Magazine Feature / People

Salt Lake City Mayor urges crowd to approach officials on sustainability efforts

The way Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker sees it, sustainability pros need to get out of the office and onto the stump.

“I’d love to see all of you running for elective office,” he quipped Thursday. “I’d help.”

Becker aimed his candidacy call at more than 500 professional planners, architects, academics and attorneys assembled at DU for the 18th annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute. The conference opened Wednesday and concludes March 6.

“I’d love to see more planners in elective office,” Becker said. “We get battered about a bit, but it’s fun. And we have more opportunities to influence decisions.”

As mayor of a major American city, Becker is in an influential position already. A land-use attorney and a fellow at the American Institute of Certified Planners, he has a long list of sustainability goals and the political muscle to put them into play. It’s a list he shared Thursday during his keynote address to conference attendees who had come to DU to explore how to get sustainability beyond trite phrases, or as institute Chairman Chris Duerksen put it: “beyond the inspiration and down to the perspiration.”

Becker had plenty of ideas to toss out, but he hammered hard on education as bedrock.

“We’ve got to step out of our natural resistance and approach elected officials,” he said. Talk to neighborhood organizations and state officials as well.

“Think of yourselves as a special interest group,” he advised and begin building relationships with people who can make a difference.

Becker used writer Wallace Stegner as his inspiration, underscoring Stegner’s plea that the mythology of the West’s past needs to yield to the reality of its pressured present. That the day a property owner could do as he or she pleased with their land simply by virtue of owning it needs to be abandoned.

“When the West fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it,” he quoted Stegner as saying. “Then [the West] has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Which takes education and effort, Becker noted. “Economic, energy, environmental and social sustainability” demand efforts from everyone. How else to resist “narrow vision,” such as the neighborhood groups in Salt Lake City that rose up against modernization of the power grid for no other reason than “reluctance to accept personal responsibility for their own energy consumption.”

Such NIMBY sentiment, he said, can only be countered by education from professionals and by patient efforts to empower community groups to set goals and take action.

“The West’s success is actually built on collective effort,” he said, ticking off a long list of sustainability missions from reducing vehicle miles and expanding mass transit to promoting community gardens and developing communities that are livable, walkable and of mixed use.

Quoting a Salt Lake architect, Becker said: “A sustainable community must have a clear strategy or master plan for survival, citizens who fully comprehend the strategy and a dogged commitment to make it work.”

Becker had some specific advice for the Denver metro area, reeling from news that the FasTracks light-rail expansion will cost $2.2 billion more than expected. Take another look at estimates, Becker urged, and see whether they’re still accurate given recent declines in construction costs. And look to the Obama administration to ramp up funding for mass transit projects.

“Take a deep breath,” he advised. “Help is on the way.”

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