A Plat for the City of Zion

May 6, 2004 | 19 comments

Some works of art are created, and some grow organically from the works of many hands. (For application to LDS art, see here and here).

Among these latter, Paul Johnson singles out the modern skyline. The skyscraper city is a creation, certainly, and most beautiful and most recognizable in its fantastic edge against the sky. Skylines have, by slow and unplanned accretions, become signatures. They have also become beautiful.

Not only that, but skylines speak to the ethos of the capitalism that created them. Each skyscraper attempts to outdo the others and set itself apart. In so doing, the builders unwittingly raise the general level and create a kind of unity. If skyscrapers are the art of the marketplace, the skyline is the vision of the Market itself, in which self-interest coordinates individuals into a whole. The skyline then can be art because its beautiful and high art, perhaps, because it captures the dreams of its people. Finally, as most art cannot hope to be, it is integral art because it plays a role in the lives of ordinary people. Skylines define cities in photographs and postcards. More integrally yet, skylines are the great curtains that one sees when Going to the Big City or Going Back Home. These are momentous transitions in a life. Skylines mark them.

Perhaps because I think some LDS art, temples for instance, can also be beautiful, organic, and integrated into life, thinking of the secular city made me wonder what a saintly city would be like.

We all know Joseph Smith’s plat for the City of Zion. He laid out a town houses and space and gardens, with a temple in the middle. The pattern is noble; I’d rather live there than most anyplace else I know. But Joseph’s “city” is not a city.

I wonder what Zion would look like if it were being imagined now. Would it be metropolitan with all the nations of the world streaming up to it to pay homage and receive law and judgment? If its too much of a strain to think of Zion as a busy metropolis, lets ask what a great city would look like if it was a pre-millennial part of this world but teeming with saints who wanted to live in a godly pattern?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know how such a city would differ from Chicago or Philadelphia. Maybe the skyline might be different. Maybe I’d travel up the highway to the city and see the whole great skyline there and see one tower above the rest. That tower would be the temple, rooted in the earth but reaching up to where the Lord dwells. Or maybe I’d see a temple on top of each tower. Maybe I’d see a little shimmer on the face of some of the skyscrapers where the descending streams of water caught the light, the water that the residents diverted to nourish their little balcony gardens.

More importantly, whatever I saw in the skyline, the meaning would be different from the secular skyline. Once I sat in the front row of stake conference and turned and saw all the raised hands when we sustained the prophet, and I turned and saw the missionaries and converts stand when the mission president’s wife asked, and the skyline of the City of Deseret would mean something like that with the same sense of awe. The skyline would be a Golgotha to which many of His followers had brought their cross, it would be faith written across the landscape. The gospel redeems and transforms the very essence of a thing while seeming to leave its essentials unchanged.


19 Responses to A Plat for the City of Zion

  1. Rob on May 6, 2004 at 8:49 pm

    As an urban ecologist and cultural geographer, my dissertation topic is urban bird conservation. However, my real (covert to my committee) question is: will there be birds in Zion? How can we build cities that are good for people *and* birds/fish/mammals/reptiles/fungi, etc.?

    Another way to approach this question is to ask–assuming Zion will last 1000 years–how can we build sustainable cities?

    There is a long history of planning utopian-type cities, both in America and abroad (garden cities, New Towns, Wright’s Broadacre City, etc.). In fact, the whole American urban project could be considered a branch of the puritan desire to build a “city on the hill.”

    Will there be skyscrapers in Zion? How do you maintain a skyscraper for 1000 years? They aren’t built to last that long. They consume an enormous amount of materials and energy. They destroy large numbers of migratory birds (that smack into them at night during migration).

    Will there be freeways in Zion? How will people get around in the New Jerusalem? When Enoch comes back, what will he drive? Or maybe Zion will be a walkable city, linked to other cities by regional mass transporation? The problem of transportation is a huge one that Mormon transportation engineers haven’t seemed to have solved yet.

    How will we heat and light our homes in Zion? Will the presence of the Lord really make lighting unneccessary (and provide a nice urban micro-climate as well)? Or will we have to come up with some other technology that won’t deplete regional and global resources? LDS physicists and engineers, get to work!

