Q&A With Robert Grow: How Utah Decided to Embrace “Quality Growth”

Envision Utah didn’t tell Utahns they should build light rail, says Robert Grow. Utahns expressed their hopes and desires for the future, and plans for transit construction arose from those values. Photo: Visit Salt Lake/Eric Schramm

If you’ve ever wondered how a deep-red state like Utah has managed to build some of the most ambitious transit expansions in the country, the short answer is: Envision Utah.

Starting in the late nineties, the non-profit Envision Utah brought together an incredibly broad spectrum of interests, including plenty of people without a specific stake in the process, to explore how the 10-county region surrounding Salt Lake City, known as the Greater Wasatch Area, should cope with anticipated population growth. Organizers showed people what would happen if the region carried on with business-as-usual development, then outlined the ramifications of three other potential scenarios with scientific rigor. The extraordinarily thorough process involved hundreds of public meetings, leaving no one out and turning every participant into a problem-solver. Along the way, Envision Utah pioneered a new approach to regional planning, bringing together transportation and land use decisions in unprecedented fashion.

Robert Grow says he didn't tell Utahns what to do; they told him what their values were and they came up with a plan together, Photo: Envision Utah

Robert Grow. Photo: Envision Utah

It would be fair to say that after this effort, nearly the entire state was on board with the vision that came out of the process: Quality growth with compact, mixed-use development, multi-modal transportation options, and untouched wild and agricultural spaces.

If you have some time, this history of Envision Utah will hold your attention like no other planning document. (If you have a little less time, you can get the basics in this PDF.)

Robert Grow was the founding chairman who guided Envision Utah through its formative stages. He returned to the helm last year as its president and CEO. In the interim, he helped bring lessons from the Envision Utah model to 80 regions around the country. After a recent swing through the East Coast where he shared the Envision Utah story at an event organized by Transit Center, I called up Grow to see what the rest of the country can learn from his home state.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Envision Utah gets a lot of attention for having done this process and instilled these values in a place where people wouldn’t have expected it. You don’t talk about “smart growth,” you talk about “quality growth.” I was curious where that phrase came from.

It came from the fact that this was Utahns deciding how Utahns wanted to grow, and therefore we gave it our own name: “quality growth.”

If you look at many of the goals — transportation choices, housing for everyone, spending infrastructure money smart, preserving water, making sure we have clean air — people across the country have differences, but also have common things they really want. They want to have personal time and opportunity; they don’t want to be stuck in traffic and waste their lives. They want to get home for dinner with their kids or spend time with their friends. The things we value actually drive that quality growth strategy in Utah.

So we did not, quote, “instill” those values. Those values are the ones Utahns already had. So the goal was to understand not how to manipulate or push people toward an outcome but to listen to them in a way that we understand what they really wanted. And then to show them, through the scenarios, the choices.

Envision Utah has absolutely no authority. So we just show people, if you choose this, this is the outcome, but if you choose this, that’s the outcome.

What other language changes or thematic adaptations did you have to make when taking on a quality growth mission in a place where people are deeply skeptical of government, deeply skeptical of planning, deeply skeptical of urbanism?

I’m not sure they’re skeptical of all those things. Their values are their values. When they see choices and they choose how to grow, those strategies may look like strategies other places but adopted by Utahns. We used the words that Utahns used.

This values study approach which we used is not a poll. It involved almost 100 multi-hour interviews, laddering people — and laddering is a term I could describe but essentially saying: What are the attributes of living here? How does that affect your life in a functional way? What is the emotional quotient of that — how does it make you feel? And how does that attach to your values?

By value laddering you learn what people want, but you also learn why they want it. And knowing why they want it and the words to describe it, when you present scenarios you can present them in Utah words. And so Utah is here to keep Utah “beautiful, prosperous, neighborly and healthy” for future generations. We added “healthy” a few years ago. Those were Utah’s words for a prosperous economy.

Those are Utahns’ words for things you might say in completely different words somewhere else. But we didn’t pick the words. Utahns picked those words.

