City Creek Center as Biodiversity Engine?

DSCN0940June 2013 – City Creek Center was started in 2003 by the real estate investment arm of the Latter Day Saints. The intent was to bring back Salt Lake City’s Main Street in a downtown that was losing out to the suburbs. It’s a mixed-use project that includes retail shops, office space and 435 condominiums and 110 apartments. No public subsidy was received so the project does not include “affordable housing.”

It’s also a green roof project in that its 90,000 square feet of plantings, courtyards, roof gardens and water features cover a 6000 space parking structure. What a waterproofing challenge!


Both sides of the first Main Street TRAX stop are bordered by the Center. Photo courtesy of UTA.

“The things the LDS Church is doing with City Creek Center are going to be a positive boost to walkability and transit in Utah” according to “Faith in Action: Communities of Faith Bring Hope for the Planet,” a national report of the Sierra Club.  The Center brought more residents, employees, shoppers and diners to use the light rail system called TRAX.

Opening in 2012, with final touches added in 2013, this downtown revitalization project took 10 years to complete.  With development continuing throughout the crash in real estate, it was one of the only privately-funded projects of its size in the US that continued to build over the last few years. I happened to meet the Portland-based ZGF architect who was their project manager for the residential portion this week (at an event in Portland, first week of June 2013) and she confirmed how important this project was to her firm.  It also kept 2000 others employed throughout the development cycle and now employs over 7000 people.  It had about 16 million visitors in its first year of operation.

You can read more about the economic development aspects of City Creek Center elsewhere e.g., Salt Lake Tribune.  What I’m going to look at here is what role City Creek Center plays in putting Salt Lake City on the path to becoming the engine of biodiversity that Richard Louv exhorted CNU 21 attendees to work towards in our work.


Although I’m not a fan of shopping centers, the creek kept me coming back day-after-day

City Creek Center was actually in the middle of my route to and from the Grand America Hotel where CNU21 was held from May 29 to June 1, 2013. Even though I’m NOT a fan of shopping centers, once I saw the creek there, I happily sauntered through it every day of my five-day stay.  It gave me a taste of what I was missing in the nearby canyons as I made my way to The Grand America each day.  The creek stimulated for me feelings of peacefulness—and a desire to get out into the real thing.

I recognized immediately the trees native to this area: Populus tremuloides – aspen; Betulae occidentalis – water birch; and Prunus virginiana – chokecherry. They were planted along a lovely creek that bubbled through boulders of native sandstone.  Below the canopy level, there were native sedges and rushes and shrubs– and a few plants I didn’t recognize as native. Tough non-native shrubs were brought in to overcome the trampling the natives were experiencing.


Developers made an extraordinary effort to re-create the iconic creek that was so critical in Salt Lake City’s founding

I appreciated the fact that the developers named this center after a natural feature that used to be there—AND that they made an extraordinary attempt to re-create that natural feature in their development. The creek flows across three city blocks, and drops 37 feet in elevation from beginning to end. Some 600 boulders were brought in from an area near Park City and 627 native trees from nurseries in Oregon and Idaho.

As it meanders along pedestrian walkways and cafes, the recreated creek features three waterfalls and a fountain with 50-foot-high jets. The creek varies in width from one foot to 28 feet and from four inches to 18 inches in depth.  Some parts of the creek were stocked with Bonneville cutthroat trout and rainbow trout and those fish are now reproducing.

A 17-foot waterfall at Regent Court cascades at 2,500 gallons per minute over 14 ton Utah sandstone boulders.  The landscape is actually comprised of 13 different water features that recirculate their potable water. According to Ross Nadeau, Landscape Architect project manager, “We looked at utilizing City Creek itself and then at the de-watering water from the site, but we couldn’t make either work because of the filtration costs.”


The creek serves as a draw for shoppers, employees and residents

City Creek Center received a LEED ND rating of Silver for its multiple efforts to be sustainable.  “The heart and namesake of our development is the re-creation of City Creek, which many years ago used to run through the downtown area of Salt Lake City,” said Val Fagre, former City Creek Reserve project manager—now retired. The craftsmanship put into building the creek is extraordinary.  And I can vouch that the creek serves as a draw for shoppers, employees and residents of City Creek Center. In the two times I ate at the Food Court there, I went to extra effort to sit near the creek. The Center also seems to attract plenty of young people to hang out on Friday and Saturday nights.

Nearby, City Creek Canyon has been protected from the beginning of the city’s history (over 150 years) to protect drinking water and wildlife habitat.  According to students in a class project in General Ecology at Westminster College:


Glacier lilies are found along the City Creek Canyon Nature Trail

By learning the names of the native trees and shrubs that support the wildlife in City Creek Canyon along the nature trail loop, one can see which plants may be useful in backyard landscaping. Native plants introduced into the urban landscape around houses and yards help wildlife to survive in the city and help conserve water.

