The Grid

Written by  Becky Thomas

July 28, 1847
"The city can be laid out perfectly square,
north and south, east and west."


Great Salt Lake City, Great Basin, North America, was the name Brigham Young gave the new gathering place of the Mormons. Three days after the first pioneer company arrived, with the newly established the Temple Block as center, he laid out 135 ten-acre blocks, 66o feet per side, the blocks to be separated by streets, each 135 feet wide, and lined by sidewalks 20 feet wide. Young decreed that all streets would follow the cardinal points of the compass, each street name based on its distance and direction from the proposed Temple. A relationship to the temple would thus be inscribed upon the point coordinate of each location in the new city.


Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, establishes the existence of the meme, those ideas and cultural trends that propagate themselves, "spreading from brain to brain," achieving stability through penetration into our cultural environment. William Fox, in his book The Void, The Grid & The Sign, asserts that the sharp corners and defined edges make the rectilinear grid "one of the most persistent and intractable memes of the human mind." The grid turns any space into easily visualized shapes that can be easily navigated. "The grid, as meme, has proved its tenacity across both time and culture."

figure2-cityplanforhippodamusAncient ruins in the Indus Valley, c. 2600 BC, suggest a gridded pattern. In the fifth century BC, Hippodamus, considered the father of city planning, utilized a strict grid plan to rebuilt Miletus after it was sacked by the Persians. Writing in Politics, Aristotle claimed Hippodamus "invented the rectangular city-plan."

By AD 150, the grid comprising Teotihuacan, near modern-day Mexico City, covered eight square miles. China's Forbidden City, built in the early 15th century, contained a grid of long straight roads, wider than Paris boulevards. A slight misalignment between the city's northern and southern gates was engineered purposely to keep the evil spirits from moving too easily through the space.

In the new world, William Penn suggested surveyor Thomas Holme design a system of wide, right-angled streets between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers making Philadelphia, in 1682, the first North American city to use the grid system. Penn believed this type of city plan to be a safeguard against fire and disease and may have seen the indexical grid, which by nature contains no integral hierarchy, as supportive of his Quaker values.

The grid impressed on Los Angeles in 1781 by Colonel Felipe de Neve was described in a book in the Archive of the Indies, in Seville, Spain. That grid, the book declared, was a grid that came from God. In 2011, New Yorkers celebrated the 200-year anniversary of their 90-degree city grid, the grid that Henry James condemned as a "primal topographic curse," and people continue to blame for vehicular gridlock and defiant jaywalking.

It was Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, however, and his creation of the Land Ordinance of 1785 that made the grid system truly American.


Art critic, Rosalind Krauss, writes that the grid "is fully, even cheerfully, schizophrenic." On one hand the grid posits a "centrifugal existence" as the area presented is really only " a mere fragment, a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an
infinitely larger fabric." The grid, as it extends outward, compels "acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame." The other half of the grid's "bivalent structure" is "centripetal," and acts by inserting boundaries between the world and the space contained within the gridded frame.

When Brigham Young laid out the numbered street grid for Great Salt Lake City, he followed the 1833 City of Zion plan conceived by prophet Joseph Smith for a mile-square city designed to expand into infinity, a grid functioning centrifugally. But centripetally, the grid asserted its sharp corners and defined edges, inserting a frame on the lives of those living within it. Citizens inhabiting Great Salt Lake City would look always toward the temple; they would forever walk the straight path.

A mile and a half north of the Salt Lake City Temple, Ensign Peak rises 1000 feet above the valley floor, more prominent in Mormon lore than in reality. The deceased Joseph Smith was said to have appeared to Brigham Young in a dream and shown him this very peak, a marker to be used in determining the end point of the pioneer migration, "the right place." Two days after arriving in the valley Young and his followers hiked to the top of this peak and, looking directly south, determined the site of the temple, and Salt Lake City's zero point coordinate. The peak that had determined the grid, lay outside it, a reminder of all that lies outside the rectilinear city space. It remained prominent and visible as one gazed north up the length of Main Street until recently. The construction of the City Creek Shopping Center, completed in 2012, included a controversial skybridge across Main Street connecting the mall's two lobes. The skybridge blocks most of the Main Street views of Ensign Peak, reasserting the power of the grid's containing frame.


