The Evolution of Wasatch Front Units, part 1.

A recent post on individual life trajectory got me thinking about the same thing in regard to LDS church units. Specifically, the dynamics of Wasatch Front wards and stakes. The populations of these units trend in response to real estate, employment and age structures in a complex dance that has some equilibria, but those equilibria are subject to intrusions from outside the system.

I’ve been a part of a fair number of church units both inside and outside Utah. And that tells you right away that all this is anecdotal, subject to the whims of that specificity.

My present stake is in Utah County and historically (my history) it has enjoyed a very high rate of activity and member density, perhaps near the highest activity rate in the world at various times for standard residential wards.[1] I don’t actually know a non-Mormon within my ward boundaries, which is very compact (however, since I’m a bit reclusive, that is likely ignorance on my part).

Over the last 25 years or so, there has been a drift of wealth eastward within the stake boundaries and this has more or less has matched a drift eastward in higher persons per household. The stake covers (very roughly) 1 square mile with historically a little over 3000-3400 members. As neighborhoods on the west end have aged, there has been an increase in hispanic population there, a trend that is gradually moving east. The population itself has aged, with more households consisting of ~2 persons. In a sense, our stake is dying. Not that there is a decrease in activity rates, though I suspect that may be the case in some portions, but church membership is aging. Decades ago, most families were young with several young children and turnover has not been high. That and an aging replacement population has seen the average age in the stake has steadily increase.

For a time, stake activity, birthrate and steady housing development contributed to an increasing population density. Gradually, that new infusion has been replaced by older adults.

The pressure to expand in Utah County has used up most farm land in areas north of Provo. Large orchards that marked much of Orem 25 years ago, have mostly disappeared. This may have an effect on long developed neighborhoods, eventually driving up land prices.

Our stake extends basically to the mouth of Provo Canyon and unless a local golf course is abandoned, there is little choice for further development except encroachment into the foothills of the Wasatch. But any such new neighborhoods would be exclusive and unlikely to be developed quickly. A better and more economical solution would be the redevelopment of neighborhoods west of 800 East in Orem. Some of this has taken place, but it would seem that the future of that may depend in part on a currently constant influx of California retirees, a trend that will only strengthen as the economy begins to improve over the next few years and homes in California increase in value.

Outside of Orem, the land development situation is a bit different, but even the far north end of Utah County has seen huge expansion in housing. Dry farms and rural routes have succumbed to winding suburban streets and both patterned and custom homes. Utah County one day soon may host 4 temples.

But back to our stake. The population drift in the west end has not effected our ward much, but it is beginning to now. There has been a gradual abandonment of parts of the west end of the ward area by upper income levels. The natural tendency mirrors in a very mild way what I observed in Baltimore 35 years ago. Whole sections of town covered in single story brick homes with concrete porches had become havens for late evening drug dealing, the remaining population fearful to walk the street at night. Surprisingly perhaps, the same forces are at work in pockets of Utah County. A former neighbor, an Orem police officer once related to me some of his experiences: they were eye opening.[2]

The upshot is that I see our ward demographics gradually moving in the same direction in microcosm, if you will.

During the 90s, our stake went through several boundary shifts. One move I was involved in was to reduce ward size to about 300 members, a population we felt could sustain the entire Church operation with population structured to meet the needs of each organization, and hence the individuals in the stake, and provide opportunities to serve to more members. The age drifting population as well as economic factors soon led to two more internal boundary shifts, wards on the west end being consolidated while a new ward on the east being created. I think we may see the beginnings of what happened to my native Salt Lake City stake. That is for part 2.

[1] Interview with James M. Paramore, 1997.

[2] The process is one experienced by population centers in the US to some degree since 1776 and of course it is much older than that. See for example, Richard Bak (2001). Detroit Across Three Centuries.

4 Responses to The Evolution of Wasatch Front Units, part 1.

  1. J. Stapley says:

    I think there are two major factors at play. First is the availability of relatively cheep land to develop (coupled with relatively affordable gas prices), and a taste for new consumable housing. Here in the Seattle area, there is generally no land available. I live across the lake in Bellevue, where housing is extremely expensive (though the schools are extraordinarily good). Young couples coming from Utah generally buy newer homes far away because that fits their world view. They don’t want a 50 year hold home and they don’t seem to mind commuting and hour or more.

    • WVS says:

      I’m sure those are factors that played into the way the eastern end of our stake has evolved. And as you say, it will continue to play into the evolution of our stake in a number of ways: economically, ethnically and density-wise. It will be interesting to see what takes place over the next decade. (Assuming I’m still around!)

  2. Sanford says:

    WVS – I am not much of a commentor but I want to tell you how much I enjoy your blog. I lived in Provo in 1971 before moving to Salt Lake. I still remember my 2nd grade teacher telling us that the area between Provo and Ogden would one day fill in and that we lived in a megalopolis. Such a funny word. Having lived in the Avenues area for much of the last 30 years I have watched the wards slowly contract. Now I live in a new neighborhood in North Salt Lake and attend church in a brand new stake center and live in a new house. I am just a few miles from my old neighborhood as the crow flies but the contrast is striking.My ward is on the verge of splitting and it split just 4 or 5 years ago. At 48 I am among the older people in the ward. In fact, one thing I really miss about my old ward in the Monument Park Stake is members who come from my parent’s generation. I find that that group has seen enough ups and downs and seen enough people (and children) leave the Church that they are generally happy to see people just show up and are less concerned about how others do Mormonism.

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