Urbanism with big government

Last week, Emily Washington explored the ways roads are built in societies without much government. The idea is that people will carve roads out of their public land because doing so serves their economic interests. Washington uses early American settlements among her examples.

A massive street in downtown Salt Lake. This is typical of many streets in Utah's capitol.

A massive street in downtown Salt Lake. This is typical of many streets in Utah’s capitol.

The post was particularly fascinating because Salt Lake City illustrates almost precisely the opposite circumstances: strong, early government imposing rigged infrastructure that produces low density neighborhoods surrounded by high-cost infrastructure.

The development of Utah is a fascinating and somewhat unique story that deserves more space than I’ll give it here, but this is the Reader’s Digest version: Mormon pioneers fled religious persecution in the East, ending up in the Salt Lake Valley. There, they built cities using the “Plat of Zion,” a street grid that in Salt Lake ended up with massive, 10-acre blocks and huge streets.

Brigham Young, the leader who led the Mormons to Utah, envisioned the big blocks serving multiple purposes; residents would be able to grow crops in the middle and live at the periphery. And the wide streets were supposedly big enough for teams of oxen to do U turns. It was all very functional.

A huge street in Coalville, Utah, population (aprox) 1,400.

A huge street in Coalville, Utah, population (aprox) 1,400.

Salt Lake City is the best-known example of this type of development, but the early Mormons colonized the entire region with this technique; today, small towns across the state have massive blocks (they vary in exact size from town to town) and streets that are 60, 70, 80 or more feet wide. Walking around these towns, it sort of feels like they all expected to become Chicago, but never grew beyond a few thousand people.

This plan may have worked well for a semi-agrarian group of settlers. In fact, Andres Duany and other prominent urbanists spoke excitedly of what today we call the “Mormon grid” last year at the annual gathering of the Congress For the New Urbanism. The idea was that the problems with this grid are more a function of modern (car-centric) design than the grid itself.

I’m not entirely convinced by that argument, but either way the problems with the Mormon grid are legion today. The huge streets are expensive, comparatively less safe, and simply horrible for place making. (Have you ever tried cafe seating beside six lanes of cars going 60 mph? It’s very unpleasant.)

The big blocks also pose problems; not only are they unpleasant for walking, but the deep centers are hard to develop because they lack access to streets. That, in turn, has created a low-density city in which there has been little demand for the privately-created streets Washington described in colonial America.

In the context of Washington’s post last week, I’m wondering if many of these problems are connected to the type of government Utah had at the beginning. When the pioneers arrived, they basically had a theocracy, with their prophet Brigham Young also serving as territorial governor. It was a strongly hierarchical system in which the leadership structure was determined before the people ever arrived in Utah. It was the polar opposite of the anachric society of colonial America.

By contrast, Washington describes Pennsylvania as growing into a thriving mercantile center that abandoned William Penn’s “greene countrie towne” idea. In Utah, Young had the political and cultural clout to see his version of the “greene countrie towne” actually built.

This system worked very well in many regards — the Mormons thrived quite well in a harsh desert environment — but, again, it left a legacy of costly and hostile urban design in the 20th and 21st centuries.

It’d be reductive to say that no government (Pennsylvania) always produces great places and strong government (Utah) produces bad places. Obviously, we can think of exceptions to that rule (e.g. Haussmann’s Paris, arguably and among many other examples).

But, still, Utah seems to support Washington’s thesis: she argues that “laissez-faire urban development” produced the great, economically agile spaces in the East. Utah shows that when you lose the laissez-faire part of the equation, you can also potentially lose those great places.



  1. Pingback: Are mid-rise cities better than everything else? | About Town
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