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.
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.