Urban Planning Gone Awry

When Brigham Young settled the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, he did it according to a well laid plan. As the leader of hundreds and soon thousands of pioneers, he realized that the urban vision he unfurled would determine the rhythms, patterns, and eventual success of the Utah colony. Building on plans drafted by his predecessor, Joseph Smith, Young designed a city characterized by uniform block and lot sizes and unusually wide (132 feet) streets. The literal and spiritual heart of the city was the site where the temple would be built, and the city’s east/west and north/south avenues were named and numbered based on their proximity to it. As a result, there is no 3rd Avenue or 42nd Street in Salt Lake City, but rather 300 North, 300 South, and 4200 West (I think 4200 East would fall on top of the mountains.) To outsiders, Utah addresses can be confusing. What is “767 West 490 North?” That’s not an address. Surely it must be a setting on a compass or have something to do with longitude and latitude. Once you get used to the grid system, however, it is virtually impossible to get lost and directions are superfluous.

Though Young was faithful to the spirit of Smith’s early design, there was one fascinating element he chose to alter. In building frontier cities, Smith had envisioned city centers comprising residences and public buildings only. Farms were to be located outside the cities and residents could commute back and forth during the day to work them. Whereas the majority of the American west was characterized by individualism, both in spirit and claims to property, Smith’s vision was to build a society based on proximity and shared communal efforts. His outlook was remarkably similar to that of John Oglethorpe, who designed the city of Savannah, Georgia, not only as a haven for ghosts, but as a collection of carefully constructed urban wards, each of which corresponded to outlying farm and garden plots. The Utah landscape presented a unique set of challenges and Young adapted the plan by enlarging lot sizes to create a network of urban farms.

The legacy of Young’s efforts is a state full of grid-based cities, all easy to navigate, but some with bizarre variations in scenery. As cities have grown out of their farm-based origins, they have struggled with zoning. You can’t shut down or kick out the old farmer who still has an orchard and keeps chickens on his property nor can you tell his grandson he can’t build his split-level suburban dream house next door. The result is that many older areas have a schizophrenic character to them. Turn out of the cul-de-sac on which Tom’s parents live and you’ll find a powerful case in point. Here are a few things you can find in a 10 block span:

1. Just five blocks south is UVSC, Utah Valley State College. The school originally started as a small community college and has exploded over the past few decades into a full-fledged four year school granting thousands of degrees each year.

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2. Only a few hundred feet from the school is the last remaining basement house on the street. These regional oddities were apparently the residence of choice for people who could afford to build only part of a house. Since you can’t start from the top, they built the basement, slapped a roof on top, and lived underground until their financial prospects brightened. Through bad fortune or the complacency of their owners, many houses never gained the additional stories they were promised. It will be a sad day when this one goes the way of the bulldozer.

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An interesting side note here is that on both the Caribbean island of Dominica and the Greek island of Santorini (two of our all-time favorite places), homeowners do start from the top down. They build a skeleton of their future house and fill in the levels as finances and motivation dictate. Greek property owners get a tax break for having at least the beginnings of a building on their lots, so Santorini is littered with vacant concrete structures. Dominicans, on the other hand, actually inhabit their works in progress. It is commonly held logic that it is preferable to live above the debris and noise of construction (think sheetrock falling in your soup), so the top floor is finished first and lower floors in later years.

3. A van that wears clothes. The owner of this meticulously maintained vehicle lovingly dresses and undresses it each day to shield it from the effects of the high desert climate. He has affixed velcro tabs at regular intervals to the body of the van, which he then uses to attach a fascinating variety of fabric panels during the day. In the two months we’ve been here, we’ve only seen the van leave its roadside spot once.

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4. A small herd of goats. I’m not sure if the owners are supplying local French restaurants with gourmet cheese or simply keeping this group as pets, but they always make the drive to the gas station (where I fill my jug) more fun.

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5. An intense yet oddly beautiful garden. The Beehive is the Utah state symbol because it represents industry and self-sufficiency. Many Utahans interpret these traits literally and maintain vegetable gardens and fruit orchards on their properties. They feast on fresh produce in the summer, can and store the remainder for the winter, and brand themselves prepared for emergencies and disasters.

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6. Two guys and a cockatoo. This one speaks for itself.

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One thought on “Urban Planning Gone Awry

  1. I love the basement homes and will also be sad when they, like the Utah dialect, are disappearing.

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