The Convergence of Mormon Community Building and New Urbanism

SLC - 1870
Source: LDS Church – Image Archive

Back in October of 2008 I gave a bid presentation to the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) Board of Directors in an effort to persuade them to award their 21st annual conference to Salt Lake City.  This was a monumental effort that I did not fully understand at the time.  All I knew at that moment was that I loved Salt Lake City, I loved new urbanism, and I wanted each to experience the other.  I felt, at a certain level, like a matchmaker – setting the two up on a blind date.  Needless to say, the CNU Board of Directors awarded CNU 21 to Salt Lake City and work began in earnest to prepare for the date and for the two to meet.

My personal love for both new urbanism and Salt Lake City are tied together for me at a very personal level.  I have been a deep thinker, with a strong spiritual nature, for as long as I can remember.  There is very little separation in my life between the temporal and spiritual.  This also applies to my deep seeded love for new urbanism and Salt Lake City.  It is very well understood that Salt Lake City was founded by Mormon pioneers who were fleeing persecution.  After multiple attempts to establish communities where they could freely worship and being turned out each time they tried (with no redress from state or federal government requests for assistance) this nearly destitute group left the boundaries of the United States (at the time) for an area known as the Wasatch Basin.  This was an area they felt would allow them to be left alone because nobody seemed to have an interest in it.  Early reports of the territory, coming from the likes of Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, Captain B.L. Bonneville, and Captain John C. Fremont all spoke of the Salt Lake Valley as being uninhabitable.  When Brigham Young met up with Jim Bridger, on the bank of the Little Sandy River in Wyoming as the Mormon Pioneers were preparing to make their final push into the Wasatch Basin, he famously offered a thousand dollars for the first bushel of corn grown in the valley, figuring it to be an impossibility.  His words reportedly became stronger as the Mormons left him as he turned to others that were with him and said, “I don’t care what happens to those men… but I do feel sorry for the women and children.  They will starve to death in the Salt Lake Valley.”

Mormon settlements by decade
Source: Duany Plater-Zyberk

The desire of those early Mormon pioneers was to live in peace and worship as they saw fit.  In part, that worship included one of the largest (and arguably most successful) efforts in community building in the history of the world.  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.

Within this push for community building were a set of principles that were primarily used with virtually every settlement.  These principles stemmed from a document that was penned by Joseph Smith in 1833 that is affectionately called the “Plat of the City of Zion”.  In that document was a plat map showing the layout of a future city to be constructed.  Along the sides and edges of the document were a series of instructions associated with the implementation of the plat.  Among the instructions that were given were a number of principles which may appear familiar to one that knows the Charter of the New Urbanism well:

Plat of Zion

  • Defined center & edges
  • Compact urban design
  • Connected street network
  • Prominent buildings located in the center
  • Architecture is reflective of the region
  • Mixed-housing
  • Community
New Urbanism

  • Neighborhood limited in physical size
  • Well-defined and focused edges
  • Connected street pattern
  • Mixed-use
  • Mixed-housing
  • Architectural codes
  • Prominent buildings placed on preferential building sites
Source: LDS History Library

While the commonality in principles is curious in nature, the understanding associated with why Joseph Smith (through principles) and Brigham Young (through execution) would want to implement the building of community in this fashion is also of interest to point out.  A key element in Mormon theology centers on the principle of “free agency”, which can be defined as the ability to choose one’s destiny as a creator of circumstance rather than as a creature of it.  With this agency comes the opportunity to learn and gain intelligence, for it is through the gaining of intelligence that we can better ourselves, our circumstances, and more fully serve God and our fellow man.  Joseph Smith eloquently spoke to the relationship between this and its link to community:

“The advantages of [gathering together in villages] are numerous. . . As intelligence is the great object of our holy religion, it is of all things important, that we should place ourselves in the best situation possible to obtain it. . .”

“Intelligence is the result of education, and education can only be obtained by living in compact society; so compact, that schools of all kinds can be supported.”

Joseph Smith also spoke of the link between community and its ability to provide opportunities for society and cultural pursuits:

“The farmer and his family, therefore, will enjoy all the advantages of schools, public lectures and other meetings.  His home will no longer be isolated, and his family denied the benefits of society, which has been, and always will be, the great educator of the human race; but they will enjoy the same privileges of society and can surround their homes with the same intellectual life, the same social refinement as will be found in the home of the merchant or banker or professional man.”

Brigham Young spoke on numerous occasions of the stewardship responsibility of building communities that would inspire and uplift those who live within its borders:

“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.”

Joseph Smith - community builder
Source: LDS Church – Image Archive

Whenever I read these quotes, and the many other relevant quotes that came from other early Mormon Church leaders, I am personally inspired by the recognition they had of the ties between people and the places they inhabit.  There is also a clear understanding that community can play an important role in the growth and advancement of those who reside within its boundaries.

Herein lies my focused interest in generating an introduction between the principles associated with Mormon community building and new urbanism.  They both share common interests.  They both have knowledge to share with one another.  They both recognize the importance of place making and the potential for positive impact on people’s lives.  There is so much that each can learn from each other.

This point was further driven home to me as I read Eric Jacobsen’s book “The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment”.  Eric describes the relationship between people and place through a comparison to hardware and software:

“We can think of the requisite components of community, therefore, in terms of hardware and software.  Hardware refers to the buildings and other physical aspects of a particular place. Software refers to the people who enact the communal activities and practices in that place. Another term for the software component is agent. The question of who causes (or prevents) community from forming is a question of agency.”

This comparison resonates with me because what religion and faith assist in providing is the software that new urbanism is not built to provide.  On the other hand, new urbanism masterfully provides the hardware that religion and faith so desperately need in order to more effectively operate and execute the Savior’s challenge to love God and love our neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40).

SLC - present day
Source: Utah Convention & Visitors Bureau

The opportunity for Salt Lake City to host CNU 21 opened up some extremely unique opportunities to hold discussions combining the topics of faith and community because the city itself served to justify as a back drop for the combination.  Introductions have now been made between Salt Lake City, the LDS Church, and new urbanism.  The question is now, what will each do with the newly formed relationship?  The opportunities for doing good are tremendous only IF each recognizes the benefits that can be shared by their newly found “friend”.  I am personally hoping for the best!

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