to the history of Memory Grove itself (also Hidden Hollow) as student-led initiatives. Other opportunities are arising closer to home as well, such as the repurposing of two city-owned golf courses. We need to plan wisely for both our spectacular mountain landscapes, for our water supply, and also for access to nature in the valley as our city grows. Cities are places of green innovation, because they are smaller and more nimble than state and federal levels of government.
Ted Knowlton, the Deputy Director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council and Ari Bruening, COO of Envision Utah, both spoke about the importance of having a vision that is supported and shared by our communities, that guides planning and policy going forward. Green infrastructure is the backbone of our quality of life in the Salt Lake Valley, and a high priority for Utah residents. Both spoke of the power of values, and the strong history in our region of engaging the public on a core values level. People in our region love open space, they want access to it, and they associate it with lifestyles associated with health, security and family and community ties. Knowlton urged the participants not to be afraid of “leading with green.”
Jan Striefel, landscape architect and planner, focused on the potential of design to reduce water consumption, improve environmental quality, and integrate human and natural spaces, creating healthy and beautiful places within the city. She pointed to the ecological success of the native landscaping along I-215, which combines with attractiveness and ease of maintenance, and catalyzed the local market for native plant species. Striefel had a provocative message: “We’ve done all the visioning we need. We know where peoples’ priorities lie. Now it’s time to start acting on those priorities and realizing those visions. It’s time to start doing things.” Indeed, there are many solutions that are possible now, we just need to start doing things the right way.
Dr. Sarah Hinners is the Acting Director of the Ecological Planning Center in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, and the main organizer of the symposium. She spoke of the ecosystem services provided by green-blue infrastructure along the length of Red Butte Creek, from watershed protection, water storage and conveyance, beauty, recreation, habitat, education, cooling, etc. She listed five principles of green-blue infrastructure for the Salt Lake Valley: 1) Green-blue infrastructure involves being conscious and intentional about natural systems (noting ecosystem services); 2) Water does not grow on trees. It is precious, and you can’t have green without taking care of the blue; 3) Green-blue infrastructure is a living infrastructure system. That means it will change, and adapt to changes in the environment. It is an infrastructure that humans can and must have a relationship with. 4) the green and blue threads in the urban tapestry can be broad or narrow; 5) green-blue infrastructure is an opportunity to bring access to nature within the daily reach of every citizen in the valley.
Salt Lake Public Utilities Director Jeff Niermeyer focused on water: both our significant investment in upstream watershed protection and management and how water enters and moves through our city, what it means for Utah residents, and how green-blue infrastructure such as riparian buffers, storm sewer retrofits, and Low-Impact Development techniques can support conservation, water quality, and ecosystem services. He spoke of the central principle of building green-blue infrastructure: the need to balance development with protection of our water resources.
Julie Peck-Dabling, Special Services Manager for Salt Lake County, spoke about two of her main areas of responsibility – open space and urban agriculture. She spoke of the meaningful relationships that people have with their open spaces, and how important those relationships are to building a high quality of life. Then she spoke about the incredible growth of the local food movement her in Utah, the widespread support for maintaining and building upon our agricultural heritage, and the programs associated with urban food that help build a strong community, such as school and refugee gardens, and ways the county and city have been proactive in adjusting regulations to allow urban food production.
Tracy Aviary executive director Tim Brown offered a big-picture, systems perspective, linking our local issues to the global stage. We need to think about our city as a system, and ways to connect ourselves and our children more actively to that system. He pointed to the importance of access to nature for our health and our mental functioning, and pointed to opportunities such as our wide streets to redesign more green into daily life.
The final speaker was Natalie Gochnour, an associate dean of the University of Utah David Eccles School of Business and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. She explained that green-blue infrastructure is a community investment: something that attracts businesses and an educated workforce and supports a robust, resilient economy. She used a clever analogy, referencing back to the 2002 winter Olympics and urging Salt Lake City and Utah to be proactive leaders in green-blue infrastructure, rather than reactive followers – go big with it! She made several specific suggestions as well: 1) calling for Utah to abandon its outdated subsidies for water wholesalers so that the market can function correctly, reflecting the true value of water in an arid place; 2) to look upon the Great Salt Lake as an asset; and 3) to remember that the state also has an interest in green-blue infrastructure, and to work across levels of government to find ways to tie it together.
Following the speakers was a lively discussion about what it all means: concrete next steps to move the green-blue infrastructure agenda forward, what barriers stand in our way, and how to overcome them. The tension between visioning and taking action now re-emerged during this discussion. Some questions and challenges yet remain, but the 2015 Mayor’s Symposium represents major progress in advancing the local conversation around sustainability, stewardship, natural resources, and quality of life. As the Mayor told us, it’s a win-win scenario, and clearly the community is jumping on board.
Some takeaway points:
1. Green-blue infrastructure is central to Utahns’ values and way of life.
2. Everyone benefits from green-blue infrastructure. It is an investment in our future and we have a great foundation and set of assets to build on.
3. Go big with it! Lead, don’t follow.
4. Do visioning, but don’t wait until that process is done to start work.
5. Ideas and initiatives come from the community – listen to voices of students, neighborhoods, etc.