Unfortunately I was not able to attend the national CNU conference this year in Salt Lake City, but I followed the media coming from it closely. Of course the conference appeared to provide interesting material as always with conference tracks based on livability, transportation and infrastructure, sustainability, and finance. Nature and Urbanism (the title of the opening plenary), as well as, agrarian urbanism were important topics. The CNU National Conference is designed for the host city to imprint upon its structure, and therefore the Mormon influence was a recurring theme throughout the week.
Nature, livability, and agriculture are all exemplified in Salt Lake City’s urban form, layout, and structure – certainly in the intent of the original design. An example of Zionic design based on biblical principles, the planning of Joseph Smith is not what the founder of the Mormon Church is best known for. But when examining the perfectly squared blocks (the largest in the country at 660′ x 660′ and 10 acres each) formed by streets (160′ right-of-way) oriented neatly along the north-south and east-west axis, it is obvious that this city was planned carefully and meaningfully. To learn more about the blocks original design, check out this great post on Salt Lake City Digs.
“The Plat of Zion” was intended as a template for all Mormon towns. In fact, the Mormons established 534 towns in 50 years, something that no other group has done. The large blocks accommodated garden plots large enough to grow crops. Water supply was carried along the roads, approximately where the modern day curb and gutter reside. The roads separating the blocks were designed to be very wide so that a “wagon team” could turn around easily. Within the right-of-way was open space to serve the block’s uses, with a wagon path only where necessary. Salt Lake City was modeled on a utopian, agricultural society of self-sustainability.
The city hasn’t exemplified its original intentions well under the pressure of urban expansion based around the automobile. As a contemporary city not dependent on sustaining itself any longer, Salt Lake City’s form, originally sized for farms and wagons, is now an inefficient use of land with vast roads inhospitable to pedestrians. But not all hope is lost, as stated by Andres Duany and Steve Mouzon, both heavy hitters in the New Urbanism movement.
Andres Duany, one of the father’s of the new urbanism movement, actually applauds the Mormon Grid for it’s support of Agrarian Urbanism. This is a movement embraced by many, including Mouzon, who wrote The Original Green. Both led a CNU 21 Session called Agrarian Urbanism and the Mormon Block. Duany described Agrarian Urbanism as ”a concept that involves food not as a means of making a living, but as a basis for making a life and structuring the places in which we live. The shift in focus from “agricultural urbanism” or “urban agriculture” to the more encompassing term of “agrarian” refers to a planning initiative promoting a type of sustainable community that intensifies agricultural activity whilst promoting the associated economic, environmental and social benefits.” With a need to shift cities to be more self-sustaining and provide local and healthy subsidence for people of all socio-economic classes, the Mormon Block can accommodate small farms and community gardens better than another other block network in the country.
Unintentionally, the Mormon’s created a city around one of the most important principles of urban design: adaptability. The Mormon Block can be divided into smaller blocks to promote walkability, it can accommodate an entire university or business complex, or it can structure buildings around important public and civic spaces. Adaptability in urban form is a quality that is often overlooked. When I immersed myself in the urban design profession in America, I was surprised that larger blocks weren’t praised for the ability to change over time depending on new uses. Instead, small blocks were championed for creating tight, connected cities and an walkable form. Portland is often mentioned for it’s “perfectly-sized” 200 x 200 block. In actuality, while that size might work for some uses like residential, for others is is suffocating and can prohibit development and adequate pedestrian facilities. For instance, in my current city of Tampa, it’s downtown blocks are so small (approximately 235′ x 240′) that it is a constant challenge to provide an adequate building footprint for modern construction and maintain appropriate pedestrian facilities that encourage an active public realm. So in fact, blocks that should be very walkable, often aren’t because space for people can be sacrificed for development.
So, Salt Lake City is blessed with the Mormon Block and its ability to constantly adapt, now and in the future. However, with this ability comes great responsibility – the challenge lies in adapting the sometimes inhospitable urban form that exists now, into a livable form based on social, economic, and environmental sustainability. If the city returns part of the 160′ right-of-way back to the uses of the block as originally intended, requires high-quality development based on urban design principles, and continues to grow around public transportation, Salt Lake City will grow into the “Zion” that Joseph Smith envisioned.
What lies ahead in the future? Along with CNU 21, The Great American Grid hosted a design competition to redesign a Mormon Block. Urban designers from all over the nation, including myself transformed the 10 acre site into a block that exemplifies the principles of New Urbanism. See the results of the competition here.