A Brief Introduction To Mormon Urbanism

The LDS church's historical approach to cities shows a mix of urbanism and anti-urbanism.
By Scott Beyer | Aug 02, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Aug 02, 2018 |
A Mormon temple in Provo, UT / Wikimedia

Salt Lake City -- Joseph Smith's claim to fame may have been inventing a religion. But he was also an urbanist. In a 2-decade span of growing the Mormon church--which is now the fastest-expanding church in U.S. history—Smith focused on city-building strategies that would help his church survive amid turmoils both natural and man-made. Today his ideas are viewed as some combination of enlightened and antiquated, while continuing to be embraced by the LDS church.

This urbanist vision began in 1833, just 6 years after founding the church in upstate New York, when Smith prepared the City of Zion plan. The document mirrored principles that were already being practiced in New York City, which had laid out a street grid in 1811. Smith's plan called for a grid that was perfectly aligned north-south and east-west. Blocks would be especially large so that families could practice agriculture within their city, which Smith viewed as essential for community preservation. The streets would be wide, also to support agricultural practices, like moving horses and cattle. And the grid would have defined edges and compact development. Most importantly, it would center around a community space -- in this case the temple.

In coming years, Smith's planning ideas went from pen and paper to real-world testing. Religious persecution drove the LDS church from New York to points west, as Smith was assassinated in 1844 in Illinois. Several years later, the church, led by Brigham Young, settled on the Wasatch Front, an area in central Utah isolated from civilization by mountains. The church settled different communities north and south along this range, following Smith's previously-defined planning principles.

These principles endure today not only in different Utah cities and towns, but in the Mormon settlements across other states. As Michael Hathorne, a Salt Lake City-based planner, wrote on his blog Transform/Place:

From the time the Mormon Pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 until the time their collective settlement efforts ceased in 1930 they settled 757 communities with 443 of those settlements existing in Utah alone.  These settlements went as far north as Taber, Alberta, Canada and as far south as Galeana, Mexico.  What is most remarkable about this community building phase is the rate of success that they were able to achieve.  Of the 757 communities that were settled only 76 were abandoned.  Abandonment was never from internal, social forces.  Rather, their “failure” came from external (i.e. Indian conflicts, war, government policy) or environmental (i.e. floods, inadequate water, poor location) forces, giving the Mormons an astounding 90% success rate.

While traveling through Utah's various towns and cities this past month, I've found it easy to detect this Mormon planning language. Many municipalities still center around temples, which differ in architectural style, but are generally opulent. Each city also has a "ward" system of small churches that dot different neighborhoods. While staying temporarily in Provo, for example, I have passed three different churches daily during my 30-minute walk to the Brigham Young University campus.

But the most discussed aspect of Mormon planning today, at least among urbanists, is the wide streets and large blocks -- which are indeed huge once witnessed in person. Downtown Salt Lake City has the largest blocks of any major U.S. city, at 660 x 660 feet (for perspective, downtown Portland's famously small blocks are 200 x 200 feet). Salt Lake City's downtown streets are 130' wide, over twice as wide as New York City and San Francisco.


Main Street in Salt Lake City, circa 1890.

This planning trait has recently been scrutinized by the Congress for New Urbanism, an organization that calls for neo-traditional design, and that thus has many shared goals with Mormon Urbanism. On one hand, CNU celebrates the church's use of the traditional street grid, as well as the use of agriculture in the city (dubbed "Agrarian Urbanism"). But CNU has argued that having such a wide grid has been inhospitable to urbanization, especially in fast-growing Salt Lake City and Provo. Wide streets encourage fast driving, while long blocks make life difficult for pedestrians. This has led to calls to break up these blocks and narrow the streets, by placing pedestrian infrastructure--or even new buildings--in the middle of them.

It will be interesting to see if the Mormon church pursues this mentality. True to its history, the church is still very much involved in city building, with a massive real estate portfolio that is managed by multiple church-owned companies. Much of this portfolio includes on land that surrounds its urban temples, which LDS develops as a way to enhance the church-going experience. LDS has, for example, built a high-rise tower around its downtown Philadelphia temple, and a luxury mall called City Center around Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City. But the church is also still building communities anew. It owns a massive land plot in central Florida that is now used for agriculture, but that LDS hopes to one day make a 500,000-person community. Time will tell whether it becomes a city of massive grid blocks, just another sprawl suburb, or one that better reflects modern design sensibilities. But either way, it will only expand upon a Mormon legacy of city building that dates back nearly two centuries.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]