The Plat of Zion & The 15-Minute City
By Soren Simonsen
Happy Winter from the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance, as we’ve crossed the winter solstice in recent days and enter a new season.
2023 has been a troubling year of impacts from waste and pollution, including declining air and water quality, to loss of biodiversity and growing food insecurity for people and wildlife. Climate change tops the list of human impacts with increasingly challenging consequences—from the hottest July recorded globally in human history, experienced by many people in the world as “global boiling,” which also contributed to the hottest 12-month period ever recorded in early November. We know the intense, ongoing heat is impacting many of you and your communities in so many ways, from heat waves and wildfires, to intense storms and floods, and drought.
Ten days ago, the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) concluded with some welcome news, as leaders of the nations of the earth gathered to collaborate and set realistic goals to address the climate crisis, which you can learn about here and here. Leading these goals is a long-term commitment to replace fossil fuels with clean energy. MESA applauds this commitment of words, and encourages Latter-day Saints everywhere to put our faith into action to make these commitments a reality.
Leaders of nations gather at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai in early December. (photo credit)
As we consider the history of our Latter-day Saint faith community over the past 200 years, and the foundations of our faith across millenia, we don’t think it is a stretch to be leaders in demonstrating the many ways we can “replenish the earth” and guide our communities and societies to “care for the earth, be wise stewards over it, and preserve it for future generations, and…to love and care for one another” (from The Creation, President Russell M. Nelson).
We want to call attention to a quiet, but important anniversary six months ago. June 25th marked the 190th anniversary of the revelation known as the Plat of Zion. This revelation launched a city planning movement that we believe remains highly relevant today. It represents the ideals of the contemporary 15-Minute City planning model, and contributes many ideas essential to the work of creating sustainable communities and fighting the climate crisis and other environmental challenges of our time. It embodies elements of walkability, human centered, compact and densely populated development that are recommended by leading national and international city planning and sustainability organizations.
The Plat of Zion drawing, together with introductory context, notes and analysis can be found in the Joseph Smith Papers.
Though some early Mormon communities were settled prior to this revelation—in Kirtland, Ohio and Far West, Missouri—this city plan was first used as a general guide for planning the cities of Independence, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois. It served as a template for encampments and villages across the Mormon Pioneer Trail that supported the westward migration of Latter-day Saints, and subsequently was used to lay out hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the American West, including into Canada and Mexico, as part of the Mormon Pioneer colonization of the Rocky Mountain region of North America. An official Church history site suggests approximately 500 communities were settled using a general form of the Plat of Zion, adapted to local conditions, while other recent research has identified more than 750 Mormon Pioneer settlements over a century between 1833 and the 1930s. As a city planning movement, the sheer number of communities settled rivals any coordinated colonizing era in human history.
Map of more than 750 Mormon Pioneer settlements from the 1830s to the 1930s. (source)
Earlier this year, Utah Governor Spencer Cox came under fire from conspiracy theorists at the fringe of his own political party at a state party convention because of his alleged plot to “imprison Utahns at Point of the Mountain” in the development of Utah’s 600+ acre former state prison site, for the supposedly nefarious reason of being described as a “15-minute city.”
15-Minute City framework plan for The Point development in Draper, Utah. (source)
The idea of a 15-minute city is attributed to urban researcher Carlos Moreno about a decade ago. His urban design and planning concept suggests that the most livable places, and the most adaptable to the enormous population growth of cities in the 21st century, contain most all of our daily activity in a geographic area of not more than a 15-minute walk. He and his theory have become vilified as a communist plot by right-wing activists and commentators (see here and here) because he suggests that automobiles should maybe not be as dominant in our cities as they have become over the past century.
What many people don’t know is that the Plat of Zion is a template for 15-minute cities, with hundreds of them settled across the American West beginning nearly two centuries ago. Joseph Smith described the Plat of Zion as a means to “fill up the world in these last days, and let every man live in the City for this is the City of Zion.” Maybe it’s time to dust this plan off the shelf, and see what usefulness and commodity it can provide.
The Plat of Zion pictured above, is approximately 1 square mile, consisting of 49 regular blocks. 42 of these are 10-acre blocks divided into 20 equal lots, and seven of them are 15-acre blocks. The three central blocks are for community uses—temples and churches, schools, commerce, gathering places and public space.
