Why downtown Provo feels more urban than downtown Salt Lake

About six months ago, I moved to downtown Salt Lake. It was an exciting transition (despite the fact that virtually every Salt Lake realtor insulted Provo, to my face, in the process). But after arriving I was a little bit disappointed; though my life in downtown Salt Lake looked more urban, it was in all practical ways vastly less so.


Downtown Salt Lake City

Amenities like grocery stores were farther away, to the point that I realistically needed to drive, bike or take transit. In Provo, I could walk to three grocery stores.

Though there are some standouts, many restaurants in downtown Salt Lake were mediocre, chains or spread out. In Provo, a restaurant boom in the last couple of years has given it an incredible concentration of creative, independent eateries (some of which, i.e. Blue Pablano, are now popular in Salt Lake).

In Salt Lake, I live within a 20 minute walk of Kilby Court and the Shred Shed. But in Provo, I lived within a five minute walk of Velour and Music Music.

None of which is to say I don’t like Salt Lake. It’s a fantastic city and I’m loving it. And looking urban is definitely worth something.

But the transition was confusing. Why, I wondered, was the bigger, ostensibly more cosmopolitan city requiring me to drive more and do less?

And then I discovered one of the biggest problems: density.

Via a report from Downtown SLC, I learned that density in my zip code is a pathetic 1,603 people per square mile (see Table 14 of the report, on page 12).

By contrast, Provo has an overall population density of 2,500 people. I don’t know what the density of my specific neighborhood was, but it was the densest part of Provo, which means it must have been considerably higher than 2,500 people per square mile (to help balance out the more suburban neighborhoods in the city).

So, obviously, more people in a concentrated space meant more amenities. Or in other words, Provo has a comparatively urban density in its core, while parts of downtown Salt Lake are basically an urban-looking suburb.

This assessment probably oversimplifies things a bit. In Salt Lake’s other downtown zip code, 84111, density is 4,512 people per square mile. And density in my own zip code is skewed by the very lightly populated Granary and other areas.

I’m also much more optimistic about Salt Lake’s future; the city generally sees adding density as a positive and necessary thing. In Provo, there’s almost no support for adding density to downtown neighborhoods.

But in any case, the current situation illustrates to some extent the causes and effects of density, as well as it’s complicated forms. Though there are more high rises in downtown Salt Lake, parts of Provo have become more dense with small apartments and even single family homes. That, in turn, has produced a fairly pleasurable urban fabric.



  1. Jamin Rowan

    Really thoughtful post, Jim–a very Jacobsean observation! And I actually think that there might be more (municipal if not popular) support for density in downtown Provo than you’re suggesting. But what do I know?

    • jimmycdii

      Thanks! And yeah, I think city leaders get density in Provo. But nearly every day I see a resident post something about the need to “stop density.” For some reason people just seem to have a really hard time seeing things holistically.

      • Alan Peters

        I get the impression that most people in downtown neighborhoods oppose density because they think density = ugly apartments and they don’t like renters. But, I feel like they wouldn’t mind more single family houses if someone could find a place to squeeze them in.

    • Dixon

      A couple of points here. There are those who oppose density around the downtown neighborhoods. But if you consider downtown as its own neighborhood, it is totally ready for density. Downtown Provo wants densi and is the only community in Utah Valley that wants it and is ready for it.

      • jimmycdii

        yeah, but downtown Provo is very small compared to downtowns in larger cities. Basically as soon as there are single family homes, people go crazy. I know it was something of an overstatement to say no one wants density, but there is such a vocal group who don’t want it that they often eclipse density advocates.

  2. Alan Peters

    This map tells the story pretty well: http://bmander.com/dotmap/index.html#14.00/40.2443/-111.6519. If you maintain the scale and navigate to downtown SLC you can see just how dense central Provo is in comparison. Though according to this map the density in Provo is really located around BYU, whereas downtown proper is pretty much empty.

    The appeal of Provo to me is that an urban lifestyle is attainable because it is a midsized city. Even though I grew up in Chicago and had a life that appeared very urban, I feel like I’m living a more urban lifestyle now in Provo.

    • jimmycdii

      Yeah, agreed. I moved to SLC for work reasons, but I often long for the convenience and amenities of Provo.

