ROMAN MARS (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
SAM GREENSPAN (SG): Alright, turning onto South Temple Road… Road? Place? I think it’s just called South Temple.
RM: “South Temple” is in fact the complete name of the street on which our producer Sam Greenspan is driving.
SG: Crossing 500 East.
RM: Exactly 660 feet later Sam drives across the next major street.
SG: Here’s 400 East.
RM: And 660 feet after that.
SG: 300 East.
RM: If you recognize the streets that Sam is calling off, you already know exactly where he is, and what he’s about to see.
SG: 200 East… and now here’s State Street, which seems to work like a 100 East. Wow there it is! Oh my gosh. That is the Mormon Temple.
RM: The Salt Lake Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah.
SG: It’s quite striking. It’s beautiful!
RM: 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.
SG: I first learned about this when I was writing a letter to a friend in Salt Lake whose address was like 300-something South, 2100 East, Salt Lake City UT. Which to me sounded less like a specific house number and more like a set of coordinates, but that’s pretty much how every address works in Salt Lake City, and Utah generally. 300 South 2100 East means 3 blocks south and 21 blocks east of Temple Square.
RM: But the most striking thing about Salt Lake’s grid to us non-Utahns is the scale. Each block is 660 feet on each side. That means you’re walking more than two football fields to get from one intersection to the next. Salt Lake’s blocks are the biggest in the country. You can fit nine Portland, Oregon blocks inside one of Salt Lake City’s.
SG: These giant blocks have created some challenges for the city of Salt Lake, but they were all part of the original plan for the city. One created by its Mormon founders a century and a half ago in an effort to create a spiritual utopia in the desert.
RM: Every city plan begins as someone’s utopia. Urban planners imagine the way their city ought to be, make some drawings, and then watch as that vision becomes reality. Throughout most of human civilization, urban planners imagined their cities arising from a system of streets joining at right angles. A grid.
SG: The idea of a grid goes back at least to 2600 BC in the Indus Valley, in what is now Pakistan and Northwest India. We know this from archaeological findings. Ancient Egypt had grids, ancient Babylonia had grids, the Greeks and the Romans had grids. Many cities in Europe don’t have a grid, but when European settlers came to North America, they mostly built gridiron cities.
RM: When Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the religion of the Mormons, first conceived of a holy city for his new religion, he would not have had much experience with large urban grids.
BENJAMIN PARK (BP): He was born in New England and then when he was young his family lived to upstate New York. He never would have saw a city that had more than a couple of thousand residents.
SG: This is Dr. Benjamin Park.
BP: My name is Benjamin Park. I’m an assistant professor of American religious history at Sam Houston State University.
SG: Dr. Park says that Joseph Smith’s foray into urban planning began with a document called the Plat of Zion.
BP: The Plat of Zion was a map that details all the way down to how big the housing plots would be, how many roads would fit into this city, where the courthouse would be, where the temples will be, how many people will live within these boundaries.
RM: It’s a plan which Mormons believe came to their prophet Joseph Smith part and parcel with a series of revelations that led him to found the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. A plan which would inspire the Mormons’ eventual spiritual home in the Salt Lake Valley.
KEITH EREKSON (KE): Have you been in Temple Square before?
SG: Yeah, I was here yesterday walking around, got to see some of the sights.
KE: So we don’t have to point out which is the tabernacle, which is the temple.
SG: Feel free to. Makes good radio.
RM: Showing Sam around Temple Square is Keith Erekson, director of the LDS Church History Library. Accompanying them is Emily Utt, historic sites curator for the LDS Church.
EMILY UTT (EU): Haha. See I could go on for about three weeks about Temple Square
RM: Keith and Emily took Sam to the LDS Church History Museum.
KE: So we’ll just kinda speed through the exhibit and find it. The plat itself is over here.
SG: So this, this is it?
EU: This is the original.
KE: This is what they described and named of the Plat of Zion.
SG: The three of us are gathered around a display case in the museum that’s actually pretty easy to just walk right past.
KE I actually think the display case understates the significance of what’s in it. It’s just a rough hewn. You know, it’s designed to look like a rough hewn wood box.
SG: Inside, under thick museum glass, is a large piece of parchment with Joseph Smith’s urban plan for an American City of God.
EU: The temple blocks in the middle are kind of this ochre, kind of red color, and the streets are labeled in a kind of a light green.
SG: The document we’re all looking at, the Plat of Zion, is a city plan, a series of squares divided up by horizontal and vertical lines. It is one of the first documents that the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his scribes produced.
