Urban Planning in the Great Basin: An Interview with Tim Sullivan

Tim Sullivan

Tim Sullivan

by Candace H. Stowell, AICP, Carson City, Nevada

Tim Sullivan is a Salt Lake City-based city planner and urban designer. He specializes in planning and urban design that supports pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit and has led projects throughout the West. Sullivan was a contributor to the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) publication Sustainable Street Network Principles, and is leading a team in developing a joint CNU/American Public Transit Association guidance document for transit networks. Sullivan has written extensively about the particular issues facing cities in the American West.

Could you talk about your journalism career?

After some part-time writing for Salt Lake City Weekly, I got an internship at High Country News. My first journalism job was at The Park Record in Park City, Utah in 2001 where I covered Summit County, Utah, which includes Park City. I wrote about resort development and other growth issues. Then I started working for The Salt Lake Tribune in 2002, covering Utah’s minority communities. I wrote a lot about Utah’s Latino communities and I traveled to Mexico a few times to cover stories.

Why did you decide to become an urban planner after working as a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune?

I moved up to Portland and began working for The Oregonian in 2003 and saw all the neat planning and development there that seemed to be working. So I went back to school at the University of California at Berkeley for my Masters in Urban Planning and stayed in the Bay Area for 10 years working for the firm Community Design + Architecture. My focus at CD+A was urban design but we did a wide range of planning such as regional growth modeling, multi-modal street design, and transit station area plans. I worked on two large corridor plans in Tucson, Arizona, which challenged the way in which the City and region planned and designed its major street corridors. The first of these, the Grant Road Improvement Plan, included multi-modal street design, urban design and land use planning, all to try to make the corridor more supportive of all transportation modes and vital urban communities. Our team did preliminary engineering for the corridor, and full construction documents for one intersection. We had a great Task Force for this project and they really took ownership over it. I felt like this project really embodied the challenges western cities face in trying to become more compact, walkable, and sustainable. In projects like this, I enjoy both the big picture of planning as well as the small details of design, both of which matter a lot.

Why did you write No Communication with the Sea?

I’d always wanted to write a book and being at graduate school was a great way to do it. The first reason was that I think the Great Basin is a really unique region and it is full of paradoxes that represent the larger nation. It is a severe and challenging region but it is also scenic and attracting a lot of growth. Salt Lake City and Reno associate themselves with the mountains but they are really in the desert. It is one of the emptiest places but it is also very urbanized. And it is urbanized but not necessarily “urban” – its metropolitan regions probably one of the least urban since they are so auto-oriented. The second reason was that my hometown means a lot to me, and I wanted to explore how to make civilization in the Great Basin sustainable.

What are the differences between Reno and Salt Lake City?

I think that Salt Lake City is still shaped by its original Mormon planning – you feel the sense of permanence Brigham Young wanted and the economy is more even tempered. There is more transience and boom and bust in Reno. The differences play out in planning approaches – Envision Utah, the regional planning movement, is about the carrot and voluntary cooperation. With Reno and Truckee Meadows it’s been more of a stick approach. And so Reno and Salt Lake City have much different origins – the Mormons created the City of Zion while Reno created the City of Sin, yet I see it as different responses to the same environment. And the more you look the more similar the cities are to one another. The concept of escaping was important to each city’s foundation. And in the last few decades they are becoming more similar as a kind of growing, affordable, recreation-oriented city typical of the Intermountain West.

Would you like to write another book about development in the Great Basin?

I am writing a new book about transportation. The previous book was focused on people’s values and perception of their environment and the resulting way in which we build our cities. But I wanted to write a book about sustainable transportation in the West, and how transportation can reshape the West. The tentative title for the book is Ways to the West. The book should be out in a year or so and is based on a trip that I took without a car through the West, on Amtrak, a bike, and the Greyhound Bus. I started in Las Vegas, and went to Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix, Boise and Portland. I visited urban places as well as historic transportation routes. The book is about how moving away from auto dependence is beginning to reclaim the essence of the West – opportunity, adventure, freedom. For example, Phoenix in its history has been about personal freedom and for a long time autos provided that freedom from the typical constraints Americans associated with their cities. But with over-dependence on cars along with extreme privatization and disposability, that freedom went away and eventually there were actually very few choices in how to live in a city like Phoenix. I look at how Phoenix’s new light rail could be the thing that offers the new sense of freedom that the West needs – of a different lifestyle choice, a public realm and of building something of quality that will last.

Your book covers different perspectives on open space and medium/high density development. Could you share some thoughts on this?

Tooele Valley is the next valley over from Salt Lake Valley. A planner there talked about this concept of  ‘quality space.’ For example, a 5-acre lot is too small for agricultural uses such as horses and farming but too big for urban development. So this is not quality open space and is not too sustainable and is not functional from a community perspective. So this is one of the issues – we need areas that are walkable and that are serviceable in terms of public works, but we need to preserve public open space.

Are you still working as an urban planner now that you are back in Salt Lake City?

I recently joined a firm named InterPlan – we do all kinds of transportation planning, engineering and design. I loved living in California, but I wanted to come back to Salt Lake City. I take TRAX to work every day from Salt Lake City to Midvale. This is totally different than when I grew up in Salt Lake City and creates a totally different perspective.


Candace H. Stowell, AICP is a planner with Wells Barnett Associates, LLC and represents Nevada APA on the board of Western Planning Resources and serves on the Editorial Board forThe Western Planner.


Published in the July/August 2014 Issue

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