Plat of Zion Recognized

UDU Legacy Award (2015)
UDU Legacy Award (2015)

Urban Design Utah, a collaborative committee of professional organizations in Utah, recently presented their Legacy Award to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the contributions made by the Plat of Zion towards urban design in Salt Lake City.  Thanks should be given to Urban Design Utah for this recognition because of what it means in the way of attention and focus regarding what the Plat of Zion is.  I have had the good fortune during my time working for the LDS Church to both study and analyze the Plat of Zion – both from its historic perspective, as well as its validity in present times.  I believe that you will find it as no surprise that it is just as relevant today as it was when it was first implemented back in the 1830’s.

Between the years 1830 and 1930 the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints undertook a community building initiative that is unprecedented in human history.  During that time period Mormon Pioneers settled 757 communities.  In Utah alone there were 443 communities that were settled.  One would think that with this vast number of communities, of varying size and scale, which were settled during this time period there would be a large number of failed efforts.  Interestingly enough, the failure rate was only 10%.

Plat of Zion
Plat of Zion

This is part of the reason why the recognition being provided through this Legacy Award is so valuable.  This award recognition helps to draw attention to the wisdom that exists within the Plat of Zion as an operating system for delivering communities that are able to best serve the people who reside within them. The historic application of the Plat of Zion was brilliant in both its principles and its execution.  It delivered both quantity and quality simultaneously.  The Plat of Zion did this using values and doctrines that have been further validated in more recent days.

As Dr. Michael Larice correctly noted when he contacted me regarding this award, the individual that should truly be here accepting it ought to be Brigham Young, because he was the master implementer of the Plat of Zion.  Unfortunately, he was not available to attend.  If he could have been there to accept the award however, I believe he might have said something along the lines of this quote he made regarding the values of the Plat of Zion:

Brother Brigham
Brother Brigham

“Let us train our minds until we delight in that which is good, lovely, and holy, seeking continually after that intelligence which will enable us effectually to build up Zion, which consists in building houses, tabernacles, temples, streets, and every convenience and necessity to embellish and beautify, seeking to do the will of the Lord all the days of our lives, improving our minds in all scientific and mechanical knowledge, seeking diligently to understand the great design and plan of all created things, that we may know what to do with our lives and how to improve upon the facilities placed within our reach.”

The genius of the Plat of Zion and its execution has not gone unnoticed by others who have both studied and analyzed its principles.  Within just the past few years I had the opportunity to work with Andres Duany on a project that included looking at the direct applicability of the Plat of Zion in today’s environment.  He became absolutely fascinated with the Plat of Zion and has since that time been touting its value around the globe speaking of its benefits.  At a Utah League of Cities & Towns event, back in 2010, he provided a very interesting comment regarding the Plat of Zion:

SLC - 1st & Main
SLC – 1st & Main

“You have a Ferrari in the garage and you have never taken it for a drive – you have never shown what it could really do. You are taking your Ferrari and you are using it as a dump truck. You have turned this Ferrari of a block, you have turned this Ferrari of a right of way, and you have actually turned it into a utilitarian mentality rather than a poetic mentality – the utilitarian mentality has taken it over. You have never been shown what the City of Zion can do.”

“I am pretty convinced that however beautifully this Plat of Zion worked -and remember it did work – it has lost its way. Many of the things that make your suburban sprawl so easy were not the intention of Brigham Young. I’m not putting HIM in hot water – I’m putting YOU in hot water.”

The Plat of Zion, as an operating system for delivering community, has been infected by a virus that has made it difficult for it to deliver in the fashion that was intended – that virus, as Andres Duany noted, is SPRAWL.  I am hopeful that this infection can be healed, because there is still so much to learn.  The recognition being provided through this award should help in drawing attention to the merits of the Plat of Zion.  On a very personal level I thank Urban Design Utah for that.

To close I would like to share a poem – by Edwin Markham, entitled “Man-making”.  This poem, I believe, emphasizes the most important aspect of the Plat of Zion – that, being the creation of places that contribute to the bettering of people.

We are all blind, until we see

That in the [universal] plan

Nothing is worth the making if

It does not make the man.

Why build these [buildings] glorious,

If man unbuilded goes?

In vain we build the [world], unless

The builder also grows.

One thought on “Plat of Zion Recognized

  1. This is a great poem, and reminds me of what I learned at CHU-25 – that lean/incremental urbanism is often accomplished by the very people who live there, and helps these small people near the bottom gain skills and take care of themselves. I know the article is thinking of how the resulting environment either improves or hinders character, but the very process of people with little knowledge of creating physical things grabbing the bull by the horns, and afterwards knowing how to build is itself valuable. That’s how the Mormons built so many successful places so fast from virtually nothing.

    I have a brother who was unskilled and going no-where, but he jumped in and helped my father remodel his store because it desperately needed help. I looked at his workmanship and it had a lot of flaws, but my father said, “still, it’s so much better than before, and your brother has since become a master builder and cabinet maker. This work on the store gave him purpose in life.

    A few years earlier, I too jumped in to remodel a different part of the same store. That was my first “sheet rock mud” job, and it looks crappy even today. But you don’t notice unless you look for it, and I too credit that effort with enabling me to remodel my own homes and many apartments I’ve owned since.

    We thought we were building our store, but turns out our store was really building us!

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