      Also, thanks for the map. What stands out to me is that while both cities have relatively empty spaces, Provo’s downtown has neighborhoods that come in closer. I think that may prove to be a liability over the long run though, because SLC’s greater empty space gives it much more room for dense infill of the kind people in Provo may oppose.

  3. Roger Dodger

    I actually love how nearly everyone in Salt Lake thinks of Provo as a joke, or as a little brother they don’t want their friends to meet because they’d be too embarrassed. That attitude helps to keeps the dumb asses away.

  4. bill trollingston

    this was quite a hilarious read. provo is more urban cause I can walk to 3 grocery stores. and the whole thing about music venues? are you serious? have you ever been to any other major cities? hahaha

    • jimmycdii

      Yes, I’ve actually spent a month of this year alone traveling to major cities in the US and Europe. But that’s irrelevant; I’m not saying Provo feels more urban than anywhere, I’m saying it feels more urban than SLC. So, really, we’re just talking about two cities and experience in other places is beside the point.

      But in any case, you obviously disagree, so maybe you’d be willing to share. What’s your counter argument? I’m genuinely curious. (Job density in downtown would be a good one, though I’ve never heard an SLC partisan make that argument. Most arguments I’ve heard hinge on cultural differences, usually related to Mormonism, which is well beyond the scope of this post or this blog.)

      I’m also curious what you’re taking issue with? Are you saying the density report I cite is false? Or are you saying density doesn’t matter? In either case, I’d be curious to know. If density is being mis represented in SLC that would be a problem. And an anti-density-pro-city opinion would be radical, so I’d be curious about that too.

      In this case, I’m using a kind of “walk score” urbanism here and saying it stems from density. My feeling is in a city you should be able to walk everywhere/never need a car. SLC, while great in many regards, is worse than almost anywhere I’ve been when it comes to car usage. (Alright, almost anywhere. Brasilia was probably the very worst.)

      I chose music venues, groceries, etc. because entertainment, food, etc. are generally considered important parts of walkability (they’re among the things Walk Score uses, in fact, to rank places). I could have done the same thing with bars, government services, education, etc.

      In any case, thanks for reading. I hope to hear back.

      • Al Deans

        Yes, Bill, Please, reply. I would like to hear more about this opposition you have in your mind? I think the post was pretty right on. I love Provo. Yes, the music venues are way awesome. I have lived in both Salt Lake and Provo. I have also live in Portland, which is pretty urban and I bet its pretty dense. To be honest, just the music scene alone in Provo is way more cohesive than in Portland. Yes, Portland has a vast music scene with hundreds of places to play music, but there is no real music community there. I would take the community over the quantity of venues any day. But, I digress. This post was about the comparison between Provo and Salt Lake City and I would have to agree with this post.

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  7. R

    Do you realize that downtown Provo is very small, and that downtown Salt Lake City is a major downtown in the US? Of course it’s going to take a bit more time to get to a store. And smaller towns usually have unique little restaurants and eat out places. Same state, two very different cities. 🙂

    • jimmycdii

      Having lived in both downtowns Im well aware if the differences. I agree they are different for different reasons. One thing that is important to keep in mind however is the Provo isn’t actually that much small than Salt Lake City; last I checked I think the population difference was about 60,000 people. Coming from a larger city, they also feel pretty similar. I’d say SLC feels closer to Provo than, say, Seattle or San Diego. Which is unfortunate because SLC certainly wants to be a major city. (You and I may disagree at this point. I’d say SLC is a medium second tier “big” city at best right now. I’d describe Provo, on the other hand as a top tier small city, and I think Richard Florida would agree with me.)

      In any case, my feeling is that poor development patterns have undermined that aspiration, and created the walkability problems I point out in the post. Keep in mind also this post is only about population density and its consequences.

      As for restaurants, as a frequenter of small towns in Utah and elsewhere, I can’t think of any place I’ve ever been that had the concentration and frequency of independent places that Provo has. If I’m missing some place let me know, but Im not talking about a few cool eateries — rather I’m talking about numbers. And sadly, in many smaller towns I’ve visited I’ve seen chains surviving more than local places.

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