Defining Urbanism: A Mormon Perspective

“We ought to have the building up of Zion as our greatest object.”   (Joseph Smith)

The term “urbanism” is commonly misunderstood and is often associated with high intensity, human Babe Ruthenvironments.  While there is a portion of truth to this, it is far from a complete definition.  It would be similar to referring to the great Babe Ruth as an overweight baseball player.  In order to properly use the term it must be correctly and comprehensively understood.  I will attempt to do this, but I don’t want it to stop there.  Within the perspective of Mormon theology is a much deeper perspective that I believe is important to share, so that one can also begin to recognize and identify the present impacts of development and placemaking and how they need to be reshaped in order to deliver more effective results in the lives of people.

Commonly, dictionaries define urbanism as “the lifestyle of city dwellers.”  This is the Babe Ruth definition that I referenced earlier.  This definition is far from complete as compared to how a new urbanist would define the word.   A new urbanist’s definition would go further by saying that urbanism is “a study of the human habitat (built environment), from rural to urban, looking at the influences of geographic, economic, political, social, and culture, and their impacts/effects on the built environment.”  While this definition is more comprehensive in looking at the relationships of these forces on the creation and operation of our places, I believe that this definition still falls short of considering the relationships that do and should exist between people and their places.

I am a believer in the principle of physical determinism which puts forth the observation that there is a definitive link between people and place, and states that our built environment has a fundamental impact on people’s behavior and attitudes.  If one takes this to heart than the new urbanist definition of urbanism needs to be expanded, because it does not fully account for the impact that is apparently made at the level of the individual and family.  Taking this into consideration creates an opportunity to present the Mormon perspective and potentially  come to a complete and comprehensive definition of urbanism.

The presentation of the Mormon perspective of urbanism is rooted in the belief that as spiritual brothers and sisters we must learn to love and care for each other.  To do this there is a relationship between people and place that is identified as the pinnacle that should be worked towards.  That pinnacle is called – ZION.

Zion is recognized as both a physical place as well as a spiritual state.  Both are required in order for Zion to truly exist.  Zion is required to first be built spiritually before it can be built physically:

Doctrine & Covenants 105:5

And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself.”

This was part of the intent and goal behind the early Mormon pioneer’s efforts in community building.  Their attempts were to establish communities that would be Earthly Stewardshiprooted in delivering both the spiritual and physical building of a Zion community.  To do this they attempted to master the principles of stewardship and consecration.  The principle of stewardship is a sacred spiritual and temporal trust for which there is an attached accountability.  It requires the understanding of  individual saints that all things are God’s and in turn there is no value in the purpose of accumulating more than another – all should be shared. The sharing can not happen through force as socialism prescribes.  Instead, sharing occurs through the consecration of all that one has – including time, talents, means, etc.  All is put forward for the purpose of building God’s kingdom, both physically and spiritually on the earth, and this is done at one’s own choosing.

Doctrine & Covenants 104:11-18

“It is wisdom in me; therefore, a commandment I give unto you, that ye shall organize yourselves and appoint every man his stewardship;

That every man may give an account unto me of the stewardship which is appointed unto him.

For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessing, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.

I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine.

And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.

But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low.

For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.

therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance, which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment.”

Through the efforts of implementing proper stewardship and consecration, one learns to both love and serve his fellow “brothers and sisters” in the same fashion that Jesus Christ did during his earthly ministry.

This is much easier said than done however.  We live in an environment that teaches us otherwise.  This  physical, social and cultural environment is instead teaching principles of individualism, independence, exclusivity, and selfishness.  The contrast between the two is alarming.  Zion teaches us that we should be ONE, while the world is teaching us to think we are THE ONE!

Doctrine & Covenants 38:27

…I say unto you, be one, and if ye are not one ye are not mine.

This attitude, while more easily identified on the social side of the equation, carries over dramatically to the physical – with astoundingly disturbing effects.  At present,kids-fighting much of the way we live is in homogeneous, segregated neighborhoods that reinforce differences between people suggesting that it is wrong to intermingle.  I have actually heard, with my own ears, individuals say in public meetings that they don’t want THOSE PEOPLE to live too close to them.  I mean come on – we certainly can’t allow those Wal-Mart kids to play with those Target kids – and heaven forbid the thought of either playing with a Nordstrom kid!

The relationships between people and place must be better understood in order to produce the kind of urbanism that will make a much deeper and lasting impact.  The places we create can and do have an impact on people both socially and culturally.  There is no escaping this.  The degree to which our places impact people socially and culturally, there will also be a direct impact on the spiritual nature of people.  I believe that in recognition of these points one can become more cognizant of how to more positively impact these relationships.  If the spiritual can lead, rather than being lead, the physical can be impacted in a fashion that social and cultural are more positively impacted.


“Only a Zion people can bring in a Zion society.  And as the Zion people increase, so we will be able to incorporate more of the principles of Zion until we have a people prepared to receive the Lord.”
   (Ezra Taft Benson)

One comment

  1. Good post. I need to think more about how the physical Zion affects our spirituality. It is important to have the poor among us. And “poor” does tend to mean they’ve got problems that can make people nervous. But like you, I also get angry when our church-going neighbors rally hard at the city to keep “those people” out of their perfect world. The end result is that those people end up crowded into a dozen square miles of decay – a “urban cancer” that has no cure, because it is so large. Design that intermingles rich and poor, spiritually minded and less so, can give us opportunities to understand each other better, and inspire the less spiritual to take more responsibility for their lives.

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