One of the great privileges of running for municipal office is the opportunity to talk to neighbors near and far. In the process I have discovered wonderful neighbors across all parts of Orem.
After hundreds of conversations, both Orem’s great strengths and its future challenges have come into greater focus.
As I imagine where Orem might go in the coming decades, one thing has become crystal clear: We are going to need to build creative coalitions of residents to get us through. A creative coalition between neighborhoods and newcomers will be needed to help us develop wisely. And a creative coalition between the secure and the struggling will help us live together safely and equitably. Both coalitions are necessary for Orem to thrive in the 21st century.
Orem in 2021 is a city marked by long patterns of development that have simultaneously privileged single-family neighborhoods and commercial expansion. Extensive commercial development helped Orem to financially weather a pandemic downturn far better than comparable American cities, and our business sector is thriving, even as it has contributed to more city traffic and the sometimes unsightly jumble of State Street.
At the same time, life for a large portion of Orem’s residents is defined by the single-family home and a neighborhood cul-de-sac. Having a quiet neighborhood with sidewalks and lawns, trustworthy neighbors, and children that feel free to bike and roam has helped Orem earn its proud nickname of Family City, USA.
What most concerns Orem residents today (traffic, over-development, crime, diminishing open space, a lack of affordable housing, a need for better jobs, and perceived discrimination) is found in the underlying tension between realizing economic opportunity and preserving the quality of life in our neighborhoods. This is a tension that is embedded in our patterns of development.
Orem is found at the crossroads between the two largest universities in the state, which makes it a natural engine for youthful energy and change, even as much of the population is growing older, usually in single-family homes that have long anchored neighborhood life. Successfully navigating the tension between realizing economic opportunity and preserving a high quality of neighborhood life requires inclusive processes that allow all stakeholders to have a say in helping to decide what Orem will become. Both the city and diverse groups of community stakeholders have an opportunity to look past our differences and come together in coalitions to build alignment on our future direction.
Let’s start by creating coalitions of neighborhoods and newcomers. I chose the neighborhood where I live because of its quality of life, and like many Orem residents, I want to preserve its best qualities: safety, seclusion and stability. I have met with many Orem residents who are opposed to any form of development because they have seen these aspects of their neighborhoods eroded over time.
We also have a large number of newcomers and young people in Orem, who are here for a university education, economic opportunity or because they like our quality of life. Many are deeply worried about housing prices. New residents are trying to build a caring environment for their families, and they want to feel secure and welcome. They love Orem and want a chance to live here and invest their hopes and dreams in this community. Those of us in established neighborhoods can do a better job of helping them feel anchored. We also need their energy and talents to enrich our community.
Orem’s greatest challenge over the next decade, balancing neighborhood preservation with support for affordable housing, can only be met if neighborhoods and newcomers come together and meaningfully direct the city on how and where to preserve our remaining spaces while creating opportunities for those who want to stay.
This process will be supported by a second creative coalition that overlaps with but is distinct from the first: a coalition between the secure and the struggling. We are so lucky to have a strong middle class in Orem, as well as considerable wealth. At the same time, like any city our size, we have many neighbors who struggle to make ends meet, those who feel unsafe, and those who feel that they don’t have a place here because of perceptions or misperceptions of Orem’s homogeneity.
One way that we can strengthen our neighborhoods, improve public safety, build community identity, and endow Orem with greater trust is for those who are secure and those who are struggling to find common cause. This starts with participating together in community processes and in recognizing our geographic and personal proximity. There is room to find that common cause in our mutual affection for our city, a place where we can work together to build alliances, relieve suffering, and watch out for one another as real neighbors.
Building these two coalitions requires both creativity and commitment to rediscovering what binds us together. It will require a city government that is committed to new processes for providing citizen input and for making decisions in partnership with all stakeholders. A better Orem starts with genuine collaboration between Orem’s residents, supported by a city that sees all of its residents as an asset that will help local government navigate future challenges with the best possible outcomes.