    What will we eat in Zion? Modern cities lack local agricultural areas to support them. Will we ship food in from California to Jackson Co., Missouri? Or will we have to grow our own food?

    What about water purification and delivery in Zion? Will there be water towers? How will we pump the water around? Pumping water is one of the biggest energy expenditures in modern cities.

    Are there parks in Zion? Parley P. Pratt wrote of hearing beautiful birdsong in Zion…where were those birds nesting? Parks? Open Space? Where do little kids growing up in Zion get to play? Modern suburbs and urban areas often lack healthy places to play and explore. The parks movement started after Joseph Smith died when industrial cities grew to such an extent that they were viewed as unhealthy. Parks and suburbs were a partial answer to crowded, polluted cities. Would a modern Platt of Zion have a Central Park?

    I get nervous about this, because it has precedents going back to ancient Babylon…but rooftop gardens might be really attractive in Zion. Imagine a whole city with plants and gardens on top of all the buildings. The church has done this on the new conference center, but earlier had plants growing on the Oakland and San Diego (?) temples. Imagine if every civic building was a temple–a mountain of the Lord–with trees growing on them, birds singing from the tops of the trees, and waterfalls cascading down their sides.

    Zion–a sustainable, equitable, and aesthetically pleasing city of holiness. What would it look like? Great question.

    I chose this dissertation topic because a) it seems to fit into my desire to consecrate my time, talents, and energy to building the Kingdom of God and b) it is the biggest and most complex theoretical and policy problem I could come up with.

    Can the gospel–and city of zion–really solve all our modern urban problems?

    I think we are committed to a positive reply to that question…though we may not have gotten very far in actually building the physical kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the Wasatch Front looks a lot more like California edge cities than Joseph Smith’s (let alone a more modern) vision of Zion.

  2. Adam Greenwood on May 6, 2004 at 9:18 pm

    Gosh. I thought I didn’t know what metropolitan Zion would look like, and now I really don’t know.

    A couple of items, plucked at random from your splendid commentary:
    (1) a quibble, but couldn’t migratory birds be expected to avoid smacking into skyscrapers during the Millennium?
    (2) So skyscrapers are expensive and hard to maintain. That fits in with what I’ve heard that many skyscrapers are corporate or corporatist vanity projects. And yet they’re remarkably prevalent; there must be something about crowding that cost-justifies them. In many ways, your vision of walk-around cities and regional mass transportation almost *require highrise construction to be at all worth the cost.
    (3) I wonder if our idea of Zion is applicable to the city at all. I think it has to be, if Zion is to be a world center. But Joseph Smith also talked as if Zion was going to be a small town with some pretty impressive public architecture. Maybe he meant Zion was a world ‘center’ as in model or archetype, and that’s all. If that’s the case, then maybe the gospel solution to our urban problems is to root them out and transform the world, which probably isn’t very helpful to your dissertation.

  3. William Morris on May 6, 2004 at 9:22 pm


    You’re in a groove here. I don’t have much to say, but keep going. I’m digging it.

  4. lyle on May 6, 2004 at 10:11 pm

    Rob/Adam: get Nate to comment. He has mentioned before come inconsistencies between green folks who are anti-city & anti-sprawl. Very applicable here.

    Rob: at what ‘level’ do skyscrappers become untenable? is 10 floors to many? 20? 5? what if they were underground? i.e. 2-3 floors above the ground (or just 1?) and the rest underground? I’m sure this would mess up the geology, but…if water only had to flow down…that would certainly help the pumping situation.

  5. John David Payne on May 6, 2004 at 10:31 pm

    As a man who lives in the nightmarish tangle of crooked one-way streets and dead ends called Boston, let me just say I LOVE THE PLAT OF THE CITY OF ZION!!!! HOORAY FOR THE GRID!!!

  6. Rob on May 6, 2004 at 10:46 pm

    >a quibble, but couldn’t migratory birds be expected to avoid smacking into skyscrapers during the Millennium?

    Not sure if we can expect biology to change during the Millennium (friendly lions and lambs, notwithstanding). This is an under-explored question. The problem is that birds, migrating at night, are apparently attracted to lit buildings, like moths. They then fly around confused until smacking into the windows. Other birds smack into unlit buildings that they apparently don’t see. Keeping buildings below 10 floors and not lighting them at night probably helps (hate to think how many birds are killed at the DC temple when it is all lit up during spring migration).

