Utah is an urban place with a rural heart. The vast majority of our state’s population lives in the densely-populated cities of the Wasatch Front, yet many of those urban dwellers might hesitate to think of themselves as city folk. So what does "rural" mean? The United State Census Bureau defines “rural” as any place with fewer than 2,500 residents. If you live in a really small community -- congratulations, you are officially “rural”! But most Utahns live in much larger communities while celebrating values and virtues they link with rural life. For many Utahns, rural identity is more important than where they actually live.
It seems rural Utah is truly at a crossroads. According to the US Census Bureau, Utah shifted from being a “small” state to a “midsize” state between 2010 and 2020. Utah is now the fastest-growing state in the nation, and a lot of that growth is happening in places off the Wasatch Front. But dramatic changes are not new to rural Utah.
During the late-nineteenth century, for example, isolated Mormon communities found new economic opportunities after the construction of the railroad connected them to a national economy. Rural communities also accommodated an influx of immigrants and Americans from diverse backgrounds drawn by new extraction industries and labor shortages. By the early twentieth century, it was not uncommon to find newspapers in different languages or a variety of religions practiced in rural Utah. Later, during World War II, increased industrialization shaped rural landscapes. The communities along the shores of Utah Lake sat in a valley of fruit orchards until Geneva Steel Works transformed them into an industrial mecca. Beyond the Wasatch Front, dangerous minerals such as uranium were extracted on Native land for the Cold War, causing long-term health effects in some of our state's most vulnerable rural communities. In other areas of the state, tourism and arts have given rural economies a new way to flourish and adapt.
Rural Utah has always existed at a crossroads, and change has been a constant. The changes and challenges facing small communities today — climate change, decreased reliance on extraction industries, and a steady influx of newcomers – are not unprecedented. Considering the ways Utahns have navigated historic crossroads might help us think about the future of rural Utah.
See Greg Smoak, Nate Housley, and Megan Weiss, Rural Utah at a Crossroads (Utah Humanities, 2023).