RM: It’s a pretty simple system. Very large blocks, 660 feet on each side, all forming right angles with one another. All of them the same, except for the special blocks in the middle, which he imagined would hold 24 temples.
SG: The city’s grid was designed so that you would always know exactly how far you were from its spiritual center.
EU: I see these definitely as divinely inspired. These are coming from a man who had never seen a big city who had probably never heard of city planning and was really looking at this as the basis of a revelation to understand how the kingdom of God looks when it hits the earth.
SG: This “zionic” city that Joseph Smith imagined would be as big as New York or Philadelphia or Boston were at the time. It would be an attempt to harness the best things a city could offer – infrastructure, education, community – but without the less savory bits, like vice and crime. Joseph Smith sought to achieve this by giving people lots of space.
RM: It would effectively be a rural city. Within the large blocks, each church member would have a plot of land to have fruit trees and vegetable gardens. And Joseph Smith imagined the essential piece of the urban fabric would be the home.
SG: Again Dr. Benjamin Park.
BP: I think he would have rejected that general separation of commercial and domestic living.
BP: You would go to a shop that’s based out of someone’s home.
RM: But Smith never got to experience his mixed use, walkable, everything-artisinally-crafted utopian community.
SG : After leading his converts to Ohio, and then Missouri, and then Illinois – and clashing violently with locals pretty much everywhere they went – Joseph Smith was killed by an angry anti-Mormon mob in 1844.
RM: The leadership of the LDS church fell to a member of Smith’s inner circle, a man named Brigham Young.
BP: Brigham Young leads a large number of the church out West to what was then Mexican territory.
SG: After a journey spanning years, the Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and established Salt Lake City.
RM: It would be the first place that they could build exactly as they wanted. And when Brigham Young began devising a plan for what they would build, he returned to Joseph Smith’s Plat of Zion.
SG: Brigham Young’s plan does look a bit like Joseph Smith’s Plat of Zion but with more detail, and some changes.
EU: I see this utopian idea hitting some problems when you have to start dealing with actual landscape.
SG: That’s Emily Utt again with the LDS Church. Brigham Young realized quickly that the Plat of Zion wouldn’t work in the real world without some modifications. Smith’s plan called for 24 temples at the center of the city. Young decided to start with one. Brigham Young also realized that the city couldn’t survive on cottage industries alone. They would also need commercial and industrial districts.
RM: There were limits to the rural city idea. And the mountainous terrain of the Salt Lake Valley didn’t lend itself to a regular rigid grid.
SG: But in many ways, Brigham Young’s plan for Salt Lake City is faithful to the Plat of Zion. The city is still, after all, built around a Temple Square, and with streets named in a way that tell you exactly how far you are from it at all times. And the orderliness of the grid dovetails with Mormon sensibilities about the spiritual importance of maintaining a tidy home.
RM: Brigham Young and his fellow Mormons did not stop with Salt Lake City. Over the next half-century, they built about 700 towns based on a similar plan all over Utah. And in many of these towns, they kept Joseph Smith’s prescription for large city blocks – 660 feet on each side with wide streets between them.
EU: The joke is you could turn a wagon around in the middle of the block.
SG: Actually one version of the joke I heard is that the streets are wide enough to be able to turn a wagon around without the drivers resorting to cursing.
EU: Knowing Mormons that’s probably very true.
RM: In Salt Lake City, the wide streets and huge blocks have the effect of making you feel kind of small.
MOLLY O’NEIL ROBINSON (MR): And they say that everything is bigger in Texas. I just don’t think those people have been to Utah before.
SG: This is Molly O’Neil Robinson, urban designer for Salt Lake City government. We’re walking around downtown Salt Lake, and she’s showing me just how hostile these wide streets can feel to pedestrians.
MR: We’re crossing the street. Right now we’re crossing Fourth South, also known as 400 South. So we were given 27 seconds to cross a 132 foot right of way.
SG: The blinking pedestrian sign gives us less than half a minute to cross six lanes of traffic.
MR: We’re walking at a normal pace. Um, not enough time to cross.
SG: Many, if not most streets in Salt Lake City, even streets in the heart of downtown, are four or six lanes wide. All because the Plat of Zion called for streets with a width of 132 feet.
MR: Back in the day, things were platted and measured using the surveyor’s chain. A surveyor’s chain is 66 feet, also known as one furlong. The width of our street is two furlongs, which is 132 feet.
