Polygamous towns and the Mormon street grid
Published: May 29, 2013 01:52PM
Updated: May 29, 2013 02:00PM
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Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Young women on a walk in Hildale Monday, February 18, 2013. Much of the land in the southern Utah town, as well as in Colorado City across the Arizona border, is owned by the United Effort Plan Trust.

During my visits to southern Utah’s polygamist communities I’ve often wondered: is there such a thing as polygamist town planning?

I never really had time to research the topic, but earlier this week while reading about an upcoming conference in Salt Lake City, I found a short post praising Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith as “an unsung hero of city planning.” The post — released by the influential Congress of New Urbanism — also included a link to the blog The Basement Geographer, which among other things explains “Mormon town grids and the Plat of Zion.”

And that’s where I found the polygamy connection. The blog post is a fascinating (if you’re a city planning nerd like me) explanation of Joseph Smith’s 1833 city grid system called the Plat of Zion, also known the “Mormon grid.” The post includes examples of the grid, the second of which happens to be Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

So it would seem that, much like Salt Lake City, southern Utah’s polygamous towns in the Short Creek area are laid out according to early Mormon city planning principles.

The blog post doesn’t go into detail about Hildale or Colorado City, but it does corroborate observations I made while in the area. Unlike small towns in other parts of the world I’ve visited, I’ve always been struck by Short Creek’s wide streets and massive, square blocks, both elements of the Mormon grid.

Every town has it’s own unique interpretation of the Mormon grid — Short Creek has more named streets than numbers, for example — but what struck me after reading the post is that from a planning perspective, polygamous communities may actually be closer to what early Mormon leaders had in mind than modern cities along the Wasatch Front. That’s because the Plat of Zion was designed to accommodate big families as well as residential and agricultural space right inside the city.

When I’ve been in Hildale and Colorado City, that’s exactly what I saw: big families with some form of agriculture on their lots.

I’m no expert on the Mormon grid, but even after a quick drive around Short Creek it’s apparent that it shares many planning elements with other, non-polygamous towns and cities. And if nothing else, it’s fascinating to see how even something as ordinary as a street grid can be an expression of a people’s values.

— Jim Dalrymple II