Based upon the students’ observations (I didn’t get there), City Creek Canyon could qualify as an engine of biodiversity.  But could City Creek Center qualify?


City Creek Preserve could help City Creek Park become a true gateway to City Creek Canyon wildlife corridor–as well as give it a role in flood protection. Right now, it’s a concrete ditch (lower right). Photo courtesy of SLC Parks.

I missed the small signs that interpret the plants and fish of City Creek Center so it was not apparent to me how it was being used to influence further biodiversity–but the signage is there.  Does the experience of being in a pleasant environment lead people to go home and attempt to mimic what they saw while shopping or dining? Perhaps the center could be more proactive and run some “naturescaping” classes and host some native plant sales by local groups.  The project I would most like to see is for City Creek Preserve to work with the City’s Department of Parks and Public Lands to restore City Creek Park, to a more natural condition making it a better gateway to City Creek Canyon.  A stream buffer and wetlands could be quite important there to prevent or alleviate flooding in the future, e.g., heavy snow melt flooded State Street in 1983. The City is already undertaking some watershed restoration projects funded by Chevron as mitigation for an oil spill.  Hopefully, it won’t take such a negative event for City Creek Preserve to offer such assistance in order to increase its role as a biodiversity engine.

The boulders came from Brown’s Canyon quarry, a 100 year-old business near Park City.    Does that quarry have a biodiversity management plan (a BMP for quarries developed by World Wildlife Fund)? If not, what role should City Creek Preserve play in suggesting they start one?  Of course, such a suggestion would carry more weight before the stone was purchased.

The developers took their project through the pilot phase of LEED ND.  But did they consider Sustainable Sites, a system focused on measuring and rewarding a project that protects, restores and regenerates ecosystem services – benefits provided by natural ecosystems such as cleaning air and water, climate regulation and human health benefits.

I believe City Creek Center would score well in the “Human Health & Well-being” category.  But I’m still concerned about all of the water and power used in this engineered ecosystem. Tell us what you think below: Does City Creek Center pass muster as a biodiversity engine for Salt Lake City?  Why or why not?


7 thoughts on “City Creek Center as Biodiversity Engine?

  1. Carolyn

    My initial concern about the project is how it only appears to appeal to upper class consumers. I believe this to be true because there is no affordable housing and the shopping is high end stores such as Apple, Anthropoligie, and Brooks Brothers. The article in the Salt Lake City Tribune describes the stores in the mall as “luxury and mid range.” However, the question posed in Mary’s article is how the mall contributes to Salt Lake City being an engine of biodiversity not an engine of social equality. Another thing to consider is that the project was privately funded so they really don’t have that much of a responsibility to be socially conscientious.
    While the center sets up the possibility of Salt Lake City being an engine of biodiversity, it has only made the first step. The center must go beyond just providing a pretty setting where people may think “oh what a pretty creek,” or “what a nice place to shop.” The center must go further and make people interact with the nature. This can be accomplished by allowing people the opportunity on site to purchase plants that they can take home with them or providing naturescaping classes as Mary suggests. In addition to the positive shopping experience where people can simultaneously appreciate nature, there needs to be a take home message. This second layer is especially important when the center uses a lot of water and power. To make Salt Lake Center an engine of biodiversity, this interactive step must be taken. Some other interactive ideas in addition to plant sales and naturescaping classes could include nature classes for children while parents shop. Or perhaps each store in the mall could offer different tips on how to be sustainable and provide an example.
    Independent of these educational possibilities, the City Creek Center could also include plants (preferably native) that can collect and treat stormwater runoff from the street.

    1. Mary Vogel Post author

      Thanks so much for your comment, Carolyn!
      Efforts to reverse the abandonment of downtowns seem to emphasize market rate and luxury housing in order to diversify what have become low-income enclaves–not necessarily a bad thing. Salt Lake City developers seem to have been developing a diverse palette of dense housing close to downtown for awhile, so there do seem to be opportunities for different income levels to live near City Creek Center.

      The Center also seems to attract plenty of people who aren’t wealthy–including teens and 20-somethings who use it to hang out and socialize. But, you’re right, I was trying to assess whether the engineered landscape was an engine leading to greater biodiversity in the city as a whole.

      Like you, I’m concerned about the water and energy usage of the landscape, so, I suggested ways the developers could mitigate that usage by suggesting other projects that could both lower their water and energy footprint while contributing to biodiversity. Restoring a natural meandering stream channel in City Creek Park that could feed a wetland or two and partnering on a biodiversity management plan for the Brown’s Canyon quarry were two ideas I had.

