Friday, June 28, 2013

Plat of Zion: Looking for Solutions

The Plat of Zion is the grid that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young imposed on all new Mormon settlements in the intermountain region.  As a tool of civilization, it was greatly successful.  But it was comprised of large blocks and wide streets that are not well-suited for 21st century urbanism.
In my previous post, I wrote about the oversized blocks and streets of Salt Lake City and the reasons they’re a challenge for urbanists.  In this post, I’ll write about some of solutions being offered, including one that shows the value of looking at a constraint with fresh eyes.

At the Helm of the Public Realm revisits the history of the Plat of Zion, finishing with a couple of examples of inefficient uses of the giant blocks and a conceptual plan of a more elegant approach.

In the Salt Lake City Tribune article that I also linked in my previous post, Steve Mouzon suggests converting the less accessible areas in the centers of the blocks to agricultural use.  I’ve become convinced that rooftop farming can work in urban settings.  But giving up land in the urban core for crops seems a poor use of resources.  Also, as several commenters note, it’d be difficult to find crops that can be successful given the elevation of Salt Lake City and the limited sunlight that gets past the surrounding buildings.

A design competition was held in conjunction with CNU 21, the annual meeting of the Congress of the New Urbanism that was recently held in Salt Lake City.  Several design solutions were on display at CNU 21.  They showed creative approaches with internal street systems inside the blocks that were rotated relative to the overall grid and other approaches that gave a distinctive character to the concepts.

But ultimately, the problem remains that no matter how well a block is divided and developed into a usable and livable neighborhood, it’s still only a 660 foot by 660 foot neighborhood confined by wide expanses of asphalt.  The outsized streets remain the ultimate barrier to good urbanism.

A developer in the Granary District is offering a different approach.  The district, which is only a couple of transit stops from the center of downtown, is an area of aging industrial buildings.  The structures have good reuse potential.  They also have established relationships with the streets that are worthy of being preserved.  Therefore, pushing curb lines toward the middle of the streets wasn’t a good option.

The developer turned the problem around and considered a different approach, reducing the street from the middle.  In a CNU 21 session, the developer discussed the evolution of the idea.  The initial concept was to convert the center of the street to parking, making the remainder of the street function as a couplet, a paired set of one-way streets running in opposite directions.

Once that idea was on the table, creativity took over.  Someone suggested making the parking tuck-under, with homes above.  Imagine living in the middle of a street.  Someone else suggested adding solar panels on top of the homes, meeting the energy needs of the district.  And then someone suggested taking the concept for a test drive by putting an open air nightclub into the middle of the street.

And thus Granary Row was born, with a stage for bands on one end, a beer garden in the middle, and a food truck court on the other end.  (See the photo above for the stage.  Those are shipping containers set on end framing the stage.  The photo is from the Granary District website.)  All of it adjoined by traffic lanes that remain in use.  The closing party for CNU 21 was held at Granary Row.  It worked well.

The Plat of Zion block size will continue to be a problem for 21st century urbanists, but it also provides opportunities for creative solutions.  And the solutions will provide insights for other urban areas.

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


  1. While these are all interesting solutions, I'm surprised nobody proposed making the Plat of Zion's wide principal avenues European boulevards, in the style of <a href=">Stroad to Boulevard</a>...The overarching grid is large enough that, coupling that with an array of interstitial streets, Plat cities can start looking like e.g. Turin.

    1. Steve, thanks for the comment. I agree that European boulevards are a good long-term vision for the streets of Salt Lake City. In the short term, there may not be enough pedestrian destinations to justify the configuration, but time will likely remedy that deficiency.

      The other comment that I could have made about the street width is that it was relatively easy to add lightrail within the existing right-of-way. Transit riders must cross three lanes of traffic to get to a curb, but at least the lightrail was built.