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Urban planners take a few lessons from Brigham Young and Joseph Smith

SALT LAKE CITY — When Brigham Young uttered the now famous phrase, “This is the right place,” he may not have known how prophetic his words would be for some urban planners in the year 2013.

Speaking to an audience of about 50 people at the Grand America Hotel during a breakout session at the Congress for the New Urbanism conference, historian Craig Galli explained that Brigham Young and LDS Church founder Joseph Smith's city designs helped make the layout of Salt Lake City a model for urban planners decades into the future.

“We are the direct beneficiaries of (Brigham Young’s) urban design,” Galli said. The desire to build a community designed upon “smart growth” principles will create a better place for people to live, he said.

Smart growth — or new urbanism — is an urban planning and transportation theory that concentrates growth in compact pedestrian-friendly, urban centers to avoid sprawl. It also advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including neighborhood schools and mixed-use development with a range of housing choices.

Each community Mormons settled, including Salt Lake City, were designed and built based on adaptations of the “City of Zion” plat initially envisioned by Joseph Smith. They included many modern features of new urbanism such as compactness, mixed development, and preservation of appropriate open space.

About 1,500 attendees are participating in a three-day conference digesting topics that include a look at the community of Day Break, the revitalization of downtown Salt Lake City, and the impact of Religious freedom on American Land Use.

The plat design of urban development favored by the LDS founder was designed for the settlement of Jackson County in Missouri, but was also intended for future communities elsewhere, Galli said.

The city described on the plat would cover one and one-half square miles and be divided into a European-style square grid pattern with 2,600 half-acre lots. The city center would consist of blocks to accommodate a temple complex and other ecclesiastical buildings.

Galli said that when initially designed, Salt Lake City was laid out with streets wide enough for a wagon to turn around. The width made it easy for the city to adapt streets for automobile and mass transit use in later years, he said.

Streets were laid out in a neat grid designed after the original “City of Zion” plat, a design the city benefits from, offering a sense of order, he said.

Galli said that the concepts employed in Salt Lake City have helped the city develop effectively over the years, enabling civic leaders to address various issues including rapid growth and environmental concerns.

“The more dense a community, the more reliance there is on mass transit and the less pollution there is from mobile sources,” he said.

Galli said the Salt Lake model aligns “perfectly” with the smart growth concepts that value long-range, regional considerations of sustainability over a short-term focus with the goal of achieving a unique sense of community and place.

Meanwhile, another landmark local project garnered keen interest at the event. When City Creek Center was initially envisioned, its goals were to assist in revitalizing downtown Salt Lake City and to help complement the historic LDS Temple and Temple Square. The redevelopment of two and a half city blocks came at a time when the real estate market was suffering terribly, yet the timing wound up being serendipitous to the economic health of Salt Lake City and the region.

Since opening in March 2012, the billion dollar-plus shopping and dining destination has become a popular tourist attraction in the city and an economic driver for downtown redevelopment.

“The project was a “re-invigoration” of downtown,” said Mark Gibbons, president of City Creek Reserve — the for-profit development firm owned by the LDS Church. “What we’ve created will be the catalyst that will spread out (across the central business district).”

Because of the framework originally designed by the early LDS Church leaders, Salt Lake City has been able to adapt to the changing times, explained Bill Williams, director of architecture and engineering for the City Creek project.

Over the years, the long city blocks have been subdivided into smaller parcels that have accommodated many different options from banks, small businesses and more recently residential units.

“These big blocks give you more flexibility,” he said. “You try to create something unique to Salt Lake City … integrating the history and culture, connecting the past to the present.”


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