3rdpicIt is argued that the Land Ordinance of 1785, created to provide the future design of all western land, was one of the most "far-reaching and philosophically radical pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress." Authored by Thomas Jefferson, it sent surveyors out into the wilderness. These "surveyors," the ordinance read, "shall proceed to divide the said territory into townships of six miles square, by lines running due north and south, and others crossing these at right angles." Each township divided into 36 square sections of 640 acres would be sold at the minimum price of a dollar an acre. This extensive, regular division of land channeled the paths of the intercontinental telegraph lines, made the transfer of straight corridors to the railways possible, and eventually enabled the establishment of the interstate freeway system. But Jefferson had never seen the land slated to be gridded by his ordinance; it was considered a blank slate. His national grid spread across the landscape, ignoring all topography, and traditional ownership.

John Wesley Powell, explorer of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River argued the absurdity of overlaying Jefferson's grid on the West. The standard section of 160 acres designed to support a family farm in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia could never support "even a single grazing cow" in the arid and semi-arid land of the Great Basin.

John McPhee, writing in Basin and Range, echoed the concerns of Powell. "For the last hundred and fifty million years," he wrote, "the East has been stable and conservative. The far-out stuff is in the Far West of the country—wild, weirdsma, a leather-jacket geology in mirrored's strike-slip faults and falling buildings, its boiling springs and fresh volcanics, its extension disassembling of the earth." "'Normal'" explained McPhee, "meant 'at right angles.'" "'Normal' also meant a fault with a depressed hanging wall."


Rosalind Krauss describes the grid in art as "geometricized, ordered, antinatural, antimimetic, antireal." The grid is what "art looks like when it turns its back on nature." The urban design grid is not that different from those painted by Agnes Martin, Mondrian, Sol LeWitt or Jasper Johns in that the "flatness," created from its coordinates, "crowds out the dimensions of the real, replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface." The grid negates the claims of natural objects, "declaring itself to be final and autonomous."

But still that wild weirdsma churns beneath all the coordinates and meridians, making itself known, often in the form of disasters, both natural and man-made.



earthquakeThe 240 mile-long Wasatch Fault runs under Salt Lake City, north along Highland Drive, up 13th East and Virginia Street. It is one of the world's longest normal faults, where, during an earthquake, one side of the fault drops in relation to the other. During prehistoric times, this fault slipped as much as ten feet during one event, and over the last 17 million years, seven miles of fault slip raised the mountains that formed the Wasatch Range.

The segment of the fault under Salt Lake City averages a big quake every 1,300 years. It last ruptured 1,300 years ago. A seismic event with a magnitude approaching 7.5 could happen any day.


fig3-statestreetWhen Brigham Young laid out the Salt Lake City Temple block between two branches of the Creek flowing from the north end of the valley, he knowing chose to ignore the water's course. The Creek never figured into the city grid. Initially one branch ran west, parallel to North Temple Street, the other south, along East Temple, or Main Street. It was not long before City Creek became a serious flood threat and new and deeper channels were cut to mitigate water damage. By 1924 the entire Creek ran through an underground aqueduct beneath the gridded streets.

City Creek remained mostly out of sight and mind until spring of 1983. With the preceding year breaking all water records and a warm and wet spring, flooding became a statewide issue. A Memorial Day weekend with temperatures in the 90s sent City Creek over its banks in Memory Grove and rushing through Temple Square, and toward the Salt Palace, shopping malls and neighboring businesses and apartments. Obstructed with debris impossible to blast free, the North Temple underground channel overflowed. The intersection of South Temple and Main Street was under water. On Sunday of the holiday weekend, thousands volunteers gathered to erect sandbag walls running from Memory Grove to 4th South Street creating a river down State Street and preventing millions of dollars in property damage to the downtown business district. The makeshift river was extended to 13th South and for weeks the City Creek waters moved again through the city, down what was essentially their original southern course. Pedestrians and vehicles crossed the river on makeshift bridges, and downtown workers strolled along the river edges at lunch. Manpower proved that the water could be made to conform to the grid, but the Creek let its presence be known.


fig4-1999tornadocrossThe wind flowing west out of the mountain canyons is instrumental in cooling the hot Salt Lake summer nights. On August 7, 1999, however, the wind turned deadly when a rare tornado, following no grid, carved a diagonal path through the center of the city. Around 1pm, the F2 tornado crossed over the Delta Center (now Energy Solutions Arena) picking up pieces of roof and insulation, before destroying a block long tent constructed for the Outdoor Retailers convention and blasting out all the windows of a high-rise hotel. Cranes used in constructing the LDS conference center toppled just missing the Mormon Temple. Moving toward the State Capitol, the tornado tore up most of the trees on the Capitol grounds and in Memory grove, before crossing east to the historic avenues, where it destroyed 34 homes and severely damaged over 120 before terminating near the base of the Wasatch Mountains. This major tornado was the first ever to hit the downtown district of a major city and strike buildings upwards of 500 feet in height.