RM: The streets are so menacing to cross that the city tried making them safer by offering pedestrians bright orange flags.
SG: So basically we have a lamppost. There is a bucket affixed to it, made of plastic. And there’s like one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight [flags]. They’re pretty big.
MR: You’re supposed to pick up a flag and carry the flag with you as you cross the street for added visibility.
SG: Should We do it?
MR: We should. And I’m going to make you do it because…
SG: … you’re embarrassed.
MR: No, I refuse to carry a flag!
SG: Alright, so we’re crossing now. I’m waving this flag.
RM: I’ve seen these crossing flags in other places. My neighborhood actually has them at the intersections near the elementary school, but it does seem kind of absurd to ask people to carry bright orange flags in the downtown of a large American city.
SG: We made it across. I’m going to drop this in the bucket. So you refuse to carry these?
MR: So I refuse to carry the flag on principle and that I believe that our streets should be designed to inherently make pedestrian crossing safe. And if you have to carry a flag across the street to get someone to notice you then we haven’t designed the street safely.
SG: And difficulty crossing the street is not the only problem with large blocks. Urban planners have long known that short blocks are inherently more interesting, because there’s a greater density of what they call “network nodes,” or sites of possible interaction between people. Shorter blocks mean more intersections and more intersections mean more options for what to do or where to go.
RM: Given the problems that large blocks and wide streets have created in Salt Lake, you might get the idea that Salt Lake’s founders just started out with a bad plan.
ANDRES DUANY (AD): Not at all! Oh no. What you are seeing there is a complete misunderstanding of Brigham Young’s conception.
SG: That’s Andres Duany, a partner with the architecture firm DPZ. He’s also one of the founders of the new urbanist movement, which seeks to make cities and suburbs less car-oriented, more walkable, and more environmentally friendly. Andres Duaney says that in Brigham Young’s original plan, the streets were never supposed to be paved from curb to curb. The streets were basically a greenspace, with pavement only in the parts where settlers wanted the oxcarts to go.
RM: And Brigham Young never imagined that the huge blocks, originally meant for farming, would remain in tact as the city evolved.
AD: He understood that the blocks would have to be subdivided from agricultural to urban over time.
RM: For Duaney, the Salt Lake City we have today represents the stagnation of Brigham Young’s dream.
AD: So Salt Lake City went from the most beautiful to actually among the most hostile in the west. And that’s a misunderstanding of the intention of Brigham Young and the Plat of Zion.
SG: Making the city less hostile to pedestrians is exactly what anti-orange flag Molly O’Neill Robinson is trying to do. She wants to take those huge blocks, break them down into more walkable sections, and make them more interesting.
MR: You know that there’s something kind of engaging and delighting your eye as you’re moving along.
RM: Molly is hoping to do this block by block in Salt Lake City. She took Sam to one current project, on Regent Street, where they’re working on getting more pedestrian life into the middle of the block.
MR: So Regent Street is really the first “pedestrian-first” street In Salt Lake.
SG: So this street, the street has always been here but you’re just redesigning its use.
MR: Yes, yes.
SG: Regent Street used to just be an access road for some downtown parking structures. Now, it’s a pedestrian walkway that opens up into a plaza with a brand new theatre and new restaurant space.
MR: The idea with this street is that we will be able to close down portions of the street for festivals and events, you know, big theater openings, things like that.
RM: As of the time of this recording Regent Street is still under construction, but even so, people are already drawn to walk through it.
SG: The stakes for creating a denser, more walkable Salt Lake are high. Even though the city feels wide open, and nature is easily accessible, Salt Lake suffers from some of the worst air pollution in the country. The mountain ranges around the city trap in all the smog, which largely comes from cars.
RM: What’s more, Salt Lake is expected to double in population by 2050, and it can’t expand its city limits because of geographic boundaries like mountains and a great big, salty lake. The city’s ability to thrive will be determined by its ability to make more efficient use of the space it already has.
SG: There’s a lot of optimism in the city for finding better ways to use its large blocks and wide streets, and there’s been some progress. But several developers told me that the new city administration has not been kind to these approaches. They seem to be more about keeping Salt Lake City as it is.
RM: In the Church of Latter Day Saints, there’s a principle called continuous revelation that God is still speaking, and that divine truths are still being revealed. And so maybe what Salt Lake City needs, maybe what all American cities need, is a kind of continuous revelation. A way of honoring the principles on which a city was founded, but with the understanding that they must adapt and respond to the demands of the present.