Originally published in Utah Business.
I recently interviewed with Joel Kotkin, the famed demographer, author and columnist who is frequently quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Daily Beast. Kotkin was doing a media tour and had spent the prior two days meeting with community leaders to get a pulse on Utah. As we finished the interview he said, “Salt Lake is very self aware and it serves you well.”
His comment struck me. What did he mean? I can only speculate, but he’s written with conviction about many of Utah’s best traits—our fiscal responsibility, multi-lingual abilities, family focus, volunteerism, charitable giving, education levels and commitment to plan for the future. It is as if this New York-raised, Berkeley-trained and Los Angeles-based thought leader sees in us something we often don’t see ourselves. We have a strong sense of self, and we translate it into a great place to live.
Vision is nothing new to Salt Lake City. It’s part of our DNA. Wallace Stenger wrote that Mormons “were the most systematic, organized, disciplined and successful pioneers in our history.” Within days of arriving in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young laid out a plan dictating the size of building lots, the setback from the street, and the width of the streets and sidewalks.
Today, Utah is home to Envision Utah, the nation’s most successful voluntary regional planning endeavor. And cities like Salt Lake (Downtown Rising), West Valley City, Sandy and Provo have all created multi-decade plans to guide large public and private investments.
It’s as if we intuitively recognize that the future is not a gift, but an achievement. We can, as purposeful people, create the future we want. This sense of planning, preparation and vision is at the core of our self-identity and one of our greatest traits.
The global and national economy is in a scary place right now. Navigating the uncertainty of global conditions and a U.S. political system that consistently fails is not easy and may become more difficult in the months and years ahead. As Utahns, we must keep refining who we are and what we want to be and then translate this self-awareness and vision into action.
As a starting point, I offer these suggestions for areas of focus:
Education. Let’s take the plunge and do something big for education in this state. The keys are innovation, investment and accountability. We have a terrific start. The business community through Prosperity 2020, the governor and Legislature recognize education brings prosperity. Let’s stop nibbling at the edges and take a giant step for our economic future and our children.
Transportation. Let’s continue to invest in transportation. This month we celebrate the opening of the Airport TRAX light rail line. It’s been 20-plus years in the making, and it symbolizes the extraordinary investment this state has made in roads and transit over the past two decades. High-speed rail, a mountain transportation system, expanded light rail, streetcar, the completion of the western transportation corridor, other highway developments and routine maintenance must continue to be priorities.
Federal government. Let’s quit fighting with the federal government. When someone owns two-thirds of the land in your state, we should seek a partnership rather than a war. We need to borrow from the sage advice…God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Air quality. Let’s tackle air quality with the reasonable tools we have available. It still won’t solve our topographical disadvantages, but I’m certain it will improve our health.
Tolerance. Let’s find the right statewide non-discrimination ordinance to send a loud and clear message that discrimination is wrong. Tolerance is not acceptance; it is respect. And while we are at it, let’s make incivility a shameful thing. Name-calling and excessive partisanship detract from our ability to solve problems and lead.
Our sense of self and future go hand-in-hand. Joel Kotkin is right. We are very self-aware. Let’s make sure we translate our strong sense of purpose into a prosperous future and great community.