    As for requiring high rise construction…maybe we need to figure out how high is OK. Though, there was no multi-family housing in the Zion of JS. So, another question…will there be apartments in Zion? I would think there might be a place for them.

    Sure skyscrapers are (at least sometimes) financially lucrative. But the costs are enormous–both in energy, materials, and capital. Would their benefits out-weight the costs? Would we *need* huge buildings like that in a cooperative economy? I could very easily see us losing these in Zion. But maybe I’m just too attracted to a Cache Valley type of Zion with small cities with low architecture (add rooftop gardens?) with a large temple as the primary skyline feature.

    The idea with the JS Zion model was that it could be replicated…you’d have small cities dotting the entire hemisphere. The big cities would have to go–unsustainable, too expensive, not able to grow own food, etc.

    Of course, this model comes from the pre-railroad, pre-automobile, pre-telecommunications era. It really comes down to energy. I don’t think we can have a petroleum-based Zion, as it probably wouldn’t be sustainable. So how much transportation will there be, and how fast? Do people need non-stop-flights from coast to coast in Zion? Will there be light rail in the New Jerusalem?

    I’m not sure we have the technology yet…I think that’s the major challenge. Fortunately, we don’t have that clean inexaustable energy source–as in our current political economy, it would probably only be harnessed as part of the war machine, and Zion is supposed to be a place of refuge from war.

    As for sprawl and Zion…modern suburbs are more attractive to most people than modern inner cities. That’s why they are popular. But they require almost complete reliance on costly individual motor vehicles, enormous power grids and water infrastructure projects, etc. They are incredibly expensive…beyond the means of most of the world’s population, and hense unequitable.

    I don’t think the sustainable cities folks have all the answers. However, I think they are asking some of the questions that we should be concerned with if we really do plan to build Millenial cities.

  7. Adam Greenwood on May 6, 2004 at 10:46 pm

    Ditto the Plat. I get a childish pleasure out of hearing a Utah address and knowing exactly where it is. It’s also neat that the Plat orients everything in terms of the temple, of course.

    Now when the Plat’s grid is transferred to a metropolis, it begins to seem inhumam. The rows and criss-crossing rows of buried streets are oppressive. In a Utah town the gardens and grass and daily life soften the order and make it acceptable, but not so in the city. Unfortunately, a non-gridded city (here’s for you, House of Payne) is even worse. Whereas a grid of skyscrapers is oppressive and inhumanly mechanical, a maze of skyscrapers makes you feel hunted, scurrying through strange warrens from which you can find no escape, dark towers overhead. Cities desperately need topography, hills or a long, gentle rise, to give the eye some perspective and help orient the brain.

  8. John David Payne on May 7, 2004 at 12:30 am

    Amen, brother Greenwood! How I loathe scurrying through these demented warrens!

  9. Jeremy on May 7, 2004 at 12:33 am


    Not to both quibble and self-promote (which is to say, precisely for those reasons), but it’s my understanding that the _exact_ 0,0 of the Salt Lake City grid originally wasn’t the temple per say, but the little obelisk protuding from the ground in Orson Pratt’s little log-cabin observatory _next to_ the temple (which observatory also housed Pratt’s telescope…). Thus for me the “Grid” symbolically pinpoints the intersection in mormonism of cosmology in the astronomical sense (the telescope) with cosmology in the religious sense (the temple). Perhaps the growth along the 3rd axis (skyscrapers) that tends to obscure the clarity of the “Grid” could be an analogy for the way in which cultural accretions and expansion increasingly draw the eye away from Mormonism’s radically cosmic doctrines? I’m just riffing here, but…

  10. Rob on May 7, 2004 at 1:07 am

    Cultural geographers have long noted that the most prominent building in a settlement reflects the society’s conceptualization and source of power. Salt Lake City has been a famous example of the shift of the most prominent building from the temple (sacred power) to the state capitol (governmental power) to the church office building (corporate power). Anthropologist David Knowlton raised hackles when he indecorously compared the church office building to a human organ of patriarchal power (Pratt’s obelisk might be another such symbol?).