      Apparently, the fish in the Center’s streams are quite popular with children, so there has been some pressure to have interpretive programs around them.

  2. Dave

    I had the opportunity to tour the “mall” during my attendance at CNU 21. I have two thoughts on the development.
    I think that it is a very well designed project. The detailing and the materials that were used in the creek are second to none and the overall appearance for a man made stream is very good. I’m sure that it will be well taken care of and as the plant materials grow it will become a much more natural appearing feature.
    I think what it does first and foremost is to bring the importance of nature and natural systems to many people who would otherwise not take notice of. I saw many people looking at the fish, examining the plants, enjoying the waterfalls and just sitting under the shade and enjoying the space and surroundings. I think that spaces such as this will help to illustrate nature and instill a feeling in people, a feeling of “how cool nature in the city is” This is a space that will be talked about after people leave. For a contrived landscape, this was done very well.
    As an engine of Biodiversity? Looking at the creek alone, i think that there are many positives but it may fall short on many fronts such as: the use of potable water and the systems used to ensure clean water, the fish habitat, their longevity and I imagine a continuous stocking of the trout in the creek, the use of the creek as a grey water collection and drainage system? signs that say” do not climb on the rocks or play in the water (or something to that effect thus creating a do not touch landscape). I don’t think that we would ever see frogs, toads or snakes crawling around in front of Macy’s because that would be bad for business. As Carolyn said there are many opportunities to make this much more interactive and a way to teach the young and curious about nature etc. This is where they could have really taken this to the next level.
    Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not slagging the development because I think it is very well done and a lot better than many attempts to create man made “natural” environments especially within the context of a downtown shopping mall.
    I think that it is important that we continue to keep pushing the limits of design so that we can really and truly try to integrate nature into our psyche and built environment and we really have to start thinking of the long term benefits versus short term gain.
    As a shopping mall I’d give it a 10, as a engine of biodiversity? it is more like a token of Biodiversity.

    1. Mary Vogel Post author

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, David. I like your conclusion: “as a engine of biodiversity? it is more like a token of Biodiversity.”

      Did you happen to see the engineered creek along the other side of South Temple–across from City Creek Center? It looked a bit older than those in City Creek Center offering a natural reprieve to the busy street. However, it is here in the street right-of-way, especially, where filtering of stormwater by native plants might take place. Stormwater may be a less frequent issue in Salt Lake City than in the Pacific Northwest, but it sure was a problem the day before CNU 21 started. I had to walk around or through many small ponds. Interestingly, my outdoor gear got a better wet weather test that day than in the PNW! What would you think of the suggestion that City Creek Center work with the City to create natural spaces on the streets around the center that DO filter stormwater–i.e, arid land bioswales/green streets? And what about the suggestion to mitigate by dealing with the most urban portion of City Creek?

  3. Dave

    Yes, I did see the engineered creek. It is another unique feature although I wasn’t sure if it was more for aesthetics or if it served a more functional purpose. I did notice a healthy flow of water during the days that it was dry. so I assumed that it again was using recirculated water to create the stream effect? It too was well done.
    One of the most interesting examples of using runoff I saw was in Seattle where the troughs from buildings were directed to the blvd. and into public art features used for controlling runoff and watering the vegetation (not that they need it). As designers we should all be stretching our imaginations to incorporate unique and functional elements such as this wherever we can (and in many shapes and forms).
    The width of the streets in SLC are perfect for creating islands of “indigenous” landscapes to help reduce the asphalt expanse and then some! We have to get over the thinking that the R.O.W. is just for cars! If I remember correctly, the LDS/City, could have done this above the entrances to the underground parking for City Creek.

  4. MOlly

    No, City Creek Center is not an engine of biodiversity. I think Dave expressed it well as tokenism. A better example in SLC is the green roof atop the LDS Conference Center.

    1. Mary Vogel Post author

      Thanks for your comment! I would love to hear more about the green roof. Is it new? Can you give us a URL?

      Writing about City Creek Center, Dave also said: I think what it does first and foremost is to bring the importance of nature and natural systems to many people who would otherwise not take notice of. I saw many people looking at the fish, examining the plants, enjoying the waterfalls and just sitting under the shade and enjoying the space and surroundings. I think that spaces such as this will help to illustrate nature and instill a feeling in people, a feeling of “how cool nature in the city is” This is a space that will be talked about after people leave.

      Do you agree with him on this? AND on the opportunity to take it to another level by becoming much more interactive a way to teach the young and curious about nature? I hope there are people in Salt Lake City who are pushing LDS to make their creek and landscape more interactive.

      My article pointed out that it was not perfect as an “Engine of Biodiversity”, and I tried to make some suggestions about how they could begin to mitigate their impacts to bring it to the next level. I’d love to hear your suggestions on mitigation possibilities too!

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