Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Plat of Zion: The Challenge

Block length is an important element of urbanism.  As on so many urbanist points, Jane Jacobs was instrumental in pointing out that short blocks are better.  Short blocks add visual interest to the pedestrian experience.  They also slow cars, improving safety and comfort for pedestrians.   And they provide more alternative routes, improving pedestrian efficiency.

Using the walkability checklist that Jeff Speck provides in “Walkable City”, short blocks meet all four standards of useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.

But the problem is that most urbanist projects occur within an existing grid.  It’s only the occasional outsized urban project that adds sufficient new streets to effectively change the grid.

Thus, cities with smaller blocks are expected to be the easier places to restart urbanism.  With most cities centers founded on block lengths of 300 to 400 feet, urbanists often point to Portland, Oregon with its 200-foot block lengths and 75-foot rights-of-way as an example of a place that is ripe for urbanism.  Thus far, Portland has converted on its advantage.

The same urbanists then point to Salt Lake City with its 660-foot block lengths and 132-foot rights-of-way as urbanism-challenged.  Anyone who has taken a walk in downtown Salt Lake City would agree.  The large blocks and wide streets often lead to single-use buildings served by surface parking lots.  Away from the primary pedestrian routes, walking in Salt Lake City can be a lonely experience.  And crossing a street requires moving with alacrity.

Salt Lake City has done some good urbanist things, but much of their effort has been required to overcome the hole in which the grid left them.

The Salt Lake City grid has a basis in history.  It’s called the Plat of Zion and was prescribed by Joseph Smith for all new Mormon settlements.  It became the dominant city grid in the intermountain region.

For its time and place, the Plat of Zion was a good solution.  As Wallace Stegner argued in “Mormon
Country”, the Plat of Zion was an integral part of the success of Mormonism in settling the intermountain region, creating a functioning civilization in a land that early explorers found desolate and unusable.

Some describe the Mormon settlements as among the most impressive civilization successes in history.  Religious commitment and the administrative skills of Brigham Young were important, but the Plat of Zion also played a part in creating a cohesive society.

However, the Plat of Zion didn’t anticipate the 21st century.  It was based around the concept of an agricultural society in which most property owners grew crops around their homes.  It wasn’t conceived as a basis for the modern cities that many Mormon settlements became.

Not unexpectedly, the question of what to do with the Plat of Zion was a frequent topic at CNU 21, the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which was recently held in Salt Lake City.

Andres Duany, a figure of authority within CNU, offered several opinions on the Plat of Zion.  He argued that it was a mistake for Salt Lake City to have paved much of the 132-foot right-of-way width.  He suggested that the intention of Joseph Smith, and his successor Brigham Young, was to have a roadway that lay within the right-of-way, but had a lesser width and was aligned to avoid buildings or other improvements that might encroach on the right-of-way.

Duany also suggested that Smith and Young were urbanist geniuses for leaving large blocks that could later be redeveloped to meet changing city needs.

With all respect to Duany, whose urbanist experience dwarfs my puny efforts, I think he’s wrong on both points.  I don’t why Joseph Smith specified 132-foot wide streets.  (I reject the Salt Lake City folklore that Smith and Young wanted streets wide enough that a team of oxen could be turned around without resorting to profanity.)  But I don’t believe that there was an expectation that other uses would need to, or be allowed to, encroach into the rights-of-way.

And if Smith and Young had an accurate 19th century vision about the flexibility that would serve 21st century cities, they had a divine power that would also justify becoming Mormon.

Which leaves open the question about what to do with the large blocks and wide streets that the Plat of Zion created.  Luckily, there were a lot of people at CNU 21 offering creative thoughts.  I’ll touch on some of those in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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