Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams on the challenges and opportunities of governing a rapidly urbanizing area

rsz_1rsz_6281804196_d5c3f601f2_bSalt Lake County, Utah. Photo by Photo Dean via Flickr.

Not every mayor can say that they govern nearly half of a state’s population in one single county. But that’s exactly the case for Ben McAdams, Mayor of Salt Lake County, Utah and member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council.

Salt Lake County, with a population of over 1 million people, is located in a narrow valley sandwiched between two mountain ranges. Population growth over the past decade has reshaped the County, particularly following the 2002 Winter Olympics. Throughout the county, isolated pockets of development amidst farmlands and open space has evolved into an interconnected urban area that is populated from north to south and east to west. That population is projected to double in the next 20 to 30 years.

“We’re no longer separated pockets; the choices we make in one part of the county have effects in other parts,” says Mayor McAdams. “We have to come together as urban, suburban, and rural areas, despite differences, to preserve what we love about our community today, and for tomorrow.”

Because of geographical limitations and development pressures, residents of Salt Lake County are now faced with the challenge of building denser communities with transit, active transportation, and recreational opportunities to maintain a high quality of life. And McAdams, a former state senator and serving in his first year as Mayor of Salt Lake County, is well equipped to lead the charge into a stronger, well-defined future.

“Salt Lake County really has changed a lot in the past decade, but that growth brings an incredible opportunity,” says McAdams. “The growth we’re seeing is like a raw energy, and how we handle that growth will either burn us like a wildfire or propel us to even bigger and better things.”

Salt Lake County was part of a five-county region in Utah that received a Sustainable Communities grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a plan to guide development over the next 30 years. The Wasatch Choice for 2040 resulted in a development toolbox to help determine the consequences of  decisions made today.

“We’re fortunate to now be a thriving metro area, with high quality jobs and amenities, but to also have retained a lot of our small town feel,” says McAdams. “The challenge for the future is how to continue to grow and thrive, but also to maintain the character and identity that makes us a great place to live, to start a career, and to raise a family. That’s the challenge that will define us.”

To keep pace with the growing population, Salt Lake County recently completed over 70 miles of new commuter, light rail, and streetcar lines; the largest rail expansion of any metropolitan area during the same time period. The transit expansion was funded in part by a voter approved tax increase, and they’re already starting to see the payoffs as development happens along those transit lines.

As a dynamic region with tremendous growth potential that’s already unfolding, Mayor McAdams hopes that Salt Lake County responds to its role as the government of a metro region. “We have a role as a convener of choice for the conversations about transit and transit oriented development, and about smart growth as a region,” he says. “We’re living in a world economy that is now very different. It’s not cities competing against one another, but regions competing with other regions from around the world.”

Local Leaders Council