fig5-upshotDuring the Cold War era, wind, uncontained by the boundaries of the Salt Lake City grid, carried bomb blast debris and radioactive dust from the nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site over the city. The Tumbler-Snapper blast, codename Easy, detonated May 7, 1952 sent vaporized iron oxide, cobalt and silica at "almost eight million disintegrations per minute per square foot " floating and settling over Salt Lake. Nancy, of Operation Upshot-Knothole exploded March 24, 1953 produced a nuclear cloud that crossed Salt Lake, leaving each square foot of city earth emitting radiation of 15 million disintegrations/minute. The Simon test on April 25, 1953 detonated one of the highest yield weapons ever deployed by the United States. The debris from its stem crossed much of Jefferson's great American grid as it floated
over Salt Lake City; Casper, Wyoming; Omaha, Nebraska; and Davenport, Iowa. Fallout from Upshot-Knothole / Harry
detonated May 19, 1953 resulted in the heaviest "downwinder" gamma ray exposure of any U. S. continental test, its
radiation cloud passing between Salt Lake City and Ogden. The Zucchini shot of the Teapot-Dome series left hotspots in Salt Lake, as did the Boltzmann test, the Franklin test, the Wilson, and Newton tests.

In 1959, radiation experts determined that areas of southwestern Utah showed expected high levels of Plutonium and Cesium in the soil. The experts' calculations showed that residents of Salt Lake City, unexpectedly, "received greater exposures than most Utah residents who lived far closer to the Nevada Test Site.


Sir Richard Burton, donning several disguises undertook a Hajj in 1853. In 1858 he journeyed through Africa in search of the Nile's source. He translated The Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights. In 1861 he traveled to Great Salt Lake City and recorded his observations in his book City of the Saints. "The disposition of the settlement is like that of the nineteenth century New-World cities," he writes, " —a system of right angles, the roads, streets and lanes, if they can be called so, intersecting one another." "The main features of the city," he continues, "after the free use of the pocket-compass, are becoming familiar to me." Burton elaborates on the names of the city streets. "Main Street is East Temple Street No. 1 otherwise called Whisky Street; behind it is East Temple Street 2."

The names of Salt Lake Streets are no clearer in the 21st century than they were for Burton. East Temple is still Main Street, but no longer Whiskey Street and First East is State Street or 100 East. Third South is 300 South or Broadway, and downtown addresses usually contain two directional coordinates. I live at 5 South 500 West, which is not 5th South but 5 clicks south of South Temple on 500 West or 5th West. Visitors can be initially confused, (how can a place be south and west at the same time?) until they realize as Burton did, that the city is one big Cartesian coordinate system requiring both an x and y value to determine any single point.


The white-haired man stopped on the sidewalk on South Temple, across the street from Temple Square. Holding out a bright green sticky note he asked for help finding an address:

175 South Temple

An enigma in need of decryption. Missing one part of the address left three possible locations for said CBIZ, "a tax preparation firm," the gentleman informed me. If the street was "South Temple" two possibilities; the address lacked an East/West coordinate. If the coordinate was "South" the street name had to be "West Temple" as there is no going south on either North or South Temple. No way to determine which of the three options might be correct. Enter the smart phone.

175 South West Temple

Walk west to the intersection. Turn south. Walk a block and a half down West Temple.


Today's urban citizens look at their city in terms of street life and a vibrant street life comes from walkability. A pedestrian culture fosters a social scene accessible to anyone. Urban designer Jeff Speck's General Theory of Walkability
explains a favorable walk must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting, and finds that cities with smaller blocks and narrower streets are best known for walkability. Cities "with the largest blocks are known as places without street life."

When questioned about the width of the streets in Great Salt Lake City, Brigham Young purportedly responded that he wanted the streets to be wide enough to turn a wagon team around without "resorting to profanity." Today, with no wagon teams, Salt Lake City's wide streets and long blocks interfere with its street life. Fewer blocks per mile decreases the number of opportunities a pedestrian has to alter her course, making paths to a coffee shop, a dry cleaner, an art venue progressively arduous. The walkable grids of Philadelphia and San Francisco consist of blocks averaging less then 400 feet. Typical blocks in Salt Lake remain over 600 feet per side and typical streets hold six lanes of traffic rendering them significantly harder to cross, easier to speed on and thus more dangerous than two-lane roads.


