Joseph Smith’s Influence on Mormon City Planning

By Lynn Rosenvall

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    In 1833 Joseph Smith published plans for a City of Zion to be built near Independence in Jackson County, Missouri. The City has not yet become a reality, but some of its basic features were used in Latter-day Saint settlements for approximately 70 years after it was designed.

    The similarities and differences between the basic plan and actual cities have been pinpointed in an examination of more than 500 settlements colonized by Church members between 1830 and 1900.

    The basic features of the City of Zion plat included large city blocks; exceptionally wide streets; designated areas for schools, business establishments, and churches; and streets laid out “on the square” beginning from a common point.

    As each city developed, the basic features of “Zion” were retained, even though exact amounts of land designated for each function varied in each settlement. In Salt Lake City, for example, the residential blocks were first laid out in ten-acre plots. In other cities, the blocks were either eight or six acres, depending on the terrain and the expected population density.

    Members of the Church, mostly farmers, lived in town and commuted to their farms. This farm-village concept was common in New England, but was rare in the development of the remaining areas in the West.

    The first town actually constructed according to the plat was Far West, Missouri. Nauvoo, Illinois, followed the basic plat, but a number of features were altered to fit the terrain. As the Saints moved west, they did not design their communities according to the Zion plat, since most were building only temporary homes.

    Salt Lake City was laid out according to a slightly modified version of the plat. As the Saints surveyed the city, they constructed city blocks to be altered to fit the foothill terrain and allowed buildings to be structured where none had been planned.

    Each new community in the western United States, Canada, and Mexico followed the basic principles of the original city plat: large blocks, wide streets, and the farm-village pattern.

    However, none of the cities followed either the exact dimensions of the original City of Zion, or the pattern set by Salt Lake City. Today Provo is probably the most representative example of early Mormon city-planning, since the plans for several cities followed its eight-acre block plan.

    This model, showing the geometric design of the plat of the City of Zion, was prepared by students at Brigham Young University.

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    • Dr. Rosenvall, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Calgary, is a high councilor in Calgary Alberta North Stake.