The urban grid of Salt Lake City, Utah is designed to tell you exactly where you are in relation to Temple Square, one of the holiest sites for Mormons.
Addresses can read like sets of coordinates. “300 South 2100 East,” for example, means three blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square. But the most striking thing about Salt Lake’s grid is the scale. Blocks are 660 feet on each side. That means walking the length of two football fields from one intersection to the next. By comparison, nine Portland, Oregon city blocks can fit inside one Salt Lake block.
Created by Mormon settlers, the grid of Salt Lake was part of an effort to create a spiritual utopia. Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began this plan with a document called the Plat of Zion. The plat provided details as to the measurements of roads, how lots would be arranged, how many people would live there. The original document can be found on display in the Church History Museum in Temple Square.
It’s a fairly simple plan—large blocks set at right angles, all the same size, except for special blocks in the middle, which Joseph Smith imagined would hold 24 temples. This imagined city would be as populous as New York or Philadelphia were at the time, and would offer the best parts of a city—infrastructure, education, and community—but without vice and crime. Joseph Smith thought this could be achieved by giving residents lots of space; it would essentially be a rural city. Within the large blocks, each church member would have a plot of land for fruit trees and vegetable gardens, along with a home, which Smith imagined as the essential piece of the urban fabric.
Joseph Smith never got to experience his utopian community—he was killed by an angry anti-Mormon mob in 1844. Leadership of the church fell to Brigham Young, who led his followers to the Salt Lake Valley. They established Salt Lake City in 1847.
Brigham Young took Smith’s Plat of Zion as a point of departure, but realized quickly that this utopian ideal had some real-world problems. Rather than build 24 temples in the heart of the city, Young started with one. Young also realized a city couldn’t survive on businesses run out of people’s homes—it would need commercial and industrial districts. But in many ways, Brigham Young remained faithful to the Plat of Zion.
One such way was in building streets with a width of 132 feet. Which is why today, many streets in Salt Lake City—even in the downtown core—are six lanes of traffic wide (some are narrower due to larger sidewalks).
Street width, as well as the length of each block, can make the city feel hostile to pedestrians. The streets are so menacing and crossings so long that the city has placed plastic buckets on lampposts which hold flags that pedestrians can carry to the other side while crossing.
Not only are long blocks and wide streets more dangerous—they also offer little reason to walk in the first place. Urban planners have long known that short blocks are inherently more interesting. Shorter blocks mean more intersections, which mean more opportunities for people to interact with one another, and more pathways to move through the city (of course, they also mean more street space and less taxable real estate). In present-day Salt Lake City, it’s hard to get around without a car, and much of the city doesn’t exactly invite pedestrians to meander through its urban fabric.
But the problems confronting Salt Lake City today may not have been the fault of its founders. Andres Duany of the architecture firm DPZ and co-founder of the New Urbanist movement sees in Salt Lake City many of the same goals he strives for himself in his own work: walkability, community, low environmental impact. The problem came in the 1930s and 40s when urban designers began to plan around the car. Before then, says Duany, the roads were not paved curb to curb; rather, they were more of a greenspace, with pavement on in the places where horses and oxcarts would go.
Similarly, Brigham Young designed large blocks with the expectation that other people would break them down into smaller units as the city evolved. He never meant for the rigid urban grid to remain intact.
For Andres Duany, today’s Salt Lake City represents the stagnation of Brigham Young’s dream: it’s gone from one of the most beautiful in the west to one of the most hostile. Duany says that this is a misunderstanding of the intention of Brigham Young, the dream of Joseph Smith, and the framework described by the Plat of Zion.
Salt Lake City government is, however, taking steps towards improving walkability in the downtown by breaking up blocks into more human-scaled sections. One current project is on Regent Street, once only an access road to downtown parking structures, which is now becoming a pedestrian walkway that opens up into a plaza for outdoor events. Another, called Granary Row, is bringing pedestrian life into unneeded pieces of wide streets.
The stakes for creating a denser, more walkable Salt Lake City are high. Even though the city feels wide open, and nature is easily accessible, Salt Lake has some of the worst air pollution in the nation—the mountain ranges that surround it traps in smog.
Salt Lake’s population is expected to double by 2050, and will be unable to expand its city limits because of the constraints of mountains to the east and a salt lake to the west. There is some optimism among some residents that they can find better ways to use its large blocks and wide streets, though many planners feel that the new city administration is not as receptive to these kind of tactics as they ought to be.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there is a principle called “continuous revelation.” Perhaps what Salt Lake City needs—and perhaps what all American cities need—is a form of continuous revelation. This could pave the way toward honoring founding principles through evolving designs, allowing cities using Mormon grids to adapt and respond to the demands of the present.