Here are some of the key concepts of the Plat of Zion, taken from the written notes by Joseph Smith, or interpreted by analysis of the drawings and descriptions:
- Social gathering spaces are the core of the community : Joseph Smith describes very clearly in the revelation the need for human connection that societies provide, and that people should gather together for association within the city, rather than living in isolation. Unfortunately, many suburban development patterns of modern cities lack social “infrastructure” and social isolation has been linked with many forms of mental and physical illness.
- Churches, schools & commerce clustered within civic spaces : The buildings and places where we most often gather are clustered with the center of civic space, making them highly accessible to everyone. It allows people to accomplish many daily needs related to spirituality, education, commerce, cultural and recreational activity in close proximity and meet all of these daily needs without a lot of different trips to different locations.
- All community services are within a half-mile : This is the core concept of the 15-Minute City, which recommends that all daily services and needs can be accomplished within a 15-minute walk, and an even shorter bicycle ride. Imagine the reduction in daily vehicle trips if everything was this close and could be accomplished by individuals of almost every age and ability level.
- Block patterns promote connectivity and walkability : Intersection density has been described as a key component of walkable communities. There are no dead-end streets in this plan, and you can get from any point in the city to any other point in the city using simple paths that don’t unnecessarily create longer trips, as is the case with dead-end streets and cul-de-sacs often encountered in suburbs.
- Egalitarian nature of narrow clustered lots of equal size : Lot and house sizes are often linked to exclusionary zoning practices that have created socio-economic disparities in communities. In this city plan, every lot is equal, which breaks down disparities. The population density of this plan (described in more detail later) also implies multi-generational households that provide valuable social “safety nets” for more vulnerable young and aging populations.
- Homes of durable brick and stone : Clay and rock are the most abundant natural materials on the planet, are generally available without lengthy transport, and their preparation and use has a relatively low embodied carbon footprint. They are also very durable materials, requiring very little maintenance or upkeep.
- Streetscapes with uniform setbacks and park-like gardens and trees : The description of front yards with uniform 25’ setbacks filled with trees and gardens, both of food and flowers, evokes a sense of beauty. Visual interest and beautification are also central themes of walkable cities.
- Orchards and gardens in rear yard : The relatively small size of each house on a lot means that most of the lot is used for food production.The idea of using yard space efficiently and effectively for cultivation is largely lost in most modern zoning and development practices. Imagine yards filled with food-producing trees and plants that would not only create neighborhoods of remarkable beauty, but would provide immediate and abundant resources to address the growing issues of food insecurity.
- Agriculture & industry beyond the perimeter of the city : Some of the most harmful aspects of modern cities are the location of heavy, polluting industries in close proximity to neighborhoods and people. In this city plan, the impacts of noise, smells, visual impacts and other nuisances are explicitly removed from where people live, and the burden of industry on health and wellbeing is minimized.
- Proximity to open space : The city plan describes preserving agriculture and open space on opposite sides of the city, suggesting that open space, both for large scale food production and for visual connection to open space and nature, should also be in close proximity to each home.
- Compactness and Density : One of the most remarkable aspects of the city plan is Joseph Smith’s description of the population density of the layout of one square mile to “contain from 15 to 20 thousand people.” By way of reference, there are less than 20 cities in the United States that have population densities of more than 20,000 people per square mile. New York City is one of them, with a population density of just over 29,000 per square mile. For additional comparison, San Fancisco has a population density of about 17,000 per square mile, Boston is about 14,000, Miami, Chicago and Philadelphia are all about 12,000, Washington, DC, is 11,000, and Santa Monica and other municipalities in the Los Angeles metro area are around 10,000 to 11,000 per square mile. The Point development in Utah, which at over 600 acres is similar in size to the Plat of Zion, has a projected population of about 11,000, or somewhere between half and two-thirds of the population density envisioned by Joseph Smith for a place of similar size.
In addition to the benefits outlined above, the patterns of streets and blocks established in early Mormon colonies in what are today some of the most rapidly growing regions of the Western U.S., like Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden, Utah; Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada; Mesa, Arizona; and Idaho Falls and Rexburg, Idaho; have all proven to be extremely adaptable to changes in modern societies. Wide streets like Salt Lake City’s Main Street and Provo’s University Avenue have accommodated light rail and bus rapid transit systems that efficiently move people in and out of urban centers at a relatively low cost compared with cities that have had to rely on underground or overhead accommodation of similar transit systems.
Given the enormous environmental concerns we face today, imagine if we could “fill up the world” with some of the principles and best practices adapted from the Plat of Zion and applied to cities, neighborhoods and communities around the world. The good news is that cities can change and evolve, and where these principles are missing, perhaps with the right guidance and leadership, they can adapt and improve.