As we all know, there is a certain amount of sameness and little to give a location a sense of place throughout much of country, especially in those areas built after World War II. It’s almost as if you could be blindfolded and dropped almost anywhere and not have a clue as to where you were when the blindfold came off. But if you were dropped into a Mormon developed community you might notice a difference.
You’ll see that the streets, even residential streets, are extremely wide and that the city blocks are very long. And if you check out a map, or Google Earth, you’ll see that the blocks are perfectly square with exact north/south and east/west orientation.
This is no accident. Long before Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah in 1847, Joseph Smith (the founder of the Mormon religion) described the ideal Mormon town in an 1833 document called the “Plat of Zion.” His vision was to establish agricultural communities with urban aspects.
His plan called for 132 foot wide streets and 660 foot long blocks. The streets would be wide enough to accommodate irrigation ditches and transportation. Building lots would be large enough for a garden. Houses would be oriented to avoid looking directly onto a neighbor’s home. He wanted his followers to live in a town environment to make educating children easier and for members to have access to cultural events and church activities. The agricultural fields would be just outside of town and still readily accessible to followers.
No Mormon community ever matched the Plat of Zion. But when the Mormons came to Utah, Brigham Young directed that their town (Salt Lake City) have 132 foot wide streets and 660 foot long blocks.
As the Mormon population grew, the church organized groups of colonists and sent them to unsettled areas to build new communities with similar if not exactly the same measurements. Eventually over 500 Mormon communities were established. (I have even seen the number of 712.) Mormon communities can be found in Utah, nearby states, and even in Canada and Mexico. Regardless of the exact lengths, the streets are all wide and the blocks are long and square.
There is nothing magical or mystical about a length of 132 or 660 feet. People of the 1830s and 1840s would have been very familiar with the use of a 66 foot surveyor’s chain (also called a Gunter’s chain) to measure and distribute land. 132 feet is two chains long while 660 feet is ten chains long.
British clergyman and mathematician Edmund Gunter developed the 66 foot long Gunter’s chain in 1620. Somehow he figured out that 66 feet was a logical length for a device to measure land. A 5280 foot long mile would equal 80 chains and a 43,560 square foot acre would equal ten square chains. A Salt Lake City block measuring 10 chains by 10 chains would then be ten acres.
Earlier this year my dog Petey and I made a trip to Utah to take a closer look at the Mormon landscape.
There are other features that you can spot while walking through the Mormon landscape.
You don’t have to travel to Salt Lake to find a wide street. You can find them in all Mormon developed communities.
As I hope I have shown there is a sense of place to the Mormon landscape. As you visit new communities and neighborhoods, you may want to look out for items that separate that place from the norm and give it a sense of place.