Downtown businessman and resident, Richard Wirick was a highly visible member of the city scene. Affectionately known as "Mr. Downtown," 82 year-old Wirick could be seen walking everywhere, and was attempting to cross 4th South when he was struck and killed by a city bus in 2012. Crosswalks on 4th South travers six lanes of traffic, one turn lane and a double set of Trax train tracks. Wirick was still in the crosswalk when the traffic light changed. The driver of the city bus failed to see him and accelerated through the now green light. She was later charged in his death, but one must consider the width of the Salt Lake streets as equally culpable in this accident.


The 21st Congress for the New Urbanism will be May 29 to June 1, 2013 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the hometown of the Mormon grid. The size of Salt Lake City's blocks is a proven challenge to its urbanism. Everything from walkability to standard development sizes has struggled with the 660' dimension: the blocks are just too big and the lots too deep. This is where you come in. You are tasked with designing a single 660' block. You may explore any aspect of urbanism you wish. While you cannot alter the surrounding 132' right-of-way, you are free to do as you please within the 660' block. Feel free to interrupt the block; you just cannot interrupt the grid.

Competition Rules

  1. Design One 660' x 660' Block. You may choose to either reconfigure a particular, existing block or start with a tabula rasa.
  2. Plan Drawings Only. Roof plans, floor plans, or parti plans.
  3. Scale: 1"=50'-0′′
  4. Black and White Only. Greyscale is OK, too.
  5. Open Presentation Format. Pen, pencil, or digital; quick sketch, simple line drawing, or beautiful rendering.
  6. Deadline is Friday, May 17, 2013. All submissions will be featured in digital format at

While this is being called a competition, there are no judges and there are no prizes. If anything, our future generations will be your judge and digital posterity will be your prize.


So Salt Lake City, its grid-defined long blocks and wide streets, poses numerous impediments to street life and walkablility. And it's more than simply a problem of having to always travel the straight way. In his 1980 study of New York City, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William Whyte set out to determine why certain city spaces get utilized and others do not. Vibrant parks and squares had several things in common. Places to sit, whether it be chairs, benches, ledges or stairs, were paramount, and spaces where the public could move and position the chairs proved most popular which is not surprising as Paris has provided this option forever. The proximity of food and public bathrooms also contributed to the use of a given space. The initial New York study found that business owners were concerned over movable chairs, street performers, and "undesirables," but determined that the chairs were not stolen or vandalized, performers increased utilization of the space, and once a space was filled with vibrant city life, the so-called "undesirables" left. Drug dealers did not do business is spaces overflowing with people. Whyte discovered that fewer rules and a chill attitude increased the social use and life of the city space.

Whyte's study, extrapolated to Salt Lake can provide insights as to what might vitalize our grid. The two blocks in Salt Lake that allow for breaking the grid and diagonal or near to diagonal crossing, Pioneer Park and Gallivan, lack any lively
social scene expect during scheduled concerts, farmers' markets, Food Truck Thursdays, and other community events. During those events, as Whyte found in New York, "undesirables" do vacate the space, but much of the time these blocks lack energy. The Main Street Plaza, created when the city sold a block of Main Street to the LDS Church in 1999, never really became the "little bit of Paris" it was billed to be as the city eventually traded even its public access easement to the block for two acres of church-owned land in another neighborhood of the city. The plaza is now entirely private and though public access is allowed there are no guarantees of free expression, First Amendment protections or pedestrian passage. And the chairs don't move.


The Salt Lake City grid is non-revocable; it is the way the city is organized, the way it flows. We may not change the street names, or the fact that Temple Square is ground zero, but we can work to see that this manic geometry does not insist its citizens be always methodical, practical, "on the square." A landscape gardener in Minneapolis, H. W. S. Cleaveland, complained, in 1873, about the drive to grid the country. "All the naturally beautiful or picturesque features of the place have been destroyed or rendered hideous in the effort to make them conform to a rectangular system, as if the human intellect were as powerless to adapt itself to changing circumstances." The grid laid out by Brigham Young has not changed, but life in this city has. The grid does not control the people any more than it puts boundaries on the weirdsma. "Strait sided, right angled houses" may still be the cheapest to build but they are not always the best to live in. There is a growing movement that demands the grid embrace its centrifugal existence and acknowledge the infinite world beyond its frame. So Salt Lake, embrace your street life, move more chairs, support those food trucks, ride more bikes, search out more bathrooms and drinking fountains. Make more music.

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