Plat of Zion

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.

Credits

Production

Producer Sam Greenspan spoke with Benjamin Park, assistant professor of American religious history at Sam Houston State University; Keith Erekson, director of the LDS Church History Library; Emily Utt, historic sites curator for the LDS Church; Molly O’Neil Robinson, urban designer for Salt Lake City government; Andres Duany, a partner with the architecture firm DPZ. Sam also spoke with urban designer and city planner Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City.

Music

Farmor Intro by OK Ikumi from Hel Audio
Ferry by OK Ikumi
Sea by OK Ikumi
Victory by OK Ikumi
Heights by OK Ikumi
Mooninite—K-Bye (Unfinished Edit) by OK Ikumi
Farmor Outro by OK Ikumi
Haze by OK Ikumi

Correction

In this episode, an interviewee described a furlong as 66 feet, or: one length of a surveyor’s chain. In fact, a furlong is ten surveyor’s chains (660 feet).

Comments (17)

Share

  1. Zachary Froelich

    This is soooo good, but it completely ignores the City of Nauvoo which uses the same design but was built by Joseph Smith in Illinois…

    1. Brittney

      Yes but SLC is on a whole different scale. Nauvoo is 4.83 square miles compared to SLC’s 110.4.

  2. Sean Hansen

    The size of the blocks have to do with the perfect number 7. The blocks are the size that they are, including the street width, so that 7 blocks makes a perfect mile.

  3. Martin Fisher

    Excellent story!

    I really appreciated the very nuanced way the story mixed history, design, and usability/safety together into a superb narrative. I suspect LDS folks appreciate their history being explained without any agenda other than telling that narrative.

    Keep up the awesome work.

  4. Clifford Newman

    Lol, I love how this article hypes up SLC as some sort of Mormon Mecca. Salt lake City is not inherently a Holy place nor a spiritual utopia. Mormons value Temples, which are all over the world. But, SLC is no more holy than some random city in North Dakota.

  5. LL

    I was more than a little excited to see a podcast about my home town! I’ve followed this podcast forever.

    As someone who grew up using the grid system, it always seemed like the perfect way to plan a city. Before the era of smart phones and gps, it always made it really easy to find a place just using the grid system. But so many people who are not from here don’t really like it. It’s too confusing. New Yorkers are the biggest complainers about it. They HATE it. So, it made me happy that you guys did something about it.

    I only have two comments on the episode that I thought might be worth noting. I don’t feel like being a pedestrian is that hostile. I take the train and walk several blocks to work every day, and have never really had that big of a problem with it. I’ve lived in other cities in Asia and had more of an issues there than I ever have had here. I do think there needs to be improvements and, like most things in Utah, change is hard and slow. But it’s not like people are getting hurt all the time or walking around is horrible. I think legislation and growth toward electric cars and self driving cars has SO much more potential than trying to develop and change a city structure.

    The other point that I wanted to make was that the smog is awful here. Most of Utah’s population is built on a small section of the state right down the Wasatch front, so lots of people, lots of cars, lots of smog. Part of the reason it’s all condensed is because most of Utah’s land is owned by the government…. so there isn’t much place to build out or grow. Landscape contributes a lot but it isn’t the only reason. That is a whole other discussion that I am not qualified at all to talk about.

    But either way, great podcast. Made me happy to hear about my home town. There is a lot of cool design here. Keep up the good work!

  6. AJ

    Great episode of a great show. I noticed one small mistake though. When discussing the surveyors chain, it was stated that one furlong is 66 feet, the length of the chain. A furlong is actually ten chains, 660 feet. I’ve been hearing these terms a lot recently doing forestry work, and it’s also used often in wildland firefighting situations. An acre was originally one chain by one furlong (66 by 660ft). Anyway great stuff.

  7. Andre

    One great thing about Salt Lake’s wide streets is that the city is bike-friendly by design. It’s easy to establish bike lines, and many streets are wide enough for cyclists as it is.

  8. Austin

    I really appreciated this story. I’ve lived in Utah for the past 6 years, all along the Wasatch Front and currently in Logan. I’ve come to really appreciate the grid system. As someone who doesn’t own a smartphone (though I’m working on a computer science degree…go figure), it makes navigation very straightforward.

    Something the story didn’t mention is the presence of mountains, which makes navigation in a grid system even easier. Unless it is immensely foggy or something, you always know which way is east or whatever, and thus can always orient yourself at any intersection. Being born and raised in St. Louis, MO, I grew up orienting myself more on a turn-by-turn basis…you know (guess?) which direction is west based on the relationship of where you are now to where you started and how many turns you took to get there. Having not lived in St. Louis for 8 years, when I got back I actually find myself getting mixed-up on streets that I USED to know so well…the grid and mountains have spoiled me.

    A lot of newer areas with their (cursed!) subdivisions have gone back to street names rather than numbers, possibly in part because their meandering streets are constantly changing direction, which doesn’t bode well with the 4 cardinal directions (though they often put the theoretical street numbers in smaller text underneath the street names on the signs). Now I get frustrated when having to navigate such places, because I go around in circles without the help of some higher power (Siri, OK Google, etc).

  9. Eric Schneider

    I loved this episode, and had no idea about this aspect of SLC’s history. One thing though: the idea of a ‘perfect grid’ reflecting a harmonious society in touch with God was exemplified by Billy Penn’s plan for Philadelphia about 200 years before SLC’s founding – very similar ideas. I might have paid homage to this in the episode too. Although I get the stress on Joseph Smith’s relative ignorance about urban planning, and that he probably wasn’t familiar with Philadelphia.

  10. Jack Winchester

    1 small error, I believe the greater Phoenix Metropolitan area uses a larger block, at 1 Mi between roads.

  11. Jodie

    Interesting. I’ve lived here for over 20 years and walk nearly everywhere. I’ve never felt the town was hostile to pedestrians. Back east where I grew up, they don’t even have sidewalks on most streets. I found that very confusing!

  12. Stephanie

    This story is great. I’ve lived in Utah half of my life, and only recently found out about The Plat of Zion. It’s awesome to get more in depth info!! I grew up here and then lived in southern California for 20 years and then came back about 8 years ago. The grid is the best!! In California you HAVE to have a map or gps to get anywhere, unless you already know the area well. In Utah I can find any address without ever having been there, and no gps needed.

    The only thing I found peculiar about this story was the focus on SLC being “hostile” to pedestrians. In California nobody walks, not even a few blocks! I dropped off my car at a shop once and walked home because it was only about 5 (California) blocks. In that short walk I had no less than 4 people pull over and ask me if I was ok, or if I was stranded and needed a ride. And everyone that didn’t stop took a double take and stared at me funny!!

    In downtown SLC, especially, there are tons of people who walk! Or bike. I know a lot of people that live downtown that don’t even own cars, as they say they are more hassle than they are worth! And the city is so easy to get around without cars. Of course, if you need to get to a suburb, that may be different. But that is the same way in every metropolis, even New York.

  13. Jean

    There used to be a lot of small streets like Regent Street leading into the center of blocks. They were old streets constructed to reach homes or businesses. It’s city development that eliminated them or made them into sterile driveways.

  14. Alexander Miller

    Y’all, 3rd South doesn’t go far enough East to reach 21st. 21st East isn’t possible that far North, because of the University and the mountain.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist