Summary of the 2015 Mayor’s Symposium

I was asked to write a summary of the City and Metropolitan Planning Department’s 2015 Mayor’s Symposium for the College of Architecture and Planning newsletter. While I had a few critiques, I enjoyed the event and kept the newsletter decidedly upbeat. Here is the summary in its entirety:

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The University of Utah’s City and Metropolitan Department hosted its fifth annual Mayor’s Symposium on April 1, 2015, at the Memory Grove Memorial House near the mouth of City Creek Canyon. It was a bustling and energetic event, well attended by students and faculty, as well as local professionals, public servants, and non-profits. Fox 13 and KUER were on hand to provide local news coverage.

The theme for the symposium was “The Green and Blue City: Visions of Green-Blue Infrastructure in the Salt Lake Valley.” Just what is green and blue infrastructure? It’s a good question, and different speakers had different answers.

Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker spoke 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. In the Mayor’s eyes, green-blue infrastructure is a win-win scenario that can allow us to conserve natural resources, reduce costs, and provide for the community all at once.

Local planning consultants Ted Knowlton (Wasatch Front Regional Council) and Ari Bruening (Envision Utah) spoke about green infrastructure as the backbone of open space and recreation, and a high priority for Utah residents. Jan Striefel, another local planning and design consultant, focused on specific projects that reduce water consumption, improve environmental quality, and integrate human and natural spaces, creating healthy and beautiful places within the city. 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.”

Planning professor Dr. Sarah Hinners and Salt Lake Public Utilities Director Jeff Niermeyer both focused on water: how it enters and moves through our cities, what it means for Utah residents, and how green-blue infrastructure such as storm sewer retrofits can support conservation, water quality, and ecosystem services. Julie Peck-Dabling, from Salt Lake County, gave an inspiring talk about local food production and urban gardening. Tracy Aviary executive director Tim Brown offered a big-picture, systems perspective, linking our local issues to the global stage.

The final speaker was Natalie Gochnour, associate dean of the U of U business school and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce. She explained that green-blue infrastructure is not only for the environment but is also a community investment: something that attracts businesses 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. Interestingly, Gochnour’s closing message was quite specific, 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.

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. 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.

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