    I would imagine that the skyline of Zion reflect the source of its celestial power. The center of JS’s Zion housed twelve temples–some of which were corporate buildings. Whatever their function, I would hope that the skyline of the New Jerusalem, and other Zion cities, will be dominated by the spires of a temple–the mountain of the Lord’s house–rather than a monument to corporate capital and the egos of developers. No Trump Tower in Jackson County, thank you very much.

  11. Rob on May 7, 2004 at 1:53 am

    Historian of City Planning John Reps has a page for the Plat of the City of Zion, with JS’s description and explanation at:

    Interesting comparison of JS’s Plat of Zion with community of Sterling, Alberta–with details of original Plat of Zion:

    Check out the original plat map of Far West, Missouri (my cousin Alpheus Cutler was appointed master workman for the temple to be built there in the center square):

    It might also be remembered, that in 1830, just before the Plat of Zion was drawn up, the largest city in the U.S. was New York (pop 202,589)–and only 10 cities in the U.S. had a poplation over 20,000. There were no skyscrapers, but the vision for Zion was clearly of cities smaller than the enormous NYC–with wider streets, yards for gardens. The envisioned Zion might be considered a prototypical suburban or garden city.

  12. Adam Greenwood on May 7, 2004 at 2:41 am

    I thought of that too, Rob, the way the 12-temple complex will create its own skyline, like a little city. That will be something neat to see.

  13. lyle on May 7, 2004 at 12:28 pm

    yet…navuou (sp?) was bigger than chicago…

  14. lyle on May 7, 2004 at 7:31 pm

    anyone read about Orscon Scott Cards description of the “Crystal City” in his Joseph Smith-esque Alvin Maker series?

  15. Sheri Lynn on May 8, 2004 at 1:22 pm

    I spent some hours playing with Photoshop trying to come up with what a temple in space might look like. Picture the San Diego temple unconstrained by the normal force of gravity, built to rotate on an axis. I never came up with anything that satisfied me but it was a beautiful vision all the same.

    IMHO the San Diego Temple is the most beautiful thing on earth constructed by human hands. It’s a hint of Zion. I don’t think the birds will have much to worry about–that’s part of the point of the Millenium, isn’t it?

  16. Adam Greenwood on May 10, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    The San Diego Temple in space!
    In all honesty I think that would be heartbreakingly lovely. As is, I can’t ever get quite comfortable with it because it’s so white. It looks unnatural or something, like when you see someone on a commercial who’s frolicking in loose white clothing on a grassy meadow and you think, what, grass doesn’t stain where they come from? Dirt isn’t dirty? Do they take all their sustenance through a feeding tube?

  17. lyle on May 10, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    how about the ‘whitewash’ on the Provo & Ogden temples?

    so much for old testament symbolism…unless you believe in ‘white’ fires that can somehow be seen during the day.

  18. Adam Greenwood on November 18, 2004 at 7:00 pm

    Here’s buildings that could ornament the City of Zion. A couple of them have temples on top:


  19. David Richard Hall on December 24, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    The City of Zion as invisioned by Joseph Smith had twenty four temples on two different blocks.. He described 12 presidencies…and there was three buildings for each of the presidencies all with specific functions. The 24 buildings provided spaces for 96 branches of the church (Each presided over by a member of the elders quorum).

    Each temple had two assembly halls and each assembly hall could be divided into four sections so that there was room for about 100 in each section on each floor yielding seating space for 19,200 in the quarters of the building plus 4 leaders on the stand in each quarter of each floor yields a total of 20,000 people attending church services all at once in the 24 temples in the city of Zion.

    Later in Nauvoo when Joseph Smith organized the Relief Society we pick up the reason for two assembly halls as…..The Relief Society is to be organized to be patterned after the priesthood..ie priests, teachers etc.. So if the sisters of each branch are upstairs and the brothers downstairs then you have 200 people in each branch with a presiding elder over the men and his wife over the women upstairs..

    All the numbers and the structure for the city of zion fit very nicely together with the priesthood quorums that each “Church..Stake” of zion is to have.. Wards are not mentioned in the D&C.. but stakes and branches are and all quorums are stake quorums…with one quorum of each as prescribed..

    David R. Hall


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