If you were to say, what’s the Envision Utah process: It’s to bring together stakeholders, but we use the term stakeholders in a very broad sense — anybody who can affect the outcome, including the people who have to implement changes, as well as anybody who would be significantly affected by the outcomes and choices. Plus a group of widely-respected citizens.

That kind of stakeholder group is not your friends who agree with you. It’s everybody who cares about the issue.

Governor Cal Rampton’s advice was to, basically, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. That you bring into the discussion the people who had jettisoned the previous attempt to do something like this.

Cal Rampton was a very shrewd Democratic governor of Utah. His advice when we were forming the process was to be fully inclusive. The example was that they’d left realtors out [when Utah originally attempted a planning process in the early 1970s] and that had really hurt them on their initiative.

We went and interviewed a lot of people before we designed our process. There were a lot of people who would say inclusion matters. And that was a shrewd political way of saying inclusion matters.

I actually like the idea of the Golden Rule. How do you want to be treated? I mean, if we’re going to have a discussion about things that affect you, do you want to be at the table or do you want to hear about it later? I think it was more the Golden Rule in action than it was a shrewd political choice.

When they joined the stakeholder group did you get feeling some of them were there trying to tear it down from the inside, and then they came around? Or do you feel like just the invitation was enough to bring them on in good faith?

Everybody has a paradigm. Everybody sees the world through a slightly different lens. That was clearly true when the stakeholders came together. Part of what happens in a process like this, if it’s open, and you come back to the stakeholder group repeatedly with more information: They all learn together.

Do you know who Manuel Pastor is? Manuel heads the diversity center at USC. We brought him here in the spring to speak to our business community. And he felt like the conversation we started with Envision Utah in 1997 had changed the way Utahns talk to one another. The way we communicate. That by learning together, we had changed the way we were growing.

We had a governor who said to me once, “Wherever I go in Utah now, people say, ‘We have a problem; can we do an Envision-like process?’”

In countless public meetings, Utahns wrestled with the various options for growth, and the consequences in terms of congestion, pollution, and quality of life. Photo: Envision Utah

In countless public meetings, Utahns wrestled with the various options for growth, and the consequences in terms of congestion, pollution, and quality of life. Photo: Envision Utah

Which governor was that?

That was John Huntsman, Jr.

Oh yes, we all got to know him a year or two ago.

Getting stakeholders together — people who are well-connected and have constituencies — they’re the grasstops — and the wide group, they go through this process together and they come out having learned things. And one of the decisions of the vision was: We want to have multi-modal transportation.

And in the stakeholder group were a number of mayors. And those mayors helped form the board of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, which was in charge of long-range transportation planning. They went back and re-opened the long-range transportation plan mid-cycle and added a whole bunch more transit in it. And that became the foundation of building the rail system. We’ve built rail faster than anywhere else in country in the last 15 years. And a lot of it was because the mayors, who were stakeholders, learned the value of transit in this process. And they championed it in the other forums where they had authority and power.

Does Agenda 21 crop up in the processes that you try to do? And how do you answer those concerns?

The first thing is you actually have people involved in your processes, stakeholders who understand that the process is open, it’s not designed to hurt people’s property rights, it’s not designed to in any way to affect people’s personal liberties. It’s about choices, and understanding your choices, not about trying to tell people what they should do.

And our effort, from the beginning, said local governments have land use planning and zoning authority. We have no intention of interfering with that.

We are supporters of local government. We believe in property rights. We believe in market forces; that market forces are the dominant thing that drive the creation of our communities and are a reflection of people’s values. So, yes, we do have people who are concerned about Agenda 21 in Utah. On the other hand, we have the current Republican governor, who’s an honorary co-chair of Envision Utah. And the president of the Utah senate is on my executive committee. We span the spectrum of people in Utah.

Frankly, I’d never heard of Agenda 21 until somebody raised it at a meeting about a year and a half ago. We created our own way of thinking about growth in Utah. We created our own process. We focus on how to do it the Utah way.

Check back tomorrow for part two of the interview, in which we discuss Envision Utah’s 2.0 reboot and the transition from funding